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In Defense of Holistic Admission

by Bob Massa, Bill Conley and David Holmes

from The Chronicle of Higher Education, May 6, 2021

In his recent Chronicle Review essay, “The Abiding Scandal of College Admissions,” Matt Feeney decries college admission officers as administrators, not educators, who take it upon themselves to probe an applicant’s character and authenticity. Among the small group of über-selective colleges with way too many highly qualified applicants, Feeney argues that admission officers delve into areas where they are simply not qualified to venture: using character and other nonacademic factors to help select a class.

Yet nonacademic factors have always played a part in admission decisions. From the Colonial period, institutions have articulated a moral and ethical mission: citizenship, morality, service, leadership. The academy does this work to help support a just, moral, and democratic society. We are not — and should not be — abashed by this higher purpose. Admission officers and student-life professionals are, contra Feeney, educators at heart. Looking beyond the numbers in admission is time-honored and consistent with higher education’s history and heritage.

Feeney accuses admission officers (“the people who made applying to college an elaborate performance, a nervous and yearslong exercise…”) of signaling to students the importance not only of involvement in school and community activities, but also that their doing so be “authentic.” He bemoans this as if it is something new. It is not. In his 1966 book, College Admissions and the Public Interest, the retired MIT professor and director of admissions (and “elder statesman of student testing”) B. Alden Thresher called for a more humane admission process that considers the whole student and signals to applicants what a college values and what qualities it wants graduates to exhibit.

“Authentic” admissions means now what it meant then: Colleges don’t want students painting a false picture of themselves or doing things that they really are not interested in doing just to make an admissions dean look favorably upon them. “The real is much more interesting than the ideal” — that quote is from an open letter to parents and students sent in the mid-’90s by admission deans from the 32 most selective colleges and universities that belonged to the Consortium on Financing Higher Education.

It is important to remember that fewer than 5 percent of the nation’s four-year public and private nonprofit colleges admit 30 percent of their applicants or less. It may seem cruel that some say “no” to 90 percent of their applicants but, of course, they do not require students to apply. (These colleges do certainly recruit and encourage students to apply, but to a lesser degree than the less selective colleges.) In this context of intensely competitive admission, the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s “Turning the Tide” project was certainly not, as Feeney suggests, disingenuous in underscoring a humane, holistic approach to selection.

Is it unfair or unusual that highly selective colleges establish evaluation factors that go beyond baseline academic competency to reflect their distinctive missions and values? We think not. Although many less selective colleges also consider nonacademic factors such as leadership, community service, and persistence, Feeney’s admissions “scandal” is really aimed at a small number of super-selective colleges where he accuses admission officers of being “morally presumptuous.”

What if students attempt to “game the system”? If by doing so they become more caring for others, more willing to give back, more persistent in their work efforts — all the better. Students listen to what colleges signal as important: Take a strong curriculum, get good grades, contribute to your school and community, and, yes, care about others.

Once students arrive on campus, colleges try to instill not only content knowledge but also an awareness of how areas of knowledge are interconnected and how they can use their knowledge and skills to build a better the world. Thus, colleges offer experiential education, community-based learning, internships, and avenues for understanding persisting problems facing us all. To facilitate this learning, admission officers attempt not only to get the best class academically, but one that will help make the campus community an exciting place in which to live, learn, and teach. Identifying students committed to making the world a better place requires consideration of nonacademic traits.

Feeney’s answer to his “scandal” is to attain “a sane approach to this glut of qualified applicants” by creating a lotterysystem for admission. We do not think for a moment a faculty, and certainly not a board of trustees, would support a lottery option. Such an approach risks the full benefits of a diverse and talented applicant pool to chance. Even if faculty and boards agreed, a lottery for admission to the most selective colleges would work only from the perspective of getting academically qualified students for your college. It would do nothing to create a learning community that reflects the mission and values of a particular college.

Finally, Feeney’s argument does little to address the social imperative of opening doors of access to historically excluded populations, especially promising students from low-income families and neighborhoods. Done right, holistic admission is a way to admit these students based not only on their academic achievements at under-resourced schools, but also on their work ethic and character.

An admission process that looks only at academic qualifications rings hollow and would not serve institutions or our nation well. This narrow approach would include standardized test-driven admission as a convenient, though socioeconomically biased, method of building a class. Of course, institutions must seek students who can do the work and graduate: students with high grades in strong high-school curricula. This is the foundation upon which admission decisions must be made.

Still, we strongly endorse holistic admission. Nonacademic factors such as leadership, service to others, empathy, citizenship, persistence, and taking responsibility play a significant role in life, and should in college-admission decisions as well. Taking this on is hard work and requires serious commitment to do it well and fairly — but to paraphrase Winston Churchill on democracy: Holistic admission is the worst form of admission, except for all the rest.

Bob Massa is chair of the Character Collaborative board and has served as the chief admissions/enrollment officer at the Johns Hopkins University, Dickinson College, and Drew University. He is principal and co-founder of Enrollment Intelligence Now.
Bill Conley is treasurer of the Character Collaborative and has served as the chief admissions/enrollment officer at Case Western Reserve, the Johns Hopkins, and Bucknell Universities. He is principal and co-founder of Enrollment Intelligence Now.
David Holmes is executive director of the Character Collaborative. He has served as a professor at the University of Vermont and as headmaster at Suffield Academy and the Sun Valley Community School.

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