Reports of Annual Meetings — 2016 and 2017

Institute on Character and Admission (Character Collaborative)

Report of Annual Meeting — 2017

A. Overview

The Institute on Character and Admission has a committed and involved membership that has articulated actions and ideas that advance its mission. There is a shared commitment to continue and expand the Institute’s impact. As a new and relatively informal organization, we now need to formalize and strengthen the Institute as an organizational entity. The first step is to establish an Executive Committee, as proposed in the final section of this report.

B. Background

The first meeting of the Institute on Character and Admission took place in September 2016 in Columbus, Ohio, just prior to the annual national conference of NACAC. The report of that meeting recommended numerous action steps and the intention to meet again in 2017. The group reaffirmed the Institute’s mission of elevating character attributes in admission, both at the college level and in the independent school world.

The second meeting of the Institute took place at the Renaissance Waterfront Hotel in Boston on September 13-14, 2017, with 63 educators in attendance. A distinctive aspect of the meeting was the joining of thought leaders across various organizations and missions, including college admission deans, independent school admission staff, college counselors, educational researchers/reformers, secondary school leaders, and educational consultants.

The Boston meeting included the following elements:

  • Presentations (with Q & A) by individuals active in advancing character education and in reforming the admission process, representing the Turning The Tide project (Weissbourd), the Character Skills Snapshot/Enrollment Management Association (Brenneman), the Master Transcript Consortium (Russell), ACT (Anguiano-Carrasco and Martin), the Test-Optional project (Hiss), the College Board (Bever), the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice (Lucido).
  • Panel of college admission deans (Burdick, Conley, Duck, Sexton, Massa)
  • Working groups (N=8) that met on Wednesday and reconvened on Thursday morning
  • General meeting before adjourning on Thursday morning, focused on the future direction of the Institute

Meeting presentations and discussions were captured via power point slides (which will be made available to participants), major points recorded by each of the working groups, and notes by three designated recorders.

Because numerous Institute recommendations require further analysis and development, this report to Institute participants is preliminary in nature and documents ideas and potential action items that emerged in our discussions. The report is organized into three clusters: (a) role of the Institute; (b) selected action items and ideas that advance the Institute mission; (c) structural steps to establish the Institute on more permanent footing.

We recognize that, at the moment, there is a significant gap between our intentions and our readiness to implement these intentions. As such, we need to (1) set priorities and (2) determine how to organize and mobilize the Institute as a vehicle for change.

C. Institute Agenda

(a) Role of the Institute

Join diverse stakeholders for learning, dialogue, and action

Accumulate research that confirms the impact of character attributes on long-term educational goals

Translate character research to educational (admission) practice

Educate admission deans about character issues and research (enable admission professionals to develop an approach/philosophy that serves their particular needs and institution)

Be a repository of character-related articles and materials pertinent to the mission of the Institute and the interests of participants

Develop change strategies for implementing the Institute mission, globally and in institutions

“Signal” the Institute mission through our work and through presentations, publications, etc.

Increase the number of schools and colleges committed to our mission

Reach more deeply into communities and schools that serve disadvantaged students and, in so doing, increase access to education

Develop a set of principles (research-based; philosophically coherent; ethically sound) that apply to elevating character in admission

(b) Action Items and Ideas that Advance Institute Goals

Create an Institute “service” to educate and train admission professionals/offices to employ character attributes in the selection process

  • Formalize what we know and define effective approaches
  • Join with institutional partners with a mission to educate admission professionals (e.g., AISAP; NACAC)
  • Identify Institute participants (experts) with knowledge and skill set to serve as consultants

Explore and refine the potential role of character-based instruments in admission practice

  • Educate admission professionals about the Character Skills Snapshot — CSS (created by the Enrollment Management Association for independent schools)
  • Encourage and learn from validity data on the CSS
  • Conduct research on the predictive power of such an instrument
  • Explore the methodological, philosophical and educational implications of utilizing a character-based instrument

Develop and employ character-based rubrics in the admission process

  • Send survey to admissions deans and college counselors to elicit examples of rubrics and most important non-cognitive attributes
  • Establish a set of Institute-endorsed non-cognitive attributes for use in a rubrics and in the admission process
  • Create a repository of rubrics for use by schools and colleges in admissions (Institute members agree to share with other institutions)
  • Train admission professionals and offices to use rubrics (evidence-based attributes) in decision-making
  • Create an Institute-endorsed list of colleges (and schools) that employ rubrics in a state-of-the-art way

