February 4, 2016
When considering what traits colleges look for in their applicants, kindness and compassion do not immediately spring to mind. But a new report released by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and its Making Caring Common project argues that the process should be restructured to promote these values in light of increasing academic pressure on students.
The report, “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions,” was released on Jan. 20 and was signed and endorsed by over 85 university leaders and deans, including Penn Dean of Admissions Eric Furda.
“Turning the Tide” recognizes that the current college application process promotes personal achievement. This individualistic emphasis can affect students’ values throughout high school, as they center their actions on what they think colleges are looking for. Instead, the report suggests emphasizing community engagement and equality for economically diverse students.
The report is to be followed by a two-year campaign among all the schools that signed to enact these changes in values in the college admissions process. It outlines three major goals: to promote meaningful relationships with one’s community, to assess one’s engagement with their community in the context of their background and to make sure that measures of achievement are attainable for economically diverse students and involve less academic pressure.
Furda said that signing the report allowed him to show that Penn is a school that values kindness and community engagement, though he did not discuss any direct plans for change. He believes that campus organizations and activities show that University values are aligned with those in the report.
“Reading through it, I thought a lot about Civic House, Fox Leadership Program and the Netter Center for Community Partnerships, and I thought about how these values [kindness and giving back] do not only get translated into what students are choosing to do, but how this plays out on this campus,” Furda said.
As far as the actual college admissions process goes, though, Furda acknowledges that it is harder to find ways to apply the ideas suggested in the report, such as the recommendations to ease academic pressure.
“You might find a student who’s the most genuine and caring person in the world, but is that going to make up for a 2.8 grade point average on a 4.0 scale?” Furda said. “The answer at Penn is no.”
The report also recommends a lower emphasis on testing. But Brian Taylor, director of the college counseling practice Ivy Coach, is skeptical of this idea.
“They emphasize that they want to deemphasize tests,” Taylor said. “That sounds nice, but actually the ACTs and SATs were created so that you can create equity between students from underprivileged and privileged backgrounds. They’re all taking the same test, no matter what school they come from, so that they can have a baseline measurement.”
Furda also acknowledges that the testing recommendation is not likely to be put into practice, especially at Penn.
“Penn is not going to go test optional,” Furda said. “The data that we get from testing has value. Our responsibility is to use that testing in light of the context of that student’s background and what we know about who does well and who doesn’t in testing.”
Overall, the report has received high praise, which Furda attributes to people’s eagerness for change.
“The whole college application process and industry is really at a moment where I think everyone is ready and has an appetite for some change,” Furda said. “We just have to see how that plays out.”