From 37,000 Feet, 5 Questions About College Admissions

So much is said at a conference; no one could absorb every word. But unless you sleep through the whole thing, some random thoughts will follow you home.

Last week, the University of Southern California’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice, known as Cerpp, held its annual conference in Los Angeles. For a day and a half, speakers discussed some of the biggest challenges in college admissions — and how colleges should confront them. Yes, there was hand-wringing. No, solutions didn’t materialize.

Still, the gathering raised important questions. Here are five that stuck with me while flying home, 37,000 feet above this admissions-obsessed continent.

Does neuroscience hold lessons for admissions officers?

Mary Helen Immordino-Yang came to talk about the brain, which she studies for a living. “Meaningful learning always involves emotion,” she said. Yet conventional measures of achievement don’t necessarily reveal skills grounded in students’ emotional connections to a subject — their intrinsic motivation to learn.

Ms. Immordino-Yang, a professor of education, psychology, and neuroscience at Southern California, asked the audience to consider the extent to which assessments relate to broader educational goals. Many colleges claim to support deep thinking and moral development, but they tend to measure — and reward — a relatively narrow kind of academic success.

“If it’s only the achievement, if the action” — of, say, taking a test — “isn’t connected to something,” Ms. Immordino-Yang said, “then it won’t mean anything.”

For the record, Ms. Immordino-Yang did not slam the ACT or SAT. She did invite listeners to think about the difference between accomplishments one can see on an application and the depth of a student’s investment in a given subject. Raising students’ math scores is one thing, she said; changing their feelings about math — and their beliefs about learning itself — is another.

Can performance assessments help colleges evaluate applicants … in a way that’s feasible for admissions staffs?

Given the limitations of grades and test scores, many admissions leaders say they want tools that better reveal a student’s talents and potential. What might such tools look like?

Linda Darling-Hammond described one possibility: Performance assessments that she said can show evidence of “deeper learning” and “the capacity to think.” Those might include digital  portfolios, capstone projects, senior defenses, and other high-school work. 

Ms. Darling-Hammond is president of the Learning Policy Institute, which last week announced a new initiative to promote learning assessments. One of its goals is to create an online platform that would capture a richer, more authentic picture of students’ accomplishments, which colleges could use in admissions, placement, and advising.

Intrigued by the idea, some speakers predicted that the line between secondary-school assessments and admission requirements would become more blurry. Yet one enrollment chief in the audience wondered whether many admissions staffs would have the time and resources to review all those portfolios. In an age of ever-increasing application totals, the need for efficiency, she said, is “a very real obstacle to all this.”

In a tweet prompted by the session, one admissions dean said innovation carries uncertainty: “Not many [enrollment] professionals are seeking to increase their current level of institutional — or personal — risk.” Another admissions expert tweeted that college rankings, which lean on grades and test scores, work against the adoption of unconventional measures of student potential: “The status quo optimizes things that matter more to U.S. News than to the students’ interests.”

Is there a middle ground in the increasingly intense debate over standardized testing?

Everyone at the conference got a free copy of Measuring Success: Testing, Grades, and the Future of College Admissions (February, Johns Hopkins University Press). Two admissions officials who had read the new book described it as a balanced examination of the merits and drawbacks of standardized tests — and test-optional policies.

Others were suspicious. Two of the book’s editors are employed by the College Board; the third is Jack Buckley, who used to work for the organization (and who helped redesign the SAT).

In his talk, Mr. Buckley, now senior vice president at the American Institutes for Research, neither endorsed nor rejected possible alternatives, such as performance assessments. Yet he did sound a note of caution. “Keep in mind that in almost any of these new approaches are these unintended or unanticipated consequences,” he said. “Even something that we think we know, like [high-school] grades … may need to be revisited if your goal is really to make the system work better.”

Sure enough, one of the book’s chapters was written by the authors of a recent study on high-school grade inflation. The College Board described these findings last year in “sponsored content” published by The Atlantic (you can read an expert’s skeptical analysis of the study here).

All the back and forth about the value of admissions-entrance exams can leave a reader dizzy, though. The debate often boils down to extremes (standardized tests are the best measures of merit, standardized tests are useless). The real questions, for any college, are: What does your own institutional research tell you? How well do test scores predict outcomes on your campus? And does your testing requirement (or test-optional policy) help your campus meet its diversity goals — or not?

“It’s your institution,” one enrollment official tweeted during the conference, “and you should do what’s right for you.”

What’s stopping the nation’s most-selective colleges from enrolling more low-income and underrepresented students?

With great enthusiasm, James G. Nondorf described his vision for the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, the organization that runs a shared application platform used by more than 100 colleges. Over time, he expects that the application (now in its second admissions cycle) will prompt participating colleges to experiment, giving applicants “other ways of presenting their story besides a 400-word college essay.” He also said the platform would help expand — and diversify — applicant pools at member colleges.

Jerome A. Lucido, Cerpp’s executive director, asked Mr. Nondorf a good question: “What’s the commitment to actually take more low-income students, to take more students of diversity that we haven’t taken in the past?”

Mr. Nondorf, vice president for enrollment and student advancement at the University of Chicago, said his institution is committed to doing just that. “I would actually push back a little bit, though,” he said. “I would rather take 1 percent less, but treat them well, graduate them well, fund them well. It’s not just numbers, it’s helping the students and fully supporting them.”

Later, Mr. Nondorf suggested that qualified underrepresented applicants who can thrive at highly selective colleges are in short supply. That’s something deans at high-profile institutions often say. And it raises the question of whether admissions offices aren’t looking hard enough for promising students, are too fixated on test scores, or just aren’t admitting that many nonwhite, lower-income, first-generation students. Or all of the above. 

Youlonda Copeland-Morgan, vice provost for enrollment management at the University of California at Los Angeles, delivered a passionate rebuttal to the just-not-enough-to-go-around refrain. “I keep hearing colleges say, ‘We can’t find these kids,’” she said. “And I am tired of hearing that.” In the end, she said, increasing campus diversity is matter of institutional will. Her mic-drop-worthy remarks drew, by far, the loudest applause heard at the conference. 

In a field defined by metrics, how can people keep their eyes on the big picture?

Whenever enrollment leaders get together, they talk, naturally, about enhancing processes and improving metrics. Yet some like to think about big-picture issues, too. Like helping their staffs serve the needs of an increasingly diverse nation.
To that end, Darnell Cole, associate professor of education at Southern California, urged admissions officials to understand their biases — and how those biases might shape their admissions policies and practices. “Think about how your blind spots limit your vision,” he said.

Flying home, I kept thinking about something else Mr. Cole had said. I kept thinking about it even as I plowed through Measuring Success, with its many charts and footnotes. The book, informative and dense, is surely something any admissions official should read (with all due skepticism). But love it or hate it, the book provides a clinical rendering of standardized tests and their peculiar power.

Mr. Cole offered a human reminder of their limits. The eloquent scholar, who is black, has published more than 25 articles and book chapters. He earned two bachelor’s degrees, a master’s, and a Ph.d. And he said he took rigorous courses in high school.

During his talk, Mr. Cole asked the audience to guess whether he had cracked 1000 on the SAT, which would have been the average score at the time. “Yes!” a few people in the crowd called out. Nope, the professor said, he had come up a little short.

Eric Hoover writes about admissions trends, enrollment-management challenges, and the meaning of Animal House, among other issues. He’s on Twitter @erichoov, and his email address is [email protected]