For Educators: Ethical College Admissions: A Guide for High Schools
How can high schools shape a college search and application process that promotes rather than undermines ethical character? What are key ways that high schools can reduce harmful achievement pressure and promote equity and access that advance the recommendations in our first Turning the Tide report?
We offer the following guideposts.
1. Set ethical expectations with families
Why? Most parents are constructive and responsible in their college admissions-related interactions with schools. But many parents, including those who genuinely want their child’s school to promote ethical character, neither model ethical character nor support schools in promoting it in the college admissions process. Some parents become almost paramilitary in advancing their teen’s interests and, as one school head put it, “are completely oblivious to children other than their own.” Too often, parents pressure their school to provide their child with additional support in the admissions process, for example, or monopolize a school counselor’s limited time without considering other students.
How? The college admissions process provides a key opportunity for educators to establish what it means for parents to be a member of a caring, ethical community. Schools, for example, might create a “compact” or agreement with parents, an active document that should be referred to throughout the year, that spells out the school’s and parents’ obligations in promoting ethical character, leveling the playing field, and reducing achievement-related distress in college admissions. Expectations of parents in this compact might include only advocating for new admissions-related activities that benefit a wide range of students and always treating school counselors respectfully. This compact might articulate the many ways parents can directly support students in addition to their own children in the admissions process, including taking additional students on college tours and encouraging their teens to share information and resources about colleges. Schools and parents together might commit to avoiding preparation for standardized college admission testing—a major early source of stress for students—before 10th grade, except when such preparation levels the playing field for low-income or marginalized students. This compact might also include the expectation that parents will contact the school if their teen shows symptoms that suggest achievement-related distress, including not eating or sleeping well. This compact could be developed collaboratively with educators, students, and families.
2. Create opportunities for authentic student service and contributions to others
Why? It’s important for high schools, like parents, to focus on providing teens not with high-profile service opportunities, but with various ways of contributing to their communities that are chosen based on authentic interest, and that are meaningful and sustained.
How? High school counselors and teachers can explore with students what kind of community service or contribution is likely to be meaningful and seek to provide students with a wide range of service opportunities and other ways to contribute to their communities, such as working to prevent students from being bullied or isolated in their own school. These service opportunities might emphasize “doing with” rather than “doing for.” Students might work together with other teens from diverse backgrounds from their school or other schools—in carefully constructed and facilitated groups—on shared problems, whether an environmental problem, an unsafe park, a high rate of substance abuse, or sexual harassment at school. Schools can also provide students opportunities to reflect on why one does service and on the benefits and challenges of their service experiences.
3. Use the admissions process as an opportunity for ethical education
As with parents, high schools should explore with teens the many ethical questions that the admissions process raises, such as why the admissions process often advantages certain students such as athletes and children of donors, why large inequities in the process exist and what can be done to remedy them, why well-intentioned people participate in unfair systems and how to both express oneself authentically and “play the game,”making oneself attractive to colleges. High schools, like parents, might also ask their teen to imagine what a fair, equitable admissions system would be and consider with teens what needs to change for this system to exist. High schools could utilize a variety of scenarios and role plays to explore these questions.
4. Focus students on daily acts of character and provide evidence of character in applications
Why? Schools have a crucial responsibility to promote cultures and relationships that cultivate concern for others and other key ethical capacities in students, and the endorsers of Turning the Tide underscore that a student’s daily conduct “is critically important“ in admissions. It’s thus important for high schools not only to help students develop these capacities but also to capture and communicate them in students’ applications.
How? Minimally, schools might provide guidelines to school counselors and teachers that both help them assess the capacities that comprise ethical character and that guide them in describing these capacities in recommendations. Schools might also develop deeper and more comprehensive ways of capturing these capacities. For example, over the last two years we have piloted an assessment in several high schools that relies in part on anonymous peer assessments to identify students who are caring, fair, and helpful, including helpful to students who are marginalized or struggling. Peers often have the most insight into how students conduct themselves across multiple contexts. Because peers also clearly have their biases and are prone to select more popular students, we hope in the coming years to create a system that is widely available to schools that includes not only peer input but teacher input and perhaps the input of other school adults, such as athletic coaches, and that guides all assessors in considering quieter students. School systems and schools—in consultation with assessment experts—might develop their own ethical character assessments, or might utilize validated, research based measures such as the Enrollment Management Association’s Character Snapshot or ACT’s Tessara. Schools can also regularly assess key dimensions of ethical character, such as whether students work well in groups, on report cards and other evaluations. This information might be aggregated electronically in ways that could both help recommenders describe students’ progress and help students themselves describe their own progress.
5. Guide students in reporting their substantial family contributions and challenges
Why? As Turning the Tide recommends, schools should guide teens in reporting not just community service and contributions but substantial family responsibilities. Many teens are unable to engage in community service or activities outside the home because they spend substantial time supporting their families. Yet tasks such as assisting an elderly relative, supervising a younger sibling, or working at a job to contribute to family income are commonly unreported in the college admissions process, even though these ongoing responsibilities may be far more likely than community service to promote key ethical, social, and emotional capacities such as compassion, selflessness, perseverance, and respect. These family commitments also provide crucial context for admissions officers in evaluating applicants. Too often, admissions offices are unaware of the impressive aptitude and determination of a student who manages, for example, to get mostly B’s in school while supervising a younger sibling or working 20 hours a week. Many students are also dealing with personal or family challenges, whether an anxiety disorder, a chronically ill parent, or a drug-addicted sibling, that significantly interfere with their learning and that provide important context for assessing their academic performance.
