Admissions administrators, including Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, have largely supported a recent Graduate School of Education report that calls for widespread change to the college application process.
GSE lecturer Richard Weissbourd was the primary author of the report—titled “Turning the Tide,”—which urges colleges and universities to reduce academic pressure and promote public service among their applicants. More than 80 professors and administrators from colleges and universities across the country endorsed or contributed to the report.
The reception—which Weissbourd said "has been very positive and very encouraging on the whole"—has included feedback from parents, high school guidance counselors, and admissions deans. He added, however, “We have gotten some pushback.”
Weissbourd said he had received particularly strong support for the report’s objectives, namely promoting “ethical engagement to do meaningful community service, reducing excessive achievement pressure and leveling the playing field” for low-income and otherwise disadvantaged students.
“The skepticism is in part whether colleges and high schools can really deliver, whether the rhetoric is going to meet the reality,” he said.
Harvard may alter its process based on the report's suggestions, Fitzsimmons said.
“Every year we look at our application questions on our own supplement, so we’re looking at the possibility of adding a question that might be relevant to ‘Turning the Tide,’” Fitzsimmons said in an interview Monday.
However, Fitzsimmons, who endorsed the report, emphasized that while his office was “certainly happy to sign on” to it, he added he “wouldn’t necessarily agree precisely with every point in the report.”
Fitzsimmons stressed that his endorsement of “Turning the Tide” did not mean the College is relaxing its expectations for academic rigor. In particular, he pointed to the report’s recommendations that admissions officers reduce pressure on students to take a large number of Advanced Placement courses in high school.
“Academic excellence in all its forms is critically important,” he said. “There are students out there who relish the possibility of taking many AP tests, and it’s one of the things that gets them ready for work in college.”
Similarly, while the report suggests that schools should reevaluate whether the SAT is a predictor of academic success and consider adopting a test-optional admissions policy, Fitzsimmons said Harvard is unlikely to make such a move any time soon.
“We still find that standardized test scores are useful,” Fitzsimmons said. “One of the things that we hope does not get lost in the enthusiasm that people have for the report is academic excellence, measured a whole variety of ways, including by standardized test scores.”
While Harvard is tentatively considering next steps, authors of the report have already begun to see their goals realized at other institutions. Weissbourd said he has received commitments from a number of schools to adapt their admissions processes in line with the report’s recommendations; Yale plans to add essay questions to their applications about “contributing to others.”
Weissbourd said he and his colleagues plan to continue encouraging more institutions to commit to such change. To that end, he said he hoped widely used college applications like the Common Application would also incorporate the report’s suggestions in the future.
While college administrators have largely expressed support for the GSE report, others have been less kind. A recent op-ed by lawyer and author Steve Cohen, published in the New York Times, criticized the report for simply enabling applicants to “game the system” and doing little to genuinely promote equality in education.
Weissbourd responded by saying that colleges should steer students seeking to cheat the process towards morally valuable work, rather than taking no action at all.
“We don’t want you to game things by taking 10 AP courses or starting a new program in Costa Rica,” he said. “We’re looking for intellectual and ethical engagement.”
—Staff writer Aidan F. Langston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @AidanLangston.