The 'Best and Brightest' Aren’t Always Obvious

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

July 21, 2014

I was born in Ponce, Puerto Rico, to parents whose aspiration of overcoming poverty and giving their children a better opportunity led them to New York. Our version of the American dream began in the projects of the South Bronx during one of the most dangerous times in the borough’s history. Violence, drugs, poverty, and pollution were everywhere.

One of my most vivid childhood recollections was watching my mother cry as she sat at our kitchen table. She had no idea where she was going to find a dollar to buy milk the next day. That was the moment I realized something was different about my family, and as I grew older I learned we were poor. My first few years in New York, I slept on a cot in the hallway where I heard rats rummaging through the walls each night.

By the time I was 14 years old, I had witnessed several murders and twice was a passenger in the back seat of a police car. During my first year in high school, I was stabbed during a robbery attempt and held up at gunpoint. One day, as I walked out of the Bronx public library holding a copy of my assigned reading for class—Pride and Prejudice—I was assaulted by a group of young men. I landed in the hospital with broken bones and serious eye wounds. To this day, I can’t bring myself to read that book.

A high-school counselor and an admission officer saved my life. Midway through my high-school career, a guidance counselor who thought I had potential made sure I went to college presentations in the area, met with admission officers who visited, and even paid for me to visit some colleges. My life changed the day an admission officer came to speak with me about her school. The way she brought college to life and painted a picture of all that was possible changed my aspirations. Most important, she and her team took a huge chance on me.

My grades were mediocre at best, and I attended one of the poorest-performing schools in New York City. Don’t even ask about my SAT scores; "abysmal" might be a good SAT word to describe them. All traditional measures predicting success pointed toward the fact that I wouldn’t make it through college. Statistically, I had very little to offer the college, except experience in overcoming adversity and genuine motivation to work hard. The college ignored the fact that I would bring down all its averages.

When I received my admit letter and financial-aid award, I vowed to spend the rest of my life paying it forward. I just wasn’t sure how.

I now serve as a leader at a similar institution of higher education. Every day, my life experiences inform my work, and I think about how to help young people who share a similar story to mine. As the years go by, however, I grow increasingly concerned. We seem to care more about the numbers we report to our boards, the government, and U.S. News than we do about individual students applying. Admitting kids that share my story is riskier these days. Take too many and your average GPA or SAT scores decrease. There goes your board report and U.S. News ranking. Admit students who don’t have the best stats and you might damage your yield and retention numbers. There goes your Moody’s bond rating.

At a time when the White House is paying a lot more attention to the work of higher education and challenging selective colleges in America to solve the problem of "undermatching," almost no one is dealing with what really impedes access. Are colleges going to change current metrics used to define "success" in an effort to create more opportunity? Are external agencies (including the federal government) going to rate colleges favorably when they admit more students whose numbers don’t measure their true potential? Until we see a fundamental shift in how we define institutional success, we will continue excluding millions of deserving young people from higher education. Are we willing to lose an entire generation of students because we feel pressure to keep good statistics?

In my own effort to create a change at Pitzer College, I have altered the way I present ideas to the president, board of trustees, and faculty. I make it a point to bring statistics to life. I share stories and take pride in qualifying data. I show videos that students submit and projects they present in their applications. I share snippets of recommendation letters highlighting how overcoming adversity equips students with life skills that will aid them in college. I help clarify why some of our data look different than our peers’ and why it’s important to not follow the trend but chart our own path.

In the year ahead, I am going to lead my campus in a meaningful conversation about the definition of academic talent and how we want to shape our community in the future. This conversation is not going to be steeped in statistics. Rather, we will explore the diverse experiences, backgrounds, and talents that all young people can bring to our campus. Our faculty will propose myriad ways to measure talent and predictability for success. We’ll explore and discuss research on how overcoming adversity develops skills used for success in college. Most important, we will think critically about creating pathways for students traditionally underserved in higher education. Together, we will decide how to evaluate them based on the totality of their strengths—not just what their numbers tell us.

Colleges need to explore new and creative ways of defining what constitutes the "best and brightest." If higher education does not broaden its scope, we will continue to exclude many students whose stories are not best represented by traditional academic measurement, and a generation of young people capable of making significant contributions to the world will be lost.

Those of us in higher-education leadership must realize that our success should not be measured by how attractive our numbers look, or how selective we’ve helped our institutions become. It certainly shouldn’t be measured by how many points we help our institutions climb in the rankings. The true measure of our collective success should be how we manage to include the experiences of all Americans in higher education. Together, we can transform a generation.

Angel B. Pérez is vice president and dean of admission and financial aid at Pitzer College. This essay is adapted from a keynote address he delivered at the annual meeting of the Boards of Cooperative Educational Services of New York State.