College & Workforce Readiness

140-Plus College Admissions Deans Pledge to Prioritize Service, Ethical Character

By Catherine Gewertz — March 18, 2019 4 min read
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Deans of admission at more than 140 colleges and universities released a letter Monday committing themselves to principles designed to reduce “excessive achievement pressure” in admissions and promote ethical character among parents and students.

The letter was in the works for over a year, but its release lands as the country is buzzing about a massive college-admission scandal that ensnared 33 parents, and a circle of other adults, including college coaches, in a scheme that allegedly used lies and bribery to get children of privilege into elite colleges.

In their letter, officials who oversee admissions and enrollment management at a range of public and private institutions, including some of the most selective in the country, and some of those caught up in the bribery scandal, say they want to “clear up misconceptions” about what they value in students and ease the pressure that’s come to characterize the admissions process “in certain communities.” A report accompanying the letter makes clear that they’re referring to middle- and upper-income communities.

The signatories lay out a commitment to evaluate each applicant holistically, taking particular care not to let students’ family wealth, social connections give them an advantage. On the flip side, students whose schools offer few advanced courses “will not be penalized” in the admissions process, the letter says.

Students who don’t have a long list of extracurricular involvements won’t be at a disadvantage in admission either. “We view meaningful engagement in two or three to be sufficient,” the letter says. The deans also encourage students to include in their applications the responsibilities they carry for helping to support their family. Such commitments are “highly valued,” the letter says.

The signatories also signalled that they want students to stop choosing activities that will look impressive—like service projects in foreign countries—and instead focus on participating in projects that are meaningful for them, and that serve people in their own communities.

Focusing on Character

The dean’s letter grew out of an ongoing project called “Making Caring Common,” which called on colleges and high schools to refocus their priorities on good character and serving others. That project, led by the Harvard Graduate School of Education, outlined those ideals in a 2016 report, “Turning the Tide.”

In a bid to reduce the pressure of college admissions, promote ethical character among students, and expand admissions access for traditionally underserved students, that report called on colleges to consider taking steps such as making admissions tests optional, and discouraging students from stacking up Advanced Placement courses to impress admissions officers. It asked colleges to place greater emphasis on service to family and community.

A followup report, released with the deans’ letter on Monday, reiterates themes in the original report. In light of the bribery scandal, its call on parents to be ethical and reduce pressure on their children resonates particularly strongly.

“Many parents ... fail to be ethical role models during the admissions process by allowing teens to mislead on applications, letting their own voice intrude in application essays, hiring expensive tutors and coaches without any sense of equity or fairness, treating their teen’s peers simply as competitors for college spots, and failing to nurture in their teen any sense of gratitude for the privilege of attending a four-year college,” the report said.

“College admissions may well be a test for parents, but it’s not a test of status or even achievement—it’s a test of character.”

The “Making Caring Common” initiative has gotten most of its attention for working to reshape the college admissions process. But it’s working with 189 middle and high schools as well, on a range of projects aimed at building caring, ethical community members. Some schools are teaching students how to hold civil discussions on controversial topics. Others are working on cultivating supportive school climates, or focusing on helping disadvantaged students learn about, and apply to, college.

The new report lays out seven guidelines for high schools as their teachers, counselors, and other adults shepherd students through the years leading to the application process:

  • Set ethical expectations with families.
  • Create opportunities for authentic student service and contributions to others.
  • Use the admissions process as an opportunity for ethical education
  • Focus students on daily acts of character and provide evidence of character in applications.
  • Guide students in reporting their substantial family contributions and challenges.
  • Focus students on a wide range of colleges.
  • Create limits on advanced courses and discourage students from overloading on extracurricular activities.

It also offers seven guidelines for parents as they see their children through adolescence and into the college-planning process.

  • Keep the focus on your teen.
  • Follow your ethical GPS.
  • Use the admissions process as an opportunity for ethical education.
  • Be authentic.
  • Help your teen contribute to others in meaningful ways.
  • Advocate for elevating ethical character and reducing achievement-related distress.
  • Model and encourage gratitude.

See also: The Two Powerful Forces Changing College Admissions

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.