A tour group at Princeton University. Credit Mark Makela for The New York Times
By Frank Bruni, for the New York Times
Over recent years there’s been a steady escalation of concern about the admissions process at the most revered, selective American colleges. And little by little, those colleges have made tweaks.
But I get the thrilling sense that something bigger is about to give.
The best evidence is a report to be released on Wednesday. I received an advance copy. Titled “Turning the Tide,” it’s the work primarily of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, though scores of educators — including the presidents and deans of admission at many of the country’s elite institutions of higher education — contributed to or endorsed it. Top administrators from Yale, M.I.T. and the University of Michigan are scheduled to participate in a news conference at which it’s unveiled.
“Turning the Tide” sagely reflects on what’s wrong with admissions and rightly calls for a revolution, including specific suggestions. It could make a real difference not just because it has widespread backing but also because it nails the way in which society in general — and children in particular — are badly served by the status quo.
Focused on certain markers and metrics, the admissions process warps the values of students drawn into a competitive frenzy. It jeopardizes their mental health. And it fails to include — and identify the potential in — enough kids from less privileged backgrounds.
“It’s really time to say ‘enough,’ stop wringing our hands and figure out some collective action,” Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s education school, told me. “It’s a pivot point.”
Weissbourd is one of the directors of the school’s Making Caring Common project, which produced the report. He’s also the author of research that was one motivation for it — specifically, a survey of more than 10,000 middle- and high-school students that asked them what mattered most: high individual achievement, happiness or caring for others. Only 22 percent said caring for others.
The new report contemplates how the admissions process contributes to that psychology and how it might be changed. Some of those alterations would simultaneously level the playing field for kids applying to college from less advantaged backgrounds.