Do We Need New Metrics in College Admissions?

In a guest post today, James Jump examines conventional measures of merit and quality in college admissions. Mr. Jump is academic dean and director of guidance at St. Christopher’s School, in Richmond, Va.

The college-admission process is about identifying and attempting to measure human potential. But are we measuring the right things? Do we need new metrics? During a session at the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s annual conference, in Toronto, on Saturday, I will help weigh those questions, defining “metrics” broadly.

This discussion will be a follow-up to a previous conference session inspired by the confluence of three looks at the changing landscape of higher education—and its potential impact on the college-admissions and college-counseling profession. Those included the College Board Task Force on Admissions in the 21st Century, NACAC’s strategic-planning process, and the publication of Robert J. Sternberg’s book College Admissions for the 21st Century.

My fellow panelists and I will discuss whether we are measuring the right things in three different areas. The first is noncognitive assessment. We have long known that individual success comes from a combination of academic and personal qualities, and that what is most important is intangible. For years my ambition was to develop a standardized test that would measure motivation, leading to guest appearances on Oprah. Unfortunately, I was neither motivated nor smart enough to create such a test, and now my window of opportunity to appear on the talk show has closed.

There has been much discussion of noncognitive traits such as persistence, perseverance, and passion, which have been lumped together as “grit.” Having a better understanding of those factors will be important as the population of students going to college changes in profound ways during the next decade. Institutions such as Oregon State and DePaul Universities have drawn on the work of William E. Sedlacek, a professor emeritus of education at the University of Maryland at College Park, and tried to incorporate noncognitive assessment into their admissions processes.

Last January the Center for Enrollment, Policy, and Practice at the University of Southern California held a conference devoted to noncognitive assessment. One of the featured speakers was Charles Lovelace, executive director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Morehead-Cain Scholars Program, which has done significant research into the qualities that lead a scholarship recipient to become a difference-maker once on the campus. One interesting finding: Possessing a “growth mind-set,” as described by Carol S. Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, is an important predictor of student engagement.

The second area for discussion is 21st-century skills. Education thought-leaders have argued that today’s college graduates will need creativity, collaboration, empathy, technological savvy, and a global perspective to succeed. How are colleges incorporating those skills into their curricula and into their admissions processes? Several years ago at a counselor’s breakfast with admissions officers from Harvard, Stanford, Duke, Penn, and Georgetown, I asked what discussion about 21st-century skills was taking place on their campuses and in their offices. The answer was “none.”

There are exceptions, of course. Lee Coffin, dean of undergraduate admissions at Tufts University, has added a series of application essays to measure creativity and other skills, augmenting the information provided by traditional measures such as high-school grades and SAT scores. Tufts was also a pioneer in allowing students to submit videos as part of the application package. Lee’s distinction between data and voice in the selective admissions process is both enlightening and profound.

The final arena for asking whether we are measuring the right things involves gauges of institutional quality. Why are admissions statistics such as application numbers, admission rate, and yield considered measures of quality? It’s easy to criticize U.S. News & World Report’s rankings, but college presidents and boards, as well as bond-rating agencies, are just as guilty of treating institutional popularity as an indicator of quality. Admissions statistics may be easy to measure, but they are also easy to manipulate, as evidenced by the epidemic of good institutions that recently admitted to having misrepresented their admissions statistics.

The focus on input measures is partly because it is difficult to measure output, but ranking “America’s Best Colleges” without measuring the educational experience is like ranking “America’s Best Churches” without any concern for spiritual growth. The Gen X parent is going to demand data and evidence to show educational value, and we can expect federal and state governments to pressure colleges to develop metrics that measure outcomes or added value (gainful employment) from a college education. Tools like the Collegiate Learning Assessment and the National Survey of Student Engagement are good starts.

The question “Are we measuring the right things?” suggests broader philosophical questions. What constitutes merit? How do we distinguish between merit and privilege? Do we measure what we value, or do we value what is easy to measure?

Mr. Jump’s panel, “College Admission and Counseling in the 21st Century—Do We Need New Metrics?,” is scheduled for 8:30 on Saturday morning. He will be joined by Mr. Coffin, from Tufts, and Mr. Lovelace, from Chapel Hill.

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