Develop a decision process (matrix) for balancing and weighting various factors, including character strengths, in making admission decisions

  • Survey admission offices to identify explicit models/approaches for making admission decisions
  • Explore ways to standardize decision-making to achieve consistency and fairness
  • Educate staff on what to look for and how to employ character data in decision-making

Support use of character/non-cognitive factors in standardized testing (SAT, ACT, SSAT)

  • Identify character-based items/questions that already exist in these tests and the Common Ap
  • Define best uses of existing character data on SAT, ACT and Common Ap
  • Develop and communicate Institute-endorsed best practices (“flag in the ground”)

Collaborate with and support other initiatives (reformers) with similar goals

  • Meet with Rick Weissbourd (Turning The Tide) to explore how the Institute could help elevate the admission practice of the Tide’s participating colleges
  • Explore potential for mutually-beneficial collaborations (e.g., Common Ap, the Mastery Transcript Consortium, ACT, College Board, AISAP, NACAC, NAIS, EMA, etc.)
  • Establish Institute as an “innovation lab”
  • Establish Institute as training center for other organizations/institutions

Improve and refine the set of materials submitted by students to colleges

  • Explore a new transcript format, including presentation of character/non-cognitive attributes
  • Explore interest at college level for a revised transcript, including the concept of the Mastery Transcript
  • Develop models for letters of recommendation, student essays, school reports, and forms that include character attributes
  • Advance creation of a “holistic profile” of candidates
  • Join college counselors and college admissions deans to (1) develop improved admissions “package” and (2) help admission offices manage new or more student data
  • Work with Common Ap and Coalition in refining their formats

Produce a “practitioners handbook” to help schools and colleges employ character factors in their work

  • Create a working group to develop chapter headings, source material, a “tool box, etc.
  • Invite (incentivize) schools and colleges to submit content
  • Utilize handbook in training activities
  • Explore both printed and digital formats
  • Ensure that the handbook is in a format that is updatable
  • Utilize handbook to encourage emphasis on character
(c) Structure and Operations of the Institute

This section assumes that the Institute has an important role to play, should continue its work into the future, and needs to formalize itself as a more substantive entity.

  • Establish an executive committee to review and affirm priorities and take specific actions
  • Create committees to address proposed actions (see above section)
  • Explore avenues for funding the work of the Institute (e.g., dues; corporate sponsors; grants)
  • Explore benefits of creating Institute as a 501c3
  • Formalize Institute positions (e.g., Executive Committee chair; executive director(s); committee chairs)
  • Create a strategic plan that articulates priorities, timelines, and execution steps
  • Set a few short-term initiatives that will have an immediate impact (e.g., create a handbook; speak and write in professional forums and in the media; create a repository of rubrics; collaborate with testing agencies on character-based elements)
  • Expand membership (e.g., invite members of existing groups such as Tide and Common Ap; reach into public schools for principals and superintendents; recruit additional college admission deans; invite board members at colleges and schools)
  • Update and maintain the Institute website

Report of Annual Meeting — 2016

On September 21-22, 2016, fifty-five educators, representing important constituencies in higher and secondary education, met in Columbus, Ohio, to examine character and its implications for admissions practice. Our discussions and deliberations produced the following points of agreement and potential action.

A. Need

We recognize that there is a growing interest in the role of non-cognitive attributes, including character strengths, in education. Researchers, educational reformers, educational organizations, and college and secondary school educators are involved in the national discussion. The urgency of the discussion stems, in part, from concern about the frenzy and anxiety around college admissions. Standardized testing, the fierce competition for admission to selective colleges, concern about the mental health of young people, and readiness for the working world are factors that drive the discussion.

Thanks to the work of leading researchers (many of whom participated in the Institute), we know also that (1) character attributes are crucial to success in school and work, (2) there is improving validity and reliability in non-cognitive assessments, and (3) there is rising interest among admissions leaders to utilize non-cognitive attributes in making decisions. On the latter point, a survey of admissions directors attending the Institute indicated that non-cognitive factors already play a role, however varied in nature and depth, in the admissions process.

