Thursday, January 21, 2016

Department of Bad Ideas: Holistic admissions 2.0

There is a crisis afoot in America: way more "youths" report that happiness and achievement are more important to them than "caring about others." Now, why would anyone think happiness was a greater end than selflessness? That is downright Aristotelian. It must be stopped. But how? Well, since the thing for which all American youths strive is admission to a prestigious college, because they hope that this will lead them to happiness and achievement, we ought to manipulate the criteria for this admission to reward only those who strive selflessly with success. Or, since success is a form of achievement and they're not supposed to desire achievement anymore, let's call it a reward of reciprocated care from the college of their choice, previously known as admission. Instead of selecting applicants for their perceived intellectual aptitude and promise of achievement, colleges should select for perceived sincerity and promise of moral goodness. What could go wrong?

The problem with the SAT was that it correlated too much with family income, and the problem with AP classes was that they stressed students out, and the problem with extracurricular activities was that students did so many that it was hard to tell which were "heartfelt," and the problem with the whole process was that it didn't "measure true ability or intellectual hunger." It was all so reductive and admissions committees are no good at discerning "true ability" from it. But you know what admissions committees are really good at? Determining the relative heartfeelingness and intellectual hunger of complete strangers based on what they claim about their heartfeelingness and intellectual hunger in essays carefully crafted for an audience of admissions committees. Surely it is more difficult to fake sincerity and "passion" than to fake an AP exam score.

Where grades and scores obfuscate "true ability," limitations on advanced coursework and extracurricular activities will reveal it. Grades and scores are so arbitrary that “we might as well be admitting these people on the basis of their height or the size of their neck.” What sense does it make to admit people to academic programs based on their previous records of academic success? It is obvious that people who care a lot about others will be much more capable of studying genetics and French literature than people who merely did well in science and literature in high school. We knew this when we first came up with the idea of holistic admissions in order to evaluate the whole applicant rather than just his practically worthless academic aptitude. But even holism was not enough, since extra-curricular activities only take up a few hours a week, and what we want here is to find the individuals who aren't just thinking about college admission a few hours a week, but every minute of the day. That is why "the nature of students’ day-to-day conduct should be weighed more heavily in admissions than the nature of students’ stints of service." Next time you're tempted to cut gym class or not tuck in your shirt, just remember, Harvard is watching.

All this is great news for poor kids, who evidently cannot be expected to demonstrate academic aptitude, but who can still be nice and authentic. If they tend not to score as well on standardized tests, but do tend to take care of family members and work part-time, we can make college more egalitarian by making taking care of family members and working part-time a pre-requisite for admission and getting rid of the standardized tests. Problem solved.

The best part of all this is that we know it will work: parents spend years trying to raise virtuous children, but elite colleges need only "signal" that what they want students to care about is, well, caring, and the youth of America will comply practically overnight. Next year, 90% of the applicants to Harvard and Yale will have suddenly discovered that their grandma - or someone's grandma - needed a lot of care, and will have spent 10 hours a week taking her grocery shopping (as illustrated in the report), and will effuse about what a meaningful experience it was. Of course, they will only help grandma grocery shop out of a genuine and authentic concern for their community, and not because they want to get into Yale. That will just be an incidental benefit. Because as everyone knows, the best way to cultivate authenticity and genuine concern for others is through bribery and manipulation. And the people most susceptible to being bribed into all this caring just happen to be those who prioritize happiness and achievement. Hm.


Phoebe said...

Gahhhh!!! Noooo!! Is my less-articulate agreement with your skepticism.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, I thought of you when I read this report. It's the consummation of your fear that holistic shifts the scope of the admissions decision from a narrow judgment of your qualifications for a particular position (student at college X) to a judgment on your character and value as a human being. A rejection from these people really does seem to imply that you are a terrible person.

Withywindle said...

It's the lack of variety that gets me. If a few colleges tested for unpremeditated snarkiness and procrastination, at least I'd know there was a place for my spiritual descendants. I hate that they will have to live a lie.

Five gets you ten that you need a larger admissions staff to judge who is the most genuinely nice of the applicants. Fortunately, since the admissions department will also consist entirely of selective corps of genuinely nice people, they will know their own.

