No Grades, No SAT Scores, Just Essays: Bard's Misguided New Admissions Plan

In place of high-stakes testing, the college is letting applicants hand in a high-stakes homework assignment. The system sounds like it's just begging to be gamed by wealthy students. 

The college admissions process is a soul-sucking steeplechase where wealthy students get a 500-meter head start thanks to SAT prep courses, essay consultants, and the other various and sundry academic advantages that come with money. So you have to give some credit to Bard College, which is introducing a radical new admissions option this fall. Instead of high-stakes testing, the school wants to assign high-stakes homework.

Rather than submit a full battery of grades, teacher recs, SAT scores, and personal essays, Bard applicants will be able to choose to hand in four 2,500 word research papers, which will be graded by faculty. Applicants who earn a B+ or better on their writing will be accepted, at which point they'll need to submit a character reference from their high school, according to The New York Times. Students can still apply the traditional way, but this adds another route. Here's how Bard's President explained the idea to the NYT.

“It’s kind of declaring war on the whole rigmarole of college admissions and the failure to foreground the curriculum and learning,” Leon Botstein, Bard’s president of 38 years, said in an interview. Saying the prevailing system was “loaded with a lot of nonsense that has nothing to do with learning,” he hailed the new approach as a “return to basics, to common sense” and added, “You ask the young person: are they prepared to do university-level work?”

As I said, credit the effort. But I have some misgivings.

One has to wonder how many high schoolers will actually be in the mood to write 10,000 total words on topics like Kant and the motion of Uranus, particularly if their academic record is already good enough to get into Bard. On its own, that's not a terrible flaw, since the standard application process is being left intact. However, this also seems like a system that's begging to be gamed. While Bard will require students to sign a statement vowing that they didn't receive help on their essays, it seems unfathomable to me that the same sorts of consultants who all but sign students' names on applications today won't be willing to offer, oh, I don't know, a bit of "proof-reading."

So Bard's new admissions option isn't just vulnerable to cheating; it's vulnerable to cheating from undeserving students who can afford to cheat.

Apparently, the college's leaders are a bit less cynical about rabidly competitive parents and their 17-year-old children. “Why not show a measure of trust?” Dr. Botstein told the Times. “Go the other direction, not assume the kid is going to cheat on you. Let’s take the high road.”

You might say that rich students won't be able to game Bard's lightly policed admissions option any more so than the current system. And one-time standardized tests and personal statements are imperfect measures of aptitude and fit, as well. But, as a rule, it seems smarter to judge college applicants on a cluster of flawed metrics that might balance each other out than on one assignment they may or may not write themselves.