Despite these promising developments and the fact that almost all institutional mission statements refer to aspects of character, service to others, and other non-cognitive attributes, there is an imperfect connection between these aspirational statements and the way admissions decisions are made and perceived. Moreover, among the constituencies interested in elevating non-cognitive factors in admissions and educational practice, there is a dearth of interaction and unified effort.

We recognize also that education – and its beneficiaries – play a critical role in society and the future of our nation. Our mission, therefore, is grounded in the belief that character strengths and other non-academic attributes are crucial to the kind of education that serves us best. Thus, we are committed to elevating these factors in how we educate and how we select young people for admission to our schools and colleges. We are united in our aim to develop both a plan and a strategy to realize these aims.

B. The Institute as a Response

Recognizing the growing momentum around elevating non-cognitive attributes in education and admissions, we reached out to bring together experts, thought leaders, and leading practitioners. To a great degree, the group that convened in Columbus was the product of word-of-mouth among those with a keen interest in the aims of the Institute. There was a common understanding that we would build on the initiatives and cutting-edge work of leading researchers and educators, many of whom were in attendance. The Institute approach entailed presentations by and interaction with world-class experts (Day One) and in-depth discussion and consensus-building among the participants (Day Two).

C. Emerging Sense of Purpose

Our discussions led to agreement on goals and a modus operandi. Specifically, we agreed to:

  • implement a deliberate, thoughtful, inquiry-driven agenda
  • broaden and diversify our membership, including public school representation and organizations focused on educational access
  • move beyond rhetoric/critiques to concrete actions, with a strategy of feasible steps
  • keep the Institute’s focus on non-cognitive attributes and their role in college admissions
  • seek to collaborate, where useful, with existing organizations and projects
  • pursue a common mission to define and deepen the role of non-cognitive attributes and character strengths in the admissions process
  • work together into the future, utilizing the Institute as an ongoing vehicle of collaboration and initiative

D. Institute Plan of Action

The deliberations of the Institute produced numerous potential actions designed to advance our common mission. The following list includes actions that are in the domain of (1) individual participants and institutions, (2) the Institute as a collective enterprise, and (3) the larger educational community and American society. It is understood that many ideas and initiatives apply to more than one domain.

Individual/Institutional Initiatives

With a mission to define and deepen the role of non-cognitive attributes and character strengths in the admissions process, we identified actions that can be carried out by those who attended the institute, on their own or in their organizations and institutions.

  1. Promote, educate about, and “signal” our mission in our own institutions and practices. Potential targets include colleagues in our office or department, boards, presidents/principals, deans, faculty, students, parents, secondary school teachers, counselors and the media.
  2. Elevate the knowledge level about the non-cognitive field within our offices and across the institution through educational activities, research, dialogue, materials, etc. Connect the discussion to the mission of school and its educational program.
  3. Audit/study the alignment of institutional practices in admissions and across the institution with the goals of the Institute.
  4. Audit and, where appropriate, revise admissions materials and practices. Be transparent about and strengthen the goal of looking for character strengths and other non-cognitive attributes.
  5. Share the aims and work of the Institute with our schools and colleges. Draw on the resources of the Institute as a clearinghouse of information and materials to inform and educate.
  6. Work with colleagues to examine and determine which non-cognitive, non-academic attributes fit with the mission and values of the school. Drawing on research and the work of the Institute, develop a rubric to capture the institution’s present practice. Formalize and codify the non-cognitive attributes that shape the school’s admissions process.
  7. If available, aligned with the school’s values, and deemed appropriate as a tool, utilize a specific instrument to discern non-cognitive/character strengths. (The Character Skills Assessment, under development by the Enrollment Management Association, is a potential instrument for use by schools and colleges.)
  8. Seek consistency in reviews and decision-making by educating and training admissions staff (and other reviewers) about non-cognitive factors and their role in a holistic review. Formalize protocols and criteria in reviews and decisions.
  9. Reach out to feeder schools to inform them about admissions priorities, including attention to non-cognitive attributes.
  10. Revisit whether the institution will join the test-optional project. We believe the test-optional approach (a) provides students with greater opportunity and motivation to present personal strengths that are not captured by standardized testing and (b) may open up higher education opportunities to students otherwise denied access.
  11. Empower admissions staff to find and argue for students with important character strengths. Develop protocols on the kinds of evidence that are convincing.
  12. Conduct studies to validate the procedures and non-cognitive variables used in admissions decisions. Study outcomes in school, college and beyond. Define the value-added for the institution in seeking students with targeted character/non-cognitive strengths.

