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How America's Top Colleges Plan To Fix The Admissions Process

A new report endorsed by elite universities calls for schools to rethink a system that favors the wealthy.

Posted on January 20, 2016, at 6:05 p.m. ET

Christopher Capozziello / Getty Images

More than 50 elite universities have signed onto a report that aims to dramatically reform the frenzied college admissions process — a high-pressure race that the report says looks for the wrong qualities in students and disadvantages low-income and middle-class applicants.

The Harvard Graduate School of Education report, "Turning the Tide," calls for colleges to emphasize "meaningful contributions" that better cross lines of class and race and make it more difficult for parents and students to game the system. And it asks the schools to "redefine" academic achievement in ways that don't benefit the wealthy: by de-emphasizing test scores that correlate directly with family income, for example, and advanced classes that are only available to a fraction of high school students.

The unifying idea, the report says, is to create an equitable admissions process that emphasizes the lofty idea of the "common good" — kindness, community-building, family support, humility and ethical behavior — over personal achievement.

The report feeds off of a long-standing sentiment that the elite college admissions process rewards an endless litany of extracurriculars, advanced classes, and test preparation. Those priorities can both create intense stress for applicants and lead to a dramatic underrepresentation of low and middle-income people at the country's best colleges, the report said, because they typically reward those who know how to "package" themselves and game the system.

"Turning the Tide" asks colleges to make concrete reforms to address those structural problems. It encourages, for example, crafting essay questions that ask students about the contributions they have made to their families — giving space for applicants who take care of younger siblings or work part-time to support their parents — or ask students to reflect on the parts of their life "that are built on previous generations," allowing schools to look at character traits like humility and cultural awareness.

The report also recommends drastically limiting the number of extracurriculars students are encouraged to report — forcing them to focus only on one or two things things they truly care about. It suggests explicitly warning students against submitting applications that are primarily shaped by parents or admissions counselors. Private college admissions counseling is a booming business, with counselors who charge in the thousands and tens of thousands to get students into competitive schools.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether colleges will actually follow through with the recommendations, especially those — like de-emphasizing SAT scores — that might hurt their competitiveness with other colleges, or their rankings on the coveted U.S. News & World Report list.

The report acknowledged that many schools were unlikely to embrace all of its recommendations. "What we are convinced of," the report's authors wrote, "is that far too often colleges, high schools and parents are placing more and more pressure on young people to focus on personal success at the expense of others and our common goals."

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