College Entrance Requirements

IT has long been fashionable to bewail the burdensome nature of college entrance requirements, and many persons do this without attempting to distinguish between the prescription of studies to be pursued in preparation for college and the prescription of examinations by which the student’s attainment is to be tested. In many instances both of these prescriptions have been shown to impose undeserved hardship upon meritorious students, and it is easy to lose sight of countless other instances in which they have been immensely helpful to students who, by force of circumstances, have been compelled to pick up their secondary education in fragments, partly from one school, partly from another, partly by the arduous method of digging the material out of unfamiliar books without the help of a teacher. It is, of course, quite unreasonable to impose upon students who have had the good fortune to work systematically through a carefully planned and administered course of study the same dry formulæ which may be not only helpful but indispensable to the less fortunate student. It is the purpose of this article to show that it is quite unnecessary to do so.

Not long ago I was present at a meeting of a group of teachers who were discussing the relation of secondary to higher education, with particular reference to the way in which the school should present that relation to its students and their parents. There was substantial agreement upon the adoption of this statement: ‘Higher education should represent an extension of secondary education; it is the progressive expansion of an essentially similar process. Admission to college is an institutional transfer within a homogeneous development.’

From that meeting I was called almost directly to advise a student who, with his father, was going about from one college office to another seeking guidance as to how he might best secure admission to some good college in September of this year. He had attended two excellent schools and had done faithful and effective work in both, and moreover he had already passed a number of college admission examinations; yet the state of his mind, after what should have been a very broadening educational experience, might best be represented by the following formula: Algebra [2], Plane Geometry [1], Latin [2], Ancient History [1], French [3], English [3], American History [1], Chemistry [1]. In each of his two schools this candidate had ranked somewhat above the middle of his class. No one could talk over his situation with him without becoming convinced that he had made good use of his opportunities. He had not failed in any course, or in any one of the examinations he had taken. What, then, was his quandary? Simply this: that the figures in brackets, as represented in this summary of his examination records and prospects, could not be added up to make fifteen, and he had been told by several sympathetic but rather helpless advisers that until he could reach that magic score of fifteen he could not secure admission by the Old Plan to any college of the first rank.

Now this Old Plan is the same old plan upon which abuse has so often been heaped. It is still helpful to the student who has been forced to piece together his secondary education in a haphazard way. For more fortunate students a new and better plan has been in existence for seventeen years, but it is interesting to observe the reaction of the great majority of parents and teachers to the demand thus made upon them for a choice between two methods of procedure. They have railed for years at the unreasonableness of the old method and longed for a new and better one, but when the Old Plan and the New Plan present themselves side by side, some kind of instinct for the sanctity of tradition is awakened. They fear hidden risks in the new, and proclaim their intention of sticking to the true and tried. And so they go on appraising a secondary education in terms of little figures enclosed in brackets and eagerly counting up gains. It matters not whether a subject once ‘credited’ is forgotten or remembered. What matters is that the sum of the numbers shall be fifteen.

The New Plan of Admission was first made available by Harvard in 1911 and soon thereafter adopted by Yale and Princeton. It is now recognized by thirty-seven colleges and universities of the United States, though not on exactly the same terms by all of them. In 1927, 2876 candidates, out of 22,384 reported by the College Entrance Examination Board, were New Plan candidates.

To many persons the name ‘New Plan’ seems to imply merely the substitution of the so-called comprehensive papers for the papers of the older and more subdivided type, but, while the employment of these papers is one characteristic of the New Plan, it is by no means its essential feature. The New Plan is not merely a plan of examination, but, as its full title indicates, it is a plan of admission to college, and it involves the investigation by the college of the candidate’s school record for four years, the usual span of the high-school course. In order that a candidate may be enrolled for the New Plan, the school from which he is about to graduate must submit to the college a detailed report of the studies pursued and the standing attained in each of these four years, together with such evidence as can be assembled of the candidate’s special tastes and aptitudes as manifested outside the narrow limits of the curriculum. Upon the basis of the general picture of the candidate thus presented, the committee on admission at the designated college decides whether or not this candidate may be regarded as qualified to take examinations under the provisions of the New Plan, a favorable decision meaning that the candidate has up to that point been found eligible, and that the only remaining requirements are four examinations which must be taken in one group and ordinarily in June of the year in which he is graduating from school. It is not demanded that these four examinations shall be approached by a course of study which in the final year of school is concentrated upon four corresponding courses, but it is usual for the school authorities so to adjust the pupil’s work. It is greatly to the candidate’s advantage if he ‘finishes strong’ in this final year.

The four examinations are not a rigidly designated list; indeed, anyone who cares to figure out the possible permutations sanctioned by the leading colleges will find that there are more than two hundred approved combinations. It is generally and properly required that English shall be one subject, and that the second shall be some foreign language, ancient or modern, and that either mathematics or science must be represented. No school is afforded any pretext for reducing the breadth of its course of study. The same values must be represented as if Old Plan examinations were to be taken, but the need of reviewing and cramming for examinations in two or three different years is done away with, as is also the need of bringing various of the earlier studies to definite, circumscribed conclusions at particular dates in June. Furthermore, the temptation to base the choice of studies upon the reputation for simplicity of the examinations in which they severally culminate disappears.

When the examinations have been taken, the results are first appraised by the readers of the College Entrance Examination Board, but reported to the college concerned and not directly to the candidate. The college then considers these examination results, not as isolated criteria to be measured by a predetermined scale, but rather as checks upon the validity of the returns previously furnished by the school.

In this checking of the returns the characteristic strength or weakness of a given school in a given kind of instruction may be observed and heeded, so that, in the discretion of the committee, an abnormal lapse from the expected level by a single student may be investigated, and, if found to be correlated with illness or excessive nervous strain, overlooked. Indeed, some colleges frankly state their readiness to overlook a failure in one of the four examinations, provided that the school record has been satisfactory, and that the other three examinations support the verdict of the school. The passing of the examination in English is, however, commonly regarded as essential.

It is thus apparent that, even in the senior year of school alone, the New Plan gives to the student an assurance of reasonable flexibility, with emphasis upon positive qualifications rather than upon negative quantities. It represents an effort to find out where his strength lies, not to lay bare his weakness; but perhaps the greatest value of the New Plan is in the reasonable freedom which it bestows upon school and pupil for the planning of studies in the earlier years. The school’s horizon is broadened; the interrelations of studies can be and, indeed, must be emphasized; the gains are cumulative throughout the four high-school years and are appreciated as cumulative by the student. Best of all, the student has the assurance that every piece of work well done during those four years does its part in establishing his right to advance, and that all truly educational advances are orderly and related. His teachers in school will pass his whole record on to his prospective teachers in college, and by that record, checked only by the composite picture afforded in four examinations, he will be judged. ‘Higher education should represent an extension of secondary education; it is the progressive expansion of an essentially similar process. Admission to college is an institutional transfer within a homogeneous development.’

The New Plan does not exempt any student from hard work, nor does it offer any encouragement to the trifler; but, to a degree which is still far from being adequately recognized, it banishes the petty futilities and the overshadowing worries which have so often oppressed the pupils inourschools, and bestows a sense of ordered progress and an ever-widening view.