Eroding Colleges’ Reputation? There’s an App for That

In a month when news from academia includes the story of an Idaho State professor literally shooting himself in the foot with a concealed handgun, it takes a lot to win the prize for dumbest move. But, to give credit where credit is due, Goucher College managed to pull it off.

One of the unwritten rules among college administrators is, Don’t publicly criticize the bad decisions of other colleges. Partly that results from allegiance to an increasingly embattled profession, and partly, no doubt, it results from an awareness that we all shoot ourselves in the foot—metaphorically speaking—from time to time.

But I must make an exception.

Recently Goucher announced an option for applicants that would allow them to forgo submitting a high-school transcript, letters of recommendation, and test scores, and instead submit a two-minute, self-made video in which they talk about themselves. There’s even an app for that, the Goucher Video App, which opens with a Goucher student proudly tearing a high-school transcript in two.

This move sends an awful message to high-school students and to a broader public that is already fed a steady diet of nonsense about the nature and value of education.

My preference is to forgo the cynical interpretation of Goucher’s decision—that it is a play for attention—and to take the institution at its word. According to an admissions counselor at the college, “Students are more than just numbers. … We’ve always taken that approach, and this is another step in solidifying it further.” Dismissing the concern that the new application option might attract unqualified students, the same counselor observes that “it’s not going to appeal to students who have low GPAs because they’re lazy.”

How many groups can one simultaneously insult? High-school teachers whose evaluation of students is reduced to “just numbers”? Check. Recommenders who have nothing of substance to add to a student’s videotaped self-assessment? Check. Students whose lower grades reflect traits or issues other than being “lazy”? Check mate.

Here is the fundamental problem. The single greatest challenge faced by American colleges and universities is not the financial model—though that is pretty well broken—but a growing tendency among policy makers and some very privileged people (see Thiel, Peter) to trivialize the nature of education.

The trivialization takes more than one form, sometimes manifesting as a claim that education is reducible to income production, sometimes as a claim that “people skills” such as eye contact and grit are more important to a successful life than, say, reading Emily Dickinson or studying biochemistry. When he was governor of my state, Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty asserted that we were not far from the day when students would receive their college education on an iPhone.

I fully support the notion that college applicants are irreducible to a set of numbers, and I am aware of the data that suggest that standardized-test scores correlate more closely with socioeconomic level than with college performance. I believe that college admissions offices should take a holistic approach to each applicant, considering a range of academic and personal factors.

But the notion that an applicant’s entire set of academic and personal accomplishments can be replaced by a two-minute video “selfie” is both absurd and dangerous. It provides fodder for those who argue that American colleges have gone completely off the rails. It sends the wrong message to students about the importance of working in high school. It demeans the accomplishments of those—both students and teachers—who put an awful lot of effort into producing those transcripts that the Goucher student so casually tears in half.

If one accepts the logic of the Goucher argument, then to be consistent the college should probably consider doing away with its own grades and transcripts as well, and instead ask each student at the time of graduation to describe the value of his or her Goucher education in a short video—maybe three minutes, since college is a bigger deal than high school and would need a bit more time in front of the smartphone to capture in its fullness.

Think about all the time that would be saved by faculty members, who would no longer have to give grades or write letters of recommendation, not to mention the money saved by the elimination of the office of the registrar. And think about how pleased graduate schools and employers would be to accept the videos in place of a set of numbers, letters, and narrative recommendations.

The possibilities are endless.

Brian Rosenberg is president of Macalester College.

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