How? Students often don’t report these responsibilities and challenges for many reasons. They may be embarrassed to report them, don’t think to report them—they’re just “in the water,” what they do day to day—or don’t imagine that this type of contribution is valued. Application materials also often don’t encourage students to report these types of family commitments or prompt students with specific examples. Schools can underscore the importance of these responsibilities, assure students that their responses will be treated confidentially, and guide students in reporting them, including providing examples.
6. Focus students on a wide range of colleges
Why? At the core of excessive achievement pressure is one fundamental myth: Only a small number of elite colleges will position students for success. Large numbers of teens, abetted by their parents and often their schools, are anxiously trying to land a spot in a handful of highly selective colleges, convinced that these colleges are far more likely to set them up for satisfying and lucrative careers. These students will continue to be hounded by fears of disappointing or shaming their parents and themselves until they and their parents embrace the reality that their chances are very high of being accepted at one of a wide ranges of colleges that are just as likely to lead to success. As the deans emphasize in Turning the Tide, there are hundreds—if not thousands—of excellent colleges in this country, and many colleges that are not highly selective are better suited for a particular student.
How? There is much that high schools can do to elevate a broad array of colleges, including the following:
Present the facts. A good deal of research, summarized in a recent white paper by Challenge Success at Stanford University, A Fit Over Rankings: Why College Engagement Matters More Than Selectivity, makes a powerful case that differences in colleges’ selectivity makes little or no difference in students’ learning and later job satisfaction and general well-being after college. There may be minimal financial benefits to attending a highly selective college, but the research is mixed. What does appear to matter, according to this paper, is academic engagement. Whether students are engaged in classrooms and campus life appears to be a good deal more important in determining how much they learn, how happy they are during and after college, and how much they care about their communities than how selective a college is. High schools that cultivate students’ interests and curiosity and engage students in deep and meaningful learning are thus creating the motivations and habits of mind at the core of well-being in college and beyond. High schools where students experience courses as a means to an end are more likely to undermine both the means and the end.
Mix it up. Schools should meaningfully expose students to colleges that vary in selectivity and to alternative pathways to careers. High schools can, for example, create opportunities for alumni who attended less-selective colleges or chose alternative pathways to share compelling stories with students and parents, require students to read books such as Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be or Colleges that Change Lives, which provides examples of excellent colleges that tend to fly under students’ and parents’ radars, and invite admissions officers from many different types of colleges to present to students. In guiding students, schools can focus on match rather than status or rankings by, for example, holding a “blind” college fair where colleges’ characteristics are presented without names attached.
Avoid commercial rankings. Schools can work to reduce the influence of commercial college rankings, which have little to do with a college’s real educational value and focus students and parents inordinately on highly selective colleges. Schools might, for example, create a statement that describes the serious flaws in these ranking systems and strongly discourages students and parents from utilizing them.
Focus on meaningful outcomes. Schools can eliminate communications to parents and prospective students that identify the percentage of graduates who attend highly selective colleges and communicate instead the percentage of alumni who report satisfaction at the colleges they attend.
Utilize media tools. Launch an awareness campaign with neighboring schools elevating a wide range of colleges and alternative pathways to careers that tend not to be on students and parents radar. This campaign might include regular communications with teens and parents that feature lesser-known, high-quality colleges, video clips promoting these colleges (which will soon be available in Google searches) and distributing paraphernalia from these colleges to students, e.g., t-shirts, cups and pens.
7. Create limits on advanced courses and discourage students from overloading on extracurricular activities
Why? As the Deans’ Commitment Letter underscores, large numbers of students lack access to advanced courses, and it’s crucial to increase these students’ access to more advanced work. Similarly, many of these students don’t have access to quality extracurricular activities, or are limited by “pay to play” programs that favor students with resources. It is critical to increase and strengthen the many public and private “out of school time” efforts that seek to provide these opportunities. At the same time, students in some middle- and upper-class communities feel driven to take more advanced courses than they can reasonably handle. In these situations, schools should take steps to reduce the pressure on students to overload on advanced courses.
How? Schools need to have comprehensive and mission-driven conversations about what is a healthy and balanced academic load for their students. Educators might consider creating clear guidelines that prevent students from overloading on high level (AP/IB/Advanced) courses each year. For some schools this might mean limiting the number of high level courses that students may take annually, and for other schools it could mean incorporating an advising system that ensures students can pursue rigor in their courses while maintaining appropriate balance. Similarly, schools can discourage students from overloading on extracurricular activities. Schools should share widely with students and parents that the Deans’ Commitment Letter states clearly that 2-3 activities are sufficient. While schools might support students in trying out a range of activities, they can also strongly encourage students to cut back on activities if they become stressful and to consider focusing deeply on a small number of meaningful activities. Further, schools might work with school staff to limit the number of hours students attend activities and sport practices each week. Given the unique context of each school’s curricular offerings, daily schedule and extracurricular opportunities, a blanket recommendation for specific limits on courses or activities is difficult. It is incumbent upon schools, however, to intentionally survey students, faculty, and parents on an ongoing basis to assess homework loads, pace of life and student well-being and engagement. Based on the results, schools should establish appropriate limits that reduce stress and lead to more meaningful engagement in courses and activities and adapt these limits as needed.