We’ve just passed the point in the higher education admission cycle where, traditionally, college applicants receive a flurry of decisions all at once—an increasingly stressful time for students that often coincides with spring break. It caused me to think about how we do business and I was encouraged to learn that, in conjunction with the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), NACAC has launched a commission “to reimagine financial aid and college admission in the pursuit of racial equity in postsecondary education.” It is intended to rethink everything.
And, indeed, it is time we do. The pandemic has highlighted many inequities in society and specifically within higher education. It is now incumbent upon all of us to seize this moment and embrace change. At Goucher College (MD), COVID-19 has forced us to rethink many elements of the admission process. While this year has often felt harried, it’s also been a tremendous opportunity for reevaluation. Our move to a virtual world has required us to create new content and adopt new delivery models, which have improved access to programming that would have typically required a prospective student to travel to campus. For example, we just launched a very well-received series of Instagram Live tours and virtual Goucher “Gopher Gatherings” for our admitted students.
But we also need to examine the fundamental question: What criteria should we, and colleges and universities around the country, use to make admission decisions? Historically, most of us have relied on some or all of the following:
- Test scores – These have increasingly been questioned in terms of their inherent bias and, of course, tests were hard to administer and sit for during a pandemic.
- High school GPAs – The coronavirus crisis caused many high schools to adopt a pass/fail model but, pandemic aside, there is a growing interest in exploring narrative transcripts.
- Advanced Placement classes – There are teachers and high schools that are pushing back against classes that are essentially designed to “teach to the test”.
- Letters of recommendation – Again, the pandemic exacerbated the challenges for students to secure recommendations but, regardless, are these more about the teacher’s ability to write than they are about the quality of the student?
- Class rank – Being in the top 10 percent of one’s class can mean very different things at different high schools.
We must break out of our historical approach to admission, determine what we really want to see in an applicant, and then figure out how to identify those students. While Goucher College has been test-optional for a number of years, we do use test scores in the admission and merit scholarship processes when a student submits them. But is that fair, knowing what we know about the inherent bias of standardized tests? By using these tests, are we undercutting our own efforts toward equity in admission process? Should we be test-blind?
Or consider even the admission cycle timeline: Many institutions announce their admission decisions en masse at the beginning of April and require commitments a month later. And yet, the Common Application opens for business in August. By that point, we, as colleges and universities, are ready to go with admission requirements and procedures. Why do we make applicants and their families wait for months to hear word about their future?
At Goucher, we list an early decision date and a regular decision date but have adopted the practice of essentially working alongside the student. If a student completes their application in October, we will render an admission decision in October; if they submit an application and their FAFSA in November, we will provide a decision and a financial aid award in November. A student can choose to deposit right away or much later in the cycle—it is up to them to decide what works best for them.
We are by no means perfect. There are many situations where we need to do more to put the “customer” first. Hopefully the creation of the commission inspires more of us to step back from the constant drumbeat of the enrollment management timeline and embrace the need to continually examine what we do and how we do it.
I am encouraged that we are beginning to broaden the conversation in terms of how we should go about evaluating students. How do we determine intellectual curiosity, which surely is a valuable asset? What about noncognitive skills such as motivation, resilience, integrity, and temperament? Some companies, such as Cirkled In, offer a portfolio approach where, over time, a student can gather evidence of activities and interests in a number of categories and can present a more holistic picture of who they are. The Character Collaborative is another organization which aims to aims to foster holistic admission, whereby both character attributes and academic achievement are valued. Perhaps we can reimagine interviews as conversations and rely on these dialogues as an added opportunity for students to present themselves.
We must also consider how can we better support students once admitted. At Goucher we are assigning each incoming Goucher student a Success Team consisting of their academic adviser, a career adviser, and representatives from residence life and student financial services who work together as the go-to team for the student. This summer we are also rolling out our new LAUNCH Network, a four-year program specifically designed to support low-income and first-generation students; it begins with a two-week orientation program preceding the traditional fall semester that allows participants to bond with a small cohort of their peers, connect with an upper-division mentor, and gain the knowledge they need to navigate college life and access the support services available to them.
In announcing the commission, Angel B. Pérez, CEO of NACAC, asked, “If we’re to redesign this process from scratch, what would it look like?” The pandemic temporarily wiped out some of the most traditional and long-standing parts of our process, and we were forced to start from scratch in some areas. But before we revert to standard practices, we need to thoughtfully examine them. We can use these uncertain times to question everything and to look at our policies and practices through an antiracist lens rather than defaulting to the way that we have always done things.
NACAC member Jonathan Lindsay is vice president for enrollment management at Goucher College (MD).