Does Harvard’s New Admissions Report Really “Turn the Tide”?

Beating out other people into an elite school shows Wall Street you know how to compete and win.
Beating out other people into an elite school shows Wall Street that you know how to compete and win.

A new report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education wants to make students less anxious and better citizens. In a report entitled “Turning the Tide,” researchers have declared that elite colleges are asking high school students to do too much in order to advance to the next level. Emerging from a multi-institution working group called “Making Caring Common,” the report proposes that students are being pushed to prioritize “personal success rather than concern for the common good.”

Students don’t make these choices on their own, the report argues, but are forced into an indvidualistic mindset by a college admissions process that demands endless credentialing and achievement at a young age. Among other things, this produces ruthless people who “game” the system. Caring only for grades, internships and a ticket to a selective school, they seek out short-term activities that appear to exhibit a commitment to service but require no serious engagement, initiative or reflection. They may lie and cheat to jump academic hurdles that are higher than they ever have been, competing for admission to college in pools that have by policy, been expanded in order to lower acceptance rates. College classes are filled with these little status seekers: they arrive on move-in day anxious, depressed and with little sense of what it means to be part of a compassionate community, much less learn for the sake of learning.

In the main, I think the authors of “Turning the Tide” are right, and some of their recommendations and observations  are sound. The report advocates sustained, deep engagement with a single community activity, rather than racking up numerous activities that make the student look busy. This desire for student immersion in a valuable, non-academic opportunity is balanced by a second reform proposed in the report: that colleges de-emphasize test scores, AP credits, and participation in IB programs (many of which, by the way, represent a branding opporunity for a school, and not high quality teaching and learning.) Perhaps the recommendation I like best is this: “Admissions officers and guidance counselors should challenge the misconception that there are only a handful of excellent colleges and that only a handful of colleges create networks that are vital to success.”

Naturally, since I no longer teach at a school that admits fewer than 15% of its applicants, I agree that there are many places where a student can get a terrific education. In fact, schools with which I am familiar that accept well over 50% of their applicants include the progressive colleges Evergreen and Hampshire, where students pretty much self-select; and the excellent University of Iowa, which admits a whopping 75% of those who apply. Yet for students to seriously consider these schools, “Turning the Tide” would have to add another recommendation: “College counselors should encourage students who can afford to do so to go away to school.” A critical mass of college-bound students are massed in the Northeast, and most of these young people and their parents refuse to consider colleges, even highly competitive colleges, that are not within a few hours drive of home.

A second problem with the recommendation to consider a larger range of schools is this: it is not a misconception that going to certain colleges and universities (like Harvard) puts a student in a network of alumni that advances the careers of new graduates. Last week I did an interview for a documentary, and in the elevator had an opportunity to chat with one of the production assistants. She majored in film at a small art college in the South which has an excellent reputation. Too late, she realized that attending that college put her out of the loop professionally. “I would have been better off just coming to New York or Los Angeles and not going to college at all,” she said, “because I didn’t have the networks to get jobs when I graduated.” Immediately I thought about my former employer, Wesleyan University, and the film program built there by Jeannine Basinger. Wesleyan isn’t in a major film production center either, but its graduates are immediately injected into a robust media world peopled with the so-called “Wesleyan mafia,” alums who Basinger has taught and cultivated over the years, who remain deeply loyal to her, and not infrequently, send their own children to Wesleyan. Currently I teach at The New School, where accomplished alumni networks emanating from Parson’s School of Design serve as a similar entree to the fashion and design world; students come from all over the globe to take their degrees there. University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School is a straight shot to wealth, and Penn sells it that way. If you don’t believe me, go on the Penn tour; or go to the web page for the undergraduate program and read about the 16 Wharton alums, eight of whom graduated in the last five years, who “made the cut” for Forbes Magazine‘s 2015 list of top 30 “disruptors, innovators and entrepreneurs” under the age of 30.

