This past January, Harvard University published a report detailing the cultural message received by high school students that personal success is more important than concern for community service, involvement and a genuine interest in helping other people. When it comes to applying for college, concern for the common good and other people is drowned out in the race to gather as many accolades as possible. The report describes how often the college admissions structure itself contributes to this problem. However, Harvard contends that college admissions is in a unique position of power to send messages that contrast those of existing selfishness.
The study, and its overall message, is absolutely correct: In a time when economic inequality exerts the greatest effect on the American landscape, university admissions processes must learn to look past superficial awards tied to income and location — like AP scores or special clubs — to reward those students who redefine achievement in a way that creates greater equity and access in their communities. Thankfully, our own University actually serves as an example of this positive action. More universities should adopt USC’s mission to increase campus diversity by using a more holistic approach to admissions, that emphasize other aspects than test scores and traditional extracurricular activities.
The report takes up three challenges — how college admissions can motivate high school students to contribute to others in more authentic and meaningful ways, more meaningfully assess students’ contributions to their communities and redefine achievements that level the playing field for economically disadvantaged students. Moreover, Harvard suggests a decreased emphasis on standardized testing, which reflects a growing movement in higher education toward making assessments optional in an effort to reduce the pressure to earn high scores. In fact, studies are largely inconclusive about the correlation between SAT scores and success in college — what is more verified is that SAT scores can be linked to income inequality, where wealthier students are more likely to earn high scores that are appealing to admissions counselors than poorer students, with no real prediction of how they’ll perform in a college course.
Although it still accepts standardized test scores, USC, among other universities, has fully embraced Harvard’s call for an admissions process to admit students who demonstrate care for their communities and an emphasis on admitting students from economically diverse backgrounds, who may have been previously overlooked during the admissions process.
In many communities, students lack access to key academic opportunities and resources, such as Advanced Placement courses or extracurricular activities, and instead are expected to vitally contribute to their families in ways that are not measured by traditional admissions processes — also a form of community involvement. So far as our own University’s admissions system goes, it appears these needs have been taken into account. As USC Provost Michael Quick noted in a luncheon with first-generation college students who had recently moved into campus housing, the skills these students already possess from their life experiences put them ahead at USC — and are skills he hopes all students possess by the time they graduate. He specifically points out skills these students have utilized for years, “How to make the right decisions with limited information, how to deal with failure. How to motivate yourself, how to care about others, how to give back to make society better than it is today.”
Overall, the admissions process at universities within the United States should change the way they examine extracurricular activities and alter their admissions requirements to emphasize a greater commitment to students’ communities. By examining non-traditional activities like family commitments or meaningful volunteer engagements, universities can greater expand opportunities to first generation college students or students from economically diverse backgrounds. Moreover, by emphasizing quality involvement with activities over quantity, and decreasing the importance of standardized exams like the SAT or ACT, universities can lessen the pressure on high school seniors to overextend themselves.
Julia Lawler is a senior majoring in history and social science education. Her column, “Get Schooled,” runs Fridays.