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Thursday, May 2, 2013

Time to Reject the College Admissions Paradigm 05-02

Ben Mangan

Ben Mangan

Social Sector Provocateur, EARN CEO, Lecturer at UCBerkeley Haas School of Business,

Time to Reject the College Admissions Paradigm

May is the month when high school seniors who've applied to college sort through their acceptances, and make their decisions on where to go in the fall. Having worked as an admissions counselor early in my career (at my alma mater, Vassar College), I have vivid memories on how the choices of a college admissions office can shape the futures of young people and their families. I also strongly believe it's time to reject the traditional college admissions paradigm. It distorts the question of how we reward opportunity through an archaic, byzantine system that is easy to game if you're rich and baffling if you're poor or lower income. We need to do better - and we can do so in a framework that still honors achievement and rewards effort with opportunity.
Doing admissions work at a fancy school provides a really compelling lens to consider the deceptively complex questions of what opportunity really means - and who deserves it. At a small school like Vassar, an admissions officer travels to schools around the country, then evaluates the applications from these schools, and makes recommendations to a committee of colleagues for final decisions.
The choices can be brutally hard. You know from the start that there won't be spaces for most of the applicants you assess. I still clearly remember some of the tough decisions I had to make about who deserved a place in the incoming class. Was it the homeless girl from the Bronx, who never knew her father, lost her drug addicted mother and aunt to AIDS, and commuted 2 hours each way from a homeless shelter to an under-performing school (where she was the valedictorian) because the guidance counselor was the only person on the planet she trusted? Her SAT scores were 50% lower than Vassar's average. She wrote poorly, but very powerfully about how her journey prepared her to face anything.
Or, should that spot go to an upper middle class girl from an affluent suburb of NYC with killer SAT scores, performing in the top 5% of her class at a competitive high school? She was on the track team and president of the model United Nations club. She wrote her admissions essay about the night her cat threw up 20 times. (If you're out there, I still remember you).
Would admitting the homeless student to Vassar really translate into a bona fide opportunity, or would I be positioning her to fail? Despite her resiliency, she was 17, and going from a homeless shelter in the Bronx to the gilded halls of an elite college, even if just 80 miles away, is like traveling to the Mars. (Or, further - like maybe to Jupiter). Putting aside the social challenges of a transition like this, the very tough academic requirements would be brutal for someone with her academic preparation in high school. She might have the drive and tenacity to succeed. Or she might not - and instead drop out, with a lot of debt, and a sense of failure that could haunt her and hinder the tremendous drive that got her so far in life already.
Here's the thing - this is a false choice we shouldn't have to make anymore. We can stand on the shoulders of the old paradigm of traditional college-admissions-as-golden-ticket-to-opportunity. Access to high quality education - through Udacity, Coursera and Edx - is booming in ways that will create new paradigms for opportunity. Leaders, thinkers and entrepreneurs need to push the experiments that will teach us how to leverage these powerful new models. Kudos to San Jose State for recently doing just this - expanding their offerings to students online. (All of this, of course, also starts to mitigate the terrible plague of the the student debt problem for future generations.)
Who'll take the next great leap? What should that leap be? I'd love to read your thoughts on the issue.
About Ben Mangan: Ben is President, CEO and Cofounder of EARN, a lecturer at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, and a blogger for the Huffington Post. 
(photo: courtesy of Bidacity/Flickr)

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