It’s important not to let the facts get in the way of the truth.
creator of the television series “The Wire”
You are a college-admissions officer charged with a difficult task—accepting a cohort of students that will be a good match for your institution. You want bright, well-rounded students who will successfully graduate in four years. Of course, the group should be diverse—racially, socioeconomically, geographically. Ideally, every one of these young adults will go on to be recognized for his or her contributions to society.
You have two folders on your desk. Each contains an application for admission to your college. There is one spot left in the incoming freshman class. Applicant No. 1 has a grade point average of 2.1. His ACT score in math is 16; in English it’s 19 (both out of a possible 36). His high school transcript shows he has acquired the necessary Carnegie units. He played no varsity sports, but does have community-service experience. His letters of recommendation are quite positive.
Now open the second folder. It contains the story of a young man on a quest for self-improvement. He was dealt a tough hand. Growing up in a poor neighborhood of Philadelphia, he was sent to a subpar public high school and, after a few years languishing in classes, slid out of school. As a result, he was kicked out of his mother’s house. He turned his life around by enrolling in YouthBuild, a high school program for “overage and undercredited” young people. For the last year, he has been working with a national nonprofit organization that promotes and supports innovative high schools all over the country.
He is an emerging intellectual—a voracious reader who took the initiative to enroll himself in a college course, paid for with stipends he earned through the completion of rigorous service to his community through AmeriCorps. He has delivered keynote addresses and spoken on panels at multiple national conferences, and has founded an organization, Organized Youth for Educational Alternatives, that has received seed funding and interest from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Which applicant would you admit?
Applicant No. 1’s academic history may make you apprehensive. It would not look good for the college, or be doing the applicant any service to admit him if he is not going to be able to handle the work. While he has impressive community-service experience, most applicants have some of that. And he is not going to be winning any championships for you.
Applicant No. 2 also has a spotty academic record, but, on the other hand, it is clear that he has intellectual drive, knowledge of self, and a proven track record of resiliency. He can respond to real-world deadlines and engage a variety of people. He appears to be a dynamic young man, hungry for the opportunities that college could provide.
The problem for you as a college-admissions official is that these two folders belong to the same applicant. Unfortunately, the way the admissions process works at most schools is that if the first folder resembles Applicant No. 1’s, the second folder never gets read. Consequently, many of the most dynamic students, with the most life experience and the strongest desire for education, are locked out of institutions and scholarship programs that could benefit greatly from their presence.
The two folders described above belonged to Andre Bradley, one of the authors of this essay. Andre’s recent experiences in applying to colleges and scholarship committees illuminate problematic aspects of the college-application, -admissions, and -financing systems.
After Andre enrolled at an alternative school, his participation in authentic learning opportunities gave him the motivation to be the first in his family to complete college. Armed with potential and immense self-motivation, Andre graduated from high school and applied to colleges. As he prepared his applications, though, he discovered that colleges and scholarship programs demanded transcripts that included cumulative grades for all of his high school work, rather than examples of his best work, most of which he produced in 12th grade and the two years after his high school graduation. Unfortunately, he found that many colleges and scholarship programs have no way of examining the performance trajectory and endpoint of an applicant. Instead, a grade point average, an SAT score, and a Carnegie unit total are all they need.
Judged by these traditional metrics and algorithms, Andre’s indicators of potential and resilience did not look good. There seemed to be no way to give special weight to his urge to excel and his recent performance. Andre had discovered who he is—someone absolutely ready to enter and excel in a four-year college—but unfortunately, it mattered all too much what and where he’d been.
An unusual story, you might say. But we would disagree. This is the trajectory of many of the millions of young people in alternative schools. They enter these innovative programs with enormous deficits, as measured by the traditional methods of keeping score. Because virtually all these students are high school dropouts, they have extremely low cumulative grade point averages. No matter how hard they work or how great their accomplishments, they find the deck stacked against them.
So as Andre, and many others who have traveled similar paths, place themselves in the vulnerable position of presenting their achievements and identities through numbers and words on paper, the following questions emerge: What constitutes “readiness for college,” and how can this be measured? How is merit assigned for turning one’s life around? What metric can be used to compare a student who has all the advantages of family support, a well-resourced school, and intensive and expensive SAT coaching with a student who has had none of these benefits? Does employing the same metrics to all produce the equity we value? When someone discovers himself and moves forward, how far back do you have to look? Are early setbacks and low grades relevant? How do colleges ensure that doors are not closed to students who have shown resiliency by surviving inadequate health care, housing, and schools, enrolling in alternative programs, and obtaining diplomas?
In our work, we too often get the feeling that we are trying to game the system on behalf of our kids. In so doing, we are further calcifying a system that needs to be entirely rethought. Rather than searching for ways to boost students’ GPAs and continually fight the uphill battle of convincing admissions officers and scholarship judges that each of our students should be considered as an exception to the rule, we would like to help usher in a new, more nuanced, and insightful system of assessing students’ readiness for postsecondary education, one that takes better account of young people’s potential.
William E. Sedlacek, in Beyond the Big Test: Noncognitive Assessment in Higher Education, has researched the success of minority students in college and developed a list of indicators—including positive self-concept, availability of a strong support person, and realistic self-appraisal—that can guide a student’s college readiness and aid in advising and admitting minority college-student applicants. A list such as this would help colleges ask the right questions and look in the right places in developing a full picture of every applicant.
The current system privileges a paradigm that will not serve our young people or our society well. We run the risk of losing this and future generations of talent. Yet, at the same time, we possess the promising possibility of offering educational opportunities to a diverse vanguard of students who possess exponential potential. It is worth the work.
Let’s change the system, so that all of the talented students who have followed alternative paths to the threshold of postsecondary institutions can access, afford, and thrive in these environments.
A version of this article appeared in the August 27, 2008 edition of Education Week as Andre’s College Application