As Silicon Valley’s suicide clusters suggest, it’s a burden that at its worst can have fatal consequences. And it may be undermining society as a whole, privileging those with means at the expense of those on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder and tempting students into a competitive hysteria that can dilute their sense of compassion. High-school students “often perceive colleges as simply valuing their achievements, not their responsibility for others and their communities,” the report says.
Admissions offices, the report concludes, should be encouraging young people “to become more generous and humane in ways that benefit not only society but students themselves.” It recommends that colleges limit the number of extracurriculars students can list on their applications, de-emphasize standardized-test scores, and discourage high-schoolers from enrolling in more than a handful of Advanced Placement courses. This would help ensure a level playing field for disadvantaged students, who typically have limited access to extracurriculars, test prep, and AP offerings.
This isn’t the first time administrators and educators have banded together in an effort to reform admissions. In 2011, The Education Conservancy, a group whose mission is to help “students, colleges, and high schools overcome commercial interference in college admissions,” partnered with the University of Southern California to host a workshop aimed at exploring selective-college-admissions reform. As with the Turning the Tide campaign, the gathering, which drew nearly 200 higher-education officials, focused on the ways in which admissions-driven competition was undermining education. A report on the workshop lamented that enrollment professionals have failed to stem that trajectory.
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So, what caused all this admissions mania to become the new normal? Interestingly, much of it traces back to greater inclusion in higher education.
In the late 1800s, elite colleges were generally limited to students who attended prestigious private schools and passed college-specific Latin and Greek entrance exams. These institutions adopted formal application processes in the early 20th century once they began opening their doors to public-school students; the influx of students into higher education forced selective colleges to come up with a means of filtering out underqualified students. Hence, the launch of the SAT, the nation’s first standardized college-entrance exam, in 1926.
Today, educators tend to criticize colleges’ emphasis on standardized-test scores as inconsistent with their mission of expanding access to education. But back then, the novel reliance on test scores to determine admission had the opposite effect, making higher education something anyone—not just white, Christian men from affluent families—could pursue. Indeed, once elite colleges shifted toward test-based admissions, the number of Jews on campus skyrocketed, tripling to about 21 percent of the freshman class between 1900 and 1922.