‘How We Separate Merit From Privilege’

Los Angeles — At a conference hosted by the University of Southern California’s Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice last week, Charles E. Lovelace Jr. uttered the most memorable quote. The next great challenge in college admissions, he said, is “how we separate merit from privilege.”

Mr. Lovelace is executive director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Morehead-Cain Foundation, which annually provides full-ride scholarships to 50 undergraduates. In an article today, I describe how and why the university revamped its selection process, incorporating noncognitive measures of students’ potential. Morehead-Cain is one of many scholarship providers that assess attributes such as character and leadership.

Most colleges, however, have not adopted nontraditional assessments. Why?

On Friday, I moderated a panel with Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik, who asked that question of the admissions officers in the room. He described the “contradictions” he saw: Colleges describe the importance of noncognitive qualities, yet cling to the ACT and SAT, which measure cognitive skills.

To expand on Scott’s good observation, I’d ask colleges why they have not even experimented with other measures of merit, embracing the same trial-and-error process that colleges preach to students. After all, admissions officials often lament the limitations of standardized-test scores, which correlate with race and family income. Where’s the will to innovate?

I’ll take the optimistic (or naïve) view: Just because noncognitive assessments haven’t taken hold in undergraduate admissions does not mean they won’t in the future. After all, tests evolve, and so do peoples’ opinions of what tests should measure. (The mighty SAT, it’s worth remembering, was not handed down from the heavens; once it was just a brand-new invention, based on an informed hunch.)

Changes are visible. Scholarship providers, along with some graduate programs and medical schools, have adopted noncognitive measurements that could provide useful models for undergraduate admissions. And science is delivering new insights into how learning happens, which have implications for assessment design.

For now, practical concerns explain much of the hesitation among admissions officials. Testing companies, for one thing, haven’t provided colleges with a noncognitive assessments for applicants, so institutions must create their own or adapt them from models developed by researchers. That takes work.

Pamela T. Horne, associate vice provost for enrollment management and dean of admissions at Purdue University, has worried about the time and money that new assessments would require. Noncognitive measures, she said, are also susceptible to manipulation, or “coaching,” a concern many of her colleagues share.

It’s not my job to tell colleges which tests to use, but as an observer at this fascinating conference last week, I overheard objections to noncognitive assessments that also apply to conventional assessments: They’re “not perfect,” they “help some students more than others,” and they “don’t add much beyond high-school GPA.” Coaching is a valid concern, for sure, but the form of coaching known as test preparation hasn’t prompted most colleges to wash their hands of the SAT.

Looking ahead, one can either accept or reject Mr. Lovelace’s premise. If separating merit from privilege is a college’s goal, then enrollment leaders must ask themselves if they have the best tools for achieving that goal. If not, they have a choice: They can find, develop, or demand new tools, or they can keep wielding the ones they’ve got.

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