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The College Admission Year In Review

Brennan Barnard
Every New Year’s Eve, my father poses a question. It is simply stated, but complex in response: 
“What was the greatest advancement or change this year?” 

Everyone gathered has to contribute a suggestion and then as a group we vote on the winner. Over more than forty years, there were some obvious advancements, such as the internet or iPhone, and others that in retrospect seem elementary (remember the original “car phone”?). Changes have run the gamut, from progress in human rights to wars to the climate. Rarely does my contribution earn the most votes, but the process of considering innovation and change is rewarding nonetheless. 

It has been a doozy of a year in college admission with scandals, investigations, and lawsuits (oh my). Even so, I thought I would pose my father's question to leaders in college admission and high school counseling to hear their ideas on the greatest advancements and changes in admission this year. Two themes emerged: changes in standardized testing and the ethical compass of college admission.
Standardized Testing
Testing in college admission is an age-old and perennial issue that is frequently debated, scorned, and researched. Some question the predictive validity of using standardized tests, and others have pointed out inherent inequities in preparation and performance on these high stakes assessments. In his book published in September, The Years That Matter MostPaul Tough does a great job of giving context for standardized testing, its past, and current use.  
 
Daniel Evans, director of college counseling at the William Penn Charter School explains that “this year, changes with standardized testing will save families money and could increase access to college.” A chorus of voices of both high school counselors and college admission officers agree. Evans explains that more and more colleges and universities are moving away from requiring SAT Subject tests while increasingly allowing self-reported test scores in 2019. Instead of paying ACT and the College Board to send official results to every college to which a student is applying, many schools now allow applicants to simply report scores directly (which will be verified if a student is admitted and enrolls). Julie Kerich, director of admission at Franklin and Marshall College says “families already spend far too much money on the college application process (testing, test prep, applications, score submission, etc).” Removing these extra costs is a step towards reducing the barriers to accessing higher education. Moira McKinnon, director of college counseling at Berwick Academy, points out that this change has the added benefit that “counselors don't have to deal with stressed-out kids waiting for the College Board to send the scores.”

Another undeniable trend in standardized testing in 2019 was the ever-growing test-optional movement. Jonathan Burdick, formerly the vice provost for enrollment initiatives at the University of Rochester specifically identifies the “test-optional-but-selective colleges,” who added these student and access friendly policies this year. Under Burdick’s leadership, Rochester became test-optional as part of their holistic admission review. Now vice provost for enrollment at Cornell University, he also highlights the “stunning proposition that the University of California might become test-optional soon.” 

Diane Campbell, director of college counseling at Liberty Common High School cautions that “we have much work to be done in this area. It's still not perfect as students are overwhelmed with what is expected of them when it comes to testing.” She also points out that “in some high schools where counselors do not receive updates or supportive professional development to inform students can be a huge barrier and deterrent.” She adds, “test-optional can be a great option for so many students, but what is the reality of how schools are informing students/parents about it?” For example, Campbell says, “in Colorado, we have a large number of students who opt-out of the writing section simply because they don't know they should take it. Because we give the SAT in Colorado, many students don't take the ACT, because they don't know it's a widely accepted test.” 

Another change concerning testing in 2019 that Cornell’s Burdick identifies was the controversy surrounding the College Board’s “Landscape” tool (initially called the Environmental Context Dashboard). He says, “it was almost derailed by a misaligned reveal in the Wall Street Journal, but has persisted to become one of the best things College Board has done recently, helping admission offices to better ensure that they will review test scores in the context of each applicant's school and neighborhood.” Is this change perfect? No. But it does provide an opportunity to look at the bigger picture of reviewing candidates for admission.

Ethics
Andy Borst, director of undergraduate admission at the University of Illinois at Urbana/Champaign sums it up best, saying that the most significant change in admission in 2019 was brought by “The Notorious D.O.J. (Department of Justice)” Gil J. Villanueva, associate vice president and dean of admission at the University of Richmond agrees, explaining, “the greatest change in college admission this past year will come from the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s (NACAC) agreement to modify its Code of Ethics and Professional Practice (CEPP), which may violate antitrust laws according to the Department of Justice.” Christopher Lydon, vice president for enrollment management and marketing at The Catholic University of America adds that “the CEPP has been a set of guiding principles that have separated ‘admission counseling’ from ‘admission sales.’” Lydon argues that these changes create “even more of a transactional element to a student's enrollment decision, which competes with the need for students and families to carefully weigh "right-fit"—academic, personal, and financial—above all else.”

Robert Massa is the vice president emeritus of enrollment & college relations at Dickinson College and an adjunct professor of higher education at the University of Southern California. He says, “As I look back on this year, unquestionably the biggest change is the elimination of ethical codes that have guided our profession for years and, in spite of the DOJ’s ‘holier than thou’ proclamations, these changes will harm students by putting more pressure on them to make decisions for purely financial considerations that may not be in their best interest. Further, some students will lose financially, because as discounts rise, colleges will be forced to increase their prices even higher—so even with a discount, some will be paying more.” Massa adds, “the DOJ just doesn’t seem to understand that colleges authored these ethical principles of good practice—not NACAC—and that competition among nonprofits increases prices, unlike the private sector where increased production or time-saving technology can reduce prices.” 

Speaking of ethical principles, another huge story in college admission this year was the Varsity Blues scandal where we saw parents and educators with their moral compasses gone astray. The changes that these revelations brought about will have an enduring impact on policies and practices. Debra Johns, an associate director of admission at Yale University says, “the Varsity Blues scandal has made every institution look at the way they verify information that students and others provide on applications and supporting documents to institutions.” She adds that “verification policies and plans have changed significantly.” Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admission at Georgia Tech talks about the larger implication of these stories saying, “public awareness (read: skepticism) about college admission, largely due to the highly visible admissions scandal, increased dramatically.” He explains that “the question for the year ahead is will college admission be able to rebuild public trust and leverage the spotlight to tell a bigger story than that seen on TV or read about in narrow social media feeds?” Liberty Common High School’s Campbell points to the opportunities, saying, “we are discussing difficult and much-needed issues that have been avoided or skirted for many years: affordability, transparency, access and barriers that exist in admissions that are not equitable for students.” She adds, “Varsity Blues made parents discuss some of the concerning issues that exist in the admission process.”

Charles Darwin famously said, “It's not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change.” College admission is forever changing, whether in selectivity, costs, assessment or other practices and policies. The profession must be willing to adapt to these changes and embrace opportunities to improve on the experience of applying to college. From testing and ethics to access and affordability, we need to shed what does not serve us and look for new and better ways of educating and admitting in 2020. Whether you are applying to college, helping someone do so, or not, it is valuable for us all to ask: what was the greatest advancement or change this year? How will we adapt to these changes and what changes will we bring about in the year to come?

Brennan Barnard
Director of College Counseling & Outreach, The Derryfield School
College Admission Program Manager, Harvard Graduate School of Education's Making Caring Common Project
for www.forbes.com
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