Miss Self-Important said...

No, it's the lack of standards that gets you, and the fact that this framework is a shameless way for universities to evade all accountability for their admissions decisions. At least when they claim to be admitting students for academic merit and the measures of such merit are quantifiable, it remains possible to demonstrate that they engage in discrimination. But when kindness and sincerity are the measures of merit, who's to say their rejection was unjust? The kind of person who'd be so petty as to contest such a decision is by definition not caring and community-spirited.

As far as living lies goes, pretending you care about grandmas is probably one of the easier lies to live.

Withywindle said...

Well, all that too.

Alex Small said...

Arguing this from the standpoint of standards is a non-starter. Let's take this idea on its own egalitarian premises.

First, if more than just one or two desirable institutions changed their application standards from whatever they are now to focus instead on demonstrating a particular virtue, kids are going to take notice. Guidance counselors will take notice. Consultants will take notice.

Who has the resources to build up a stellar resume of volunteer work? Who has parents that can drive them around the city to various volunteer gigs? Who can afford to spend all that time on volunteer work instead of paid work to help their families? Who has parents who could introduce them to a co-worker who has organized a lot of events and could give a few tips on planning their fundraiser thingie?

Hint: It's probably the kid with white collar parents.

Oh, and who could write a really stirring, well-crafted essay on their amazing portfolio of service work? Probably the kid who went to the school that produces more 5's on the AP English exam, and whose parents can pay for a college admissions coach to help polish that essay.

As long as there are colleges that are substantially more desirable than others there will be stiff competition, and the whole definition of being advantaged is that you will do better in competitions. If you want to let in disadvantaged kids then you should just request their parents' tax returns and grant bonus points accordingly. Anything else is a farce.

Miss Self-Important said...

Alex: All very true. Obviously the best way to actually "reduce stress" among college applicants rich and poor would be to raise the acceptance rates of elite schools which cause the stress in the first place, which will in turn stop their being elite, and diminish the desire of ambitious students to get into them. Voila - no more ambition, no more stress. (At least, no more stress channeled into the pursuit of college admission, but ambition always finds avenues.) But I seriously doubt that you'll be seeing Harvard's dean of admissions endorsing that report.

I certainly agree that prioritizing caring or kindness in admissions does not really help the poor, but it seems to me that the particular effect of this kind of admissions framework is its extreme opacity, even relative to the current system. It might simply perpetuate the status quo in different form, or it might be a way for schools to admit many students who would not qualify under an academic framework, not because they are in fact better o more accomplished community servers but simply because colleges want to admit them, and no one can ever prove that their preferences were arbitrary or discriminatory in the same way they can when grades and test scores and other concrete measures of merit are used. The question is really what the colleges are most motivated by: a desire to keep on admitting the affluent in a political climate increasingly hostile to that desire which compels them to mask it behind a pretense of commitment to community service and character? Or a desire to admit many more poor and minority students who they fear can't meet current admissions standards?

Alex Small said...

It isn't either/or on those motives, and since institutions aren't monolithic I don't even know if it makes sense to try to figure out which motive is stronger. The people in the PR office care about both, the accountants care more about having a smoke screen behind which they can admit the affluent, the faculty (to the small extent that their views matter in admissions) want a back door for benevolence to the disadvantaged without calling it that, and administrators care about money AND sometimes retain a bit if their old academic selves so they care about both.

BTW, I am very glad I discovered your blog. I like reading things by academics who are witty and passionate about academic issues but aren't buying into the zeitgeist. Keep up the good writing!

Miss Self-Important said...


educatedwhinge said...

I think it's pretty well documented that 'holistic admissions' was originally a system to enforce quotas of Jews. Maybe this scheme is about limiting numbers of (domestic) Asian students, which is hard to do quietly when admissions is about SAT/etc.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes. Though I suspect that by now, most Asian-Americans have gotten the memo about being "well-rounded." It's possible though that Asian families may still disproportionately interpret this imperative in individuated terms, and so encourage their children to excel in several domains in addition to academics, like sports or music, rather than discouraging them from excellence altogether, as this report favors.