Elite High Schools Plot to Undermine College Admissions

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They want to give universities vague bromides about their students instead of concrete grades.

Recently the online trade publication Inside Higher Ed had an article titled “A Plan to Kill High School Transcripts . . . and Transform College Admissions.” The plan — by the Mastery Transcript Consortium, which counts over 100 top private schools as members — would have its participants stop reporting grades to college admissions offices and instead provide a new model for transcripts and portfolios. The consortium’s proposal would serve as one more step in a trend going back a century toward introducing vagueness and, by extension, discretionary power into college admissions.

The new transcript model is still in development but will follow the principles of “no standardization of content” between schools, “no grades,” and, in obvious tension with the first two principles, “consistent transcript format.” A sample transcript on the consortium’s website lists competencies in eight areas, only two or three of which even remotely resemble traditional academic subjects and most of which can be described charitably as character traits or accurately as self-actualization gibberish. Each of these eight areas is explained with half a dozen or so bullet points that seem to be cribbed from a personal ad at Davos (e.g., “develop flexibility, agility, and adaptability”).

To understand the deep logic of the proposal, it helps to ignore the pleasant-sounding rhetoric about personalization and focus on who and whom. One thing that jumps out of the IHE article is that this proposal is a creature of elite prep schools. Most American high schools have, at most, a handful of students who are realistically competitive at elite universities, but elite prep schools aspire to place a substantial fraction of their students there. Alas, that college admissions offices expect to see grades puts elite high schools in the embarrassing situation of implicitly comparing their students to one another. (While the IHE article’s title just describes a plan without planners, the title that appears on search engines and at the top of readers’ browser tabs is the much more informative “Top Private High Schools Start Campaign to Kill Traditional Transcripts and Change College Admissions.”)

The main advantage of the consortium’s new transcript model is not that it provides more information than grades by virtue of nuance and detail, but that it provides less, by means of not having a readily commensurable scale. The proposed system will make it harder to compare prep students with each other. It will make it almost impossible to compare prep students — summarized with a radar plot of character traits and a “featured credit” of “exhibit moral courage in confronting unjust situations” — to the plebs who are still reporting that they earned a 3.9 GPA including an “A” in AP Calculus.

In fairness, the consortium hopes that public schools will eventually adopt the model and that in the meantime perhaps faculty and administrators at consortium member schools can evaluate portfolios for public-school students. If you believe that, I would suggest that you have failed to earn credit in “identify, manage and address complex problems” or “detect bias and distinguish between reliable and unsound information.” However even if we assume that the consortium’s model of evaluation would work at scale, it still has the core function of obscuring concrete academic achievements and shifting emphasis toward vague notions of character.

This would be one more step in a long-standing trend in college admissions, as described in Jerry Karabel’s book The Chosen. From 1898 to 1919, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton opened up their admissions requirements by adopting the College Entrance Exam Board and abandoning a Greek-language requirement. These reforms made admission more open to non-elite boys, who as a rule were unable to take the schools’ proprietary entrance exams and attended high schools that did not offer Greek. As a result, the Ivies saw a sizable increase in Jewish students, and Columbia even experienced WASP flight, which its peers dreaded. Although Harvard discussed an explicit Jewish quota in 1922, this proved unpalatable, and so between 1922 and 1926 the big three Ivies adopted admissions boards that gave a heavy emphasis to qualitative evidence of “character” (read: WASP culture emphasizing muscular Christianity, club membership, and athletics over book learning) as a pretext to limit Jews.

Decades later, the University of California system, within which both Karabel and I are sociologists, adopted a similar policy to ensure racial balance. Traditionally, about half of the UC class was admitted by a GPA and SAT formula. The beginning of the end of this policy came in 1995 and 1996, when a Board of Regents vote and ballot initiative barred the use of affirmative action at the University of California, without which the flagship campuses of the university admitted notably fewer blacks and Latinos and notably more Asians and “decline to state” as freshmen. (White students were stable.) In response, between 1998 and 2001, the university switched to a system of comprehensive review greatly emphasizing qualitative evidence of character, and this had the desired effect of bringing the undergraduate body a bit closer to the state’s overall ethnic composition.

Basing college admission on well-roundedness and character is both noisy and cumbersome. Anyone who regularly writes letters of recommendation knows that they consume an enormous amount of time to write, and anyone who regularly reads them knows that they typically convey minimal actual information, largely because by convention they are almost never negative. Admissions essays at the undergraduate level are even worse, serving primarily to demonstrate the insatiability of credulous admissions officers for bromides.

The sick irony is that giving great weight to well-roundedness and character is seen as egalitarian.

However, the time consumed by writing and reading the materials in the admissions packet is dwarfed by the effort that goes into shaping lives to fit them. One of the biggest impacts of the demand for well-roundedness is that making a well-rounded child is an enormous drain of time for families. Garey and Valerie Ramey’s NBER/Brookings paper “The Rug Rat Race” suggests that our culture of intensive parenting is driven by competition for college admissions. They find a pronounced rise in time spent on child rearing since the mid 1990s concentrated among college-educated parents. Tellingly, the pattern does not hold in Canada, which has a less hierarchical college system. Nor does the pattern apply to underrepresented minorities, whom colleges already seek and who experience diminishing marginal returns to résumé-polishing. To treat time spent raising kids as a problem sounds heartless, but when the increased time consists of chauffeuring kids from activity to activity or “helping” them with projects, this is a brutal war of attrition against rivals to the meritocratic elite, not quality family time. In the long run, this may lead not only to endless stress for parents and kids alike, but also to lower fertility, since if you make something more costly, you get less of it.

The sick irony is that giving great weight to well-roundedness and character is seen as egalitarian. Test prep serves the role of Satan in the theodicy of meritocracy, a ready explanation for the association between test scores and social class of origin. What this myth overlooks is that most scholarly studies of test prep estimate that it raises SAT scores by a piddling couple dozen points out of 1600. Nonetheless, our suspicion of the SAT’s well-known association with household income provides an egalitarian rationale for the regressive turn to all variety of precocious “achievement” as the basis of college admissions, as if test scores could be bought but résumé-padding could not.

For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth about SATs, they are much less prone to class privilege than having to found an NGO in high school. And so we had the shameful spectacle of Stanford admitting a young man whose essay consisted of writing “Black Lives Matter” a hundred times, but who also was the son of a hedge-fund manager, attended a $33,400-per-year high school, and generally had a vita stuffed with what he describes as “activism” but is more straightforwardly recognized as waiting in line for grip-and-grin photos at expensive political fundraisers.

If you want a vision of the future, imagine a plutocratic elite preening to college admissions officers about how sophisticated and nuanced it is, forever.


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— Gabriel Rossman is an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Gabriel Rossman — Gabriel Rossman is an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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