Institute Initiatives

We identified actions that can be taken by the Institute, both internal to the Institute and targeting a wider audience.

  1. Work together to refine and broadcast the mission, philosophy and change strategy of the Institute. This statement may include points such as addressing urgent problems in American education, relying on a sound research basis, respecting validity and reliability in designing assessments, seeking a holistic view of merit, allowing for institutional variation, aiming for a deep, authentic impact on practice across the nation, Institute priorities and a timeline, etc.
  2. In collaboration with the “Turning the Tide” effort, develop an outreach strategy to signal our mission and priorities to important constituencies, including boards, presidents, state government, and the public. Although aiming to alter practices in all institutions, we recognize the value of the Institute’s selective colleges in influencing opinion. Outreach could include a focused media campaign, involving news outlets, public service announcements, interviews, op ed pieces, blogging, social media, podcasts, TED talk, etc.
  3. Identify subgroups to work on:
    • common language, rubrics and models around non-cognitive attributes
    • an instrument (or instruments) as a tool in assessing non-cognitive attributes
    • a clearinghouse of relevant research and writing, examples, tool kits, models, etc.
    • a research base for the role of non-cognitive attributes in education, admissions, life
    • a survey of admissions office practices re. non-cognitive attributes
    • (admissions deans) compare how character is coded and evaluated in admissions offices and, if feasible and desirable, enunciate a common approach
    • outreach/media campaign
    • fundraising to support activities of the Institute
  4. Study and enunciate how elevating non-cognitive attributes in admissions can elevate, not limit, access.
  5. Invite other constituencies to join the Institute, including public school superintendents, principals, and college counselors. Invite other institutional partners to join the Institute, including access organizations (Posse; CFES), professional organizations, etc. Throw a wide net, especially in responding to those who indicate interest (the power of self-selection).
  6. As Institute members, communicate our message and agenda by doing panels/speaking at professional meetings, writing articles, doing interviews, etc.
  7. Look for common ground with other organizations, while also clarifying how the Institute is distinguished from other avenues of reform (“Turning the Tide,” the Coalition, the Mastery Transcript Consortium, Common Ap task force, etc.) by emphasizing our sharp focus on character and admissions.
  8. Utilizing the knowledge base developed by the Institute, provide training of admissions staff and others in employing non-cognitive attributes in review and decision-making.
  9. Encourage, support, collate and disseminate validity studies (impact of non-cognitive factors) carried out by colleges and schools.
  10. Agree, as members of the Institute, to provide active leadership on behalf of our mission. Do this within the Institute, in our institutions and organizations, and nationally.
  11. Compose a report of the results of the September 21-22 Institute that is endorsed by Institute participants (this document). Create a version of the report for distribution nationally.
  12. Assuming agreement on the importance and breadth of our mission and on aiming to have authentic impact, convert and incorporate the Institute (a one-time event thus far) into an ongoing entity in support of our mission and agenda. This would likely involve raising funds from Institute members and/or from outside sources and maintaining an infrastructure (website; clearinghouse; event/meeting planning; communication channels; leadership; etc.).
  13. Meet again as an Institute, with expanded membership, perhaps in the summer 2017.

Initiatives that Reach Across the Nation

We identified initiatives designed to influence the national scene.

  1. Disseminate an Institute report/white paper for a national audience. This would be a call to action.
  2. Develop strategic alliances with influential organizations and reform efforts, such as the Turning the Tide initiative, the Character Lab, NACAC, the Education Conservancy, the College Board and ACT, ETS, the test-optional project, the Character Skills Assessment project of the Enrollment Management Association, the Association of Independent School Admissions Professionals, the ProExam Center for Innovative Assessments, the Mastery Transcript Consortium, the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, etc.
  3. Implement a national media campaign addressed to the mission and goals of the Institute.

We recognize that these 28 action steps are sometimes overlapping and, furthermore, cannot happen all at the same time. We also recognize that, once we are agreed on action steps, we must set priorities and a timeline.