A Gathering Storm: The Inevitability of the Character Collaborative

The Testing Impulse

Systematic testing for intelligence and academic promise, a twentieth century phenomenon, derives from a laudatory goal, a goal that extends back to the time of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson despised the idea that American’s leadership class would derive from hereditary privilege and wealth. Rather, he argued, we should seek a “natural aristocracy among men” based on “virtue and talents.”

During and after World War II, there was a renewed commitment to realize both the American dream of equal opportunity and to seek out the best talent available, regardless of family origin or economic station. Standardized testing emerged as an important vehicle in finding the brightest Americans for jobs during the war and, later, an important avenue for determining who should be admitted to America’s best colleges. Along with grade point average, the college admissions process turned to the SAT, augmented later by the ACT. These cognitive-oriented measures are a first-level discriminator. The numbers – SAT scores and grades – are the “hard” data that can be compared across schools and students.

An admissions system shaped by neat metrics is explained by long-standing demographic and cultural factors. A critical demographic factor was the growth in the number of colleges and universities and the massive increase of college applicants after World War II. Because colleges needed a manageable, valid, and defensible way to discriminate among candidates for admission, standardized testing became ever more important.

There are, of course, notable exceptions – outliers — to the prevailing college admissions system. Some colleges have abandoned the SAT and ACT as an admissions requirement. Some colleges have elevated portfolios, with concrete examples of learning, as an important admissions element. Some colleges delve more deeply into characteristics such as creativity, entrepreneurship, and a commitment to social change. In the face of a system that emphasizes the cognitive dimension and handy metrics, the fact remains that more subjective measures continue to be an indistinct and under-developed aspect of college admissions.

The Character Dimension

Looking across history, however, there is another line of thought shaping how we assess merit. From the prescription of Benjamin Franklin about right behavior to our recent focus on helping young people succeed in the modern age, leaders from many fields of endeavor have argued that traits of character are critical to success in college, work, and life. Experience – life stories — has shown thoughtful observers that strengths of character (e.g., perseverance, hard work, honesty, grit, optimism, prudent risk-taking) are a crucial ingredient in success and life satisfaction. Moreover, for many, experience suggests that character strengths are as important as measures of IQ or academic aptitude. Others argue that over the span of life traits of character are more important than anything else.

Moreover, there is a growing body of research that validates the idea that non-academic factors, including character traits, are a legitimate avenue of inquiry and intervention. Studies by Angela Duckworth and others found that GPA and college persistence are correlated strongly with character traits, such as self-control and perseverance. The work of Duckworth, in particular, has brought the discussion of character to a general audience. Recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius award,” Angela delivered a TED talk in early 2013 on “grit” that resonated widely with businessmen, educators, parents, editorial writers and others. Her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, rose to the top of non-fiction best-seller lists.

Duckworth, Nathan Kuncel and other investigators are setting the groundwork for connecting (1) new research on the importance of character strengths to success in college and work, and (2) ways to assess character strengths in a valid and reliable way. Others are exploring strategies for altering the admissions process to assure that character strengths are incorporated into the decision process.

Rising Discontent and Readiness for Change

Recent years have brought serious concern about the pathologies of American education: resentment of “high-stakes” testing; young men and women pushed to win the competition for a small number of slots at the most selective colleges or private schools; high levels of depression and suicide among students at every level; an admissions system perceived to reward students with cognitive ability at the expense of students with an array of character strengths.

Numerous books and reports have addressed these concerns. A compelling report emerged from the Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, entitled “Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions,” which was endorsed by educators across the nation. At the same time, the test-optional movement is gathering steam, with more than 1100 colleges joining. More recently, COVID-19 has accelerated the move to become a test optional institution. Influential editorial writers, such Frank Bruni and David Brooks, chime in regularly.

Finally, it appears, there is an appetite for authentic, on-the-ground steps to change the way we do things. With all the rhetoric about what’s wrong and for all the general calls to fix the system, a dedicated group of impatient people are aligned with Thoreau’s comment that “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” The Character Collaborative is a culmination – and gathering — of this momentum.

The Collaborative accepts that character strengths are crucial to assessing candidates and that the prevailing college admissions process must change in order to (1) assess applicants in a holistic and valid way and (2) enroll the most promising candidates for academic and vocational success. This is the Collaborative’s mandate.