Why Harvard's "Turning the Tide" Won't Effect a Sea Change in College Admissions

In January 2016, a group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education released a report entitled "Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions," which recommends changes in the college admission process designed to encourage and reward applicants' community service, altruism, and empathy. The report states laudable goals and makes some excellent recommendations, but we fear it will cause undue anxiety about the community service that might be "required" to gain admission into selective colleges.

In our view, students and families shouldn't worry about this, because we doubt the report will change selective colleges' admission decisions to any meaningful extent. These schools already consider character and service, and we're confident that academic strength will remain the dominant factor in admissions.

Selective colleges already consider an applicant's character and service, and analyze these factors effectively. Selective institutions typically perform "holistic" review of applicants, under which they consider academic performance, personal qualities, extracurricular activities, and volunteer service. Colleges state the relative importance of academic and nonacademic factors in their Common Data Sets, which are available online, and both "character/personal qualities" and "volunteer work" are listed as nonacademic factors. ("Extracurricular activities," like athletics and the arts, are a separate factor.) Each factor is designated as very important, important, considered, or not considered.

We reviewed several selective colleges' Common Data Sets, and almost all of them designated "character/personal qualities" as "very important," which means they give this factor significant weight in admission decisions. They genuinely care about this, because they are building communities on their campuses.

Admission officers assess character by evaluating applicants' essays, recommendations, and activities, and sometimes interviews. Some colleges ask questions that either directly address character issues or naturally elicit informative responses, and our students' essays are usually very revealing about their personalities, including their concern for others. This material provides a good basis for assessment. The report urges colleges to "assess more effectively whether students are ethically responsible and concerned for others...in their daily lives," which is a worthy goal, but we think the report doesn't acknowledge how much admission officers already consider applicants' characters, and fails to recognize the value of applicants' essays in this assessment.

"Volunteer work" is usually "considered," but we've seen it designated as "important," so it also plays a role, albeit a supporting one. It can be evaluated like other activities included in applications, and many students describe volunteer work in their essays.

Academic strength will remain the most important factor for selective schools. One need only glance at colleges' basic admission data, like test scores and admission rates, to realize that academic strength is of paramount importance for admission to selective schools. This is confirmed in their Common Data Sets, which show that academic factors are given the most weight. These include rigor of curriculum, high school class rank, GPA, standardized test scores, essays, and recommendations.

At the selective schools we reviewed, academic factors were designated "very important," with a few exceptions, usually for class rank and test scores. (This makes sense, because some high schools don't provide class rank, and some selective colleges are test optional.) Therefore, unless the relative weight of academic factors and volunteer work changes dramatically, applicants will not get a break on grades and test scores solely because of exemplary community service.

We do not expect this dramatic change, partly due to the U.S. News rankings. These are controversial, but colleges and universities do care about them, and factors related to students' academic strength are significant components of the U.S. News methodology. For example, selectivity is 12.5%, and stronger students -- with higher standardized test scores -- produce higher selectivity rankings. Graduation and retention rates account for 22.5%, and stronger students are more likely to succeed, stay in college, and graduate. We doubt many selective colleges will risk their rankings by reducing their academic selectivity to admit students with stronger service records but weaker academic indicators.

But it's not just about rankings. Selective colleges are, first and foremost, academic institutions. They want to maximize the quality of their academics, and on average, stronger students will contribute more to a school's intellectual climate, both in and out of the classroom.

Institutions without holistic review are even less likely to change in response to "Turning the Tide." We've focused on selective schools that use holistic review, but some significant institutions, including some large public universities like Penn State, do not use this approach. They receive huge volumes of applications, and make admission decisions based almost entirely on applicants' grades and test scores, with little weight given to nonacademic factors. Some neither require essays nor consider teacher recommendations. These institutions are unlikely to undertake the additional expense of holistic review, and they educate a large percentage of college students, which further dilutes the impact of “Turning the Tide.”

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