How an Entrenched College Admission System Is Evolving to Consider Character

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series on character education and how character attributes are becoming a factor in secondary and higher education admission. The first part covers independent schools’ trailblazing efforts.

Media coverage of American higher education has been unusually intense in recent years and conveys a sense of crisis on campus. There are mounting concerns about college costs and students’ debt burdens, incidents of sexual assault, the role of for-profit colleges, the perceived high percentage of college students with emotional problems, the reemergence of debates about free speech and racial identity, and the intimidating competition for admission to the most selective colleges.
The latter topic — the thousands of applications to 20-30 “elite” colleges — is not a new concern. With the massive increase of college applicants and the rise of standardized testing after World War II, gaining admittance to schools such as Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford has become a “national competition.” Stanford University, which accepted less than 5 percent of its 55,000 applicants in 2015, is an extreme example.  
We know, too, that colleges and independent schools are inextricably linked in multiple ways.
Independent school educators are college-educated and, as such, are socialized into the cultural ethos of the colleges. Independent schools see “college prep” as an essential part of their missions and, via the admission process, are attached to colleges like umbilical cords. This connection sheds light on how colleges’ admission criteria, particularly standardized testing, affect young people and independent schools.
This piece focuses on the emergence and longevity of the testing monolith, how the college admission process shapes the people who apply, and the current developments that may alter the process and its outcomes.
The Culture of Testing
The 20th century practice of systematic testing for intelligence and academic promise is rooted in a laudatory goal dating back to Thomas Jefferson’s time. Jefferson despised the idea that American’s leadership class would derive from hereditary privilege and wealth. Rather, he argued that we should seek a “natural aristocracy among men” based on “virtue and talents.” 
With the critical need for brain power and advanced skills during World War II and in the Cold War era that followed, government and business pushed for improved ways to find the best talent. At the same time, there was a renewed commitment to enable thousands more Americans to access the American Dream of equal opportunity regardless of family origin or economic station. Standardized testing emerged as a vital vehicle to find the brightest Americans for jobs and an important avenue for deciding who should be admitted to America’s best colleges. The SAT, which was created in 1926, came into its own in 1948 when the Educational Testing Service was chartered. Subsequently, the SAT became a way to determine the qualifications of college applicants across the nation. 
Cultural and demographic changes after the war also shaped the system. The number of colleges and universities expanded, as did the number of college applicants. Colleges needed a manageable, valid, and defensible way to discriminate among candidates for admission and turned to standardized means: students’ grade point averages and SAT scores, augmented later by ACT scores. These cognitive measures gained traction because college admission officers could compare them across schools and students.
The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
The current admission system is grounded in a fundamental principle: What the colleges ask for is what they get.
College admission offices and the testing organizations — the gatekeepers — set the criteria for admission. These, in turn, shape the behaviors of students, parents, and secondary schools with many consequences.
First, students, parents, and schools place a high priority on securing impressive numbers. For students, it means spending a lot of late nights intensely preparing for tests to get good grades in the most rigorous subjects. For students and parents, it also means spending time and money on test prep and tutoring for the SAT or ACT. For many families, it means sending their child to an independent school. One might ask: Is shooting for the highest numbers the best use of a family’s resources? Also, how do families with limited financial resources participate in this world?
Second, the system affects how young people define themselves as successful. Gaining acceptance to a selective and prestigious college is a marker event for students. Whether you get in, or not, is a defining dimension of personal identity. The college process is a family matter, too. Madeline Levine, Stanford University psychologist and author of The Price of Privilege (2006), has pointed out that, especially among upper middle class families, being accepted to the right college is part of “family branding.”
In addition, a college degree from a selective college is believed to be a stronger predictor of higher future income than a degree from a less selective school. (In fact, a study conducted by Paul Attewell and Dirk Witteveen at the City University of New York Graduate Center seems to confirm this assumption.) For all these reasons, whether one gets into a selective college becomes how we define the person. One might ask: Is this the real person?
Third, students who achieve success in the system are skilled at answering other people’s questions. The system fosters and rewards this skill. Moreover, it is a powerful example of convergent thinking … and undercuts efforts at schools to foster authentic problem-solving and nurture creativity. One might ask: Is getting the right answers the most important intellectual ability we need in a world that requires fresh answers to intractable social problems?
The reality is that what colleges ask for affects how young people develop and who they become at the end of the process. This is education’s self-fulfilling prophecy.
Most important, this dynamic raises a vital question we must answer as a nation: Does striving for the highest grades and test scores, defining success as admission to a selective college, and becoming an expert at answering other people’s questions serve young people’s interests and the nation’s needs? Many thoughtful observers believe the answer is no.
David Holmes and Bob Massa, executive vice president of Drew University and codirector of the Institute on Character and Admission, chat about the challenges of the college admission process and opportunities for change. (5:10)
The Character Movement
Leading educators are looking to rely less on cognitive-based measures and more on character attributes when choosing among applicants. Several initiatives have taken hold:
  • The test-optional movement, inspired by Bill Hiss at Bates College in Maine and others in the 1980s, now has more than 950 participating colleges. In assessing the qualifications of students who do not submit scores on a standardized test, these colleges look for a wide range of attributes, including character strengths. 
  • Many college admission offices, including those at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and MIT, are experimenting with how to elevate character attributes (perseverance, grit, generosity, optimism, etc.) in making decisions.
  • The Common Application, which enables students to apply to multiple colleges with a single form, has incorporated non-cognitive attributes in the application through specific essay prompts. One prompt from 2015-2016 was: “The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”
  • The “Turning the Tide” project, led by Rick Weissbourd at Harvard University, is enlisting colleges and high schools that aim to elevate service and caring in secondary education and in college admission. Participating college admission deans see the project as an avenue for identifying applicants who demonstrate an authentic commitment to serving others. The project has been bolstered by a recent grant from the Templeton Foundation aimed to develop more effective ways to assess and motivate ethical character, resilience, and perseverance in the college admission process.
  • The Institute on Character and Admission includes admission deans from the nation’s most selective colleges. Members include Amherst College in Massachusetts, Bucknell College in Pennsylvania, Carnegie Mellon University, Drew University in New Jersey, Duke University, MIT, Pomona College in California, Princeton University, Santa Clara University in California, Swarthmore College, the University of Denver, the University of Rochester in New York, and Wesleyan University in Connecticut.
  • The College Board, ACT, and the Educational Testing Service (ETS) are currently studying how to understand and assess the non-cognitive domain and are experimenting with how to include non-cognitive attributes in test design.
  • As noted in the first blog, the Enrollment Management Association has piloted the new Character Skills Assessment, which is a tool for potential use in the independent school admission process. This instrument, which uses the expertise of research scientists at ETS, is likely to influence admission reform in higher education.
These promising developments bode well for independent school educators — indeed all educators — aiming to recognize and strengthen non-cognitive attributes.
David Holmes and Bob Massa of Drew University conclude their conversation about how character can play a beneficial role in choosing college applicants. (5:25)

More to Come
The final blog in this series will explore the anatomy of admission reform and how educators are working together to ensure character attributes return to a central position in education.
David Holmes
David Holmes

David Holmes is cofounder and codirector of the Institute on Character and Admission. He was a professor and academic administrator at the University of Vermont and served as head of Suffield Academy (CT) and Community School (ID). He can be reached at


Blog post currently doesn't have any comments.

To post a comment, please log in.

Click here to log in