In fact, elite schools have informally established as fact that surviving the competition for admission is, in and of itself, a sign of superiority. This is one reason why it is very difficult to flunk out of one. In other words: if being admitted is the central accomplishment of a student’s life, how could that ever be retracted, even if she joins the academic silt at the bottom of her Stanford class, as many students inevitably must do? Furthermore, as anthropologist Karen Ho argues in Liquidated: An Ethnography of Wall Street (Duke University Press, 2009), as the multi-billion dollar financial and consulting industry has adopted ruthless competition as its business model, a hyper-competitive admissions process has become the principle qualification for an entry level job. Because of this, Princeton University (which has endorsed “Turning the Tide”) is a “recruiting hotbed” for Wall Street. As much as 40% of Princeton’s graduating class goes to work in Manhattan’s financial district, despite the fact that Princeton has no business school. At Harvard, alumni networks from major firms descend on the dining halls every year to network, give presentations and persuade philosophy, English and history majors that Wall Street is the logical place to take an Ivy League degree. “According to Harvard’s Office of Career Services,” Ho writes, “in 2005, close to half of Harvard students [went] through `the recruiting process to vie for investment banking and other jobs.'” It is no accident that this spirit of rigorous competition, rather than having any real interest or experience in teaching, is a core attribute of Teach for America, created by a Princeton graduate, a non-profit that serves mainly to funnel its own alumni into the consulting industry via a few years teaching in a blighted school.

A portion of the students recruited by Wall Street firms are hired to network with other alumni whose business is being wooed by the firm, spending more time practicing their golf swings than studying reports. When I was a senior at Yale, a friend of mine interviewed with a major Wall Street firm, and when we asked him what the interview was like, he said: “Sailing. We talked about sailing.”

This is not to say that race and social class do not play a role in “Turning the Tide:” they do, although mostly by implication and without acknowledging that most of the reforms proposed by the authors will still  disproportionately exclude poor and first-generation college students. One recommendation recognizes the importance of family care, although without explicitly saying that poor children, young women, immigrants and children of color are most likely to be doing paid and unpaid work to support their families. This recommendation is interesting, principally because it contradicts a taboo commonly shared among the well-to-do that writing a college essay about your parents’ divorce, what you learned from a family member’s battle with cancer, or your backpacking trip in Nepal, are a self-inflicted wound from which few candidates will recover. Also without being explicit, the authors chastise the multi-million dollar college coaching industry that helps parents thread the needle into a prestigious school by doing students’ applications for them. “Admissions officers, guidance counselors and other stakeholders should remind parents and students that authenticity, confidence, and honesty are best reflected in the student’s original voice,” the report notes [for the uninitiated: parents pay adults to write their kid’s college admissions essay.] In addition, “Admission officers should consider inviting students (and families) to reflect on the ethical challenges they faced during the application process.”

The report’s authors realize “that many kids admitted into top schools are emotional wrecks or slavish adherents to soulless scripts that forbid the exploration of genuine passions,” writes Frank Bruni of The New York Times. “And they’re acknowledging the extent to which the admissions process has contributed to this.” Yet is this acknowledgement as disruptive as it seems? Like Bruni, I noticed that there is no mention of legacy admissions, athletics, or the role that career counselors hired by the university plays in funneling alums into the financial industry rather than lower paid, but more community-oriented, work. Nor does the report acknowledge that it is by inviting Wall Street on campus to network that elite schools have created the powerful and wealthy alumni giving networks that have grown multi-billion dollar endowments. Similarly, while I agree that thoughtful recommendations speaking to a student’s character and quality are important, how realistic is it to expect that a student who is one of 150 seniors assigned to an overworked college counselor at a public high school is going to get that letter? And where is the acknowledgement that, even though they play a less prominent role than they once did, a powerful network of high school counselors at elite private (and a few public) schools have always disproportionately funneled their own students into the Ivy League?

“Turning the Tide” is a conversation starter, but does it really tell the truths it needs to tell for its proposals to be transformative? I don’t think so, but I would like to be wrong.

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