By Jamilla Jamison
Reading season is both an exciting and exhausting time for me (probably also for many of my colleagues as well). Every year I’m blown away by all the amazing things our students are able to do while still managing to succeed in rigorous curricula.
I’m impressed by the extent by which they engage with their respective school communities. Our students are athletes, musicians, and leaders. They start clubs, and learn to become advocates and sources of support for their peers. Some of them stretch to take college courses, connect with professionals through internships and similar opportunities, and even spend significant amount of time expanding their minds and skill sets at colleges and universities during summers.
I’m humbled by the incredible amount of grit they show as they deal with difficult situations either at home or at school. Our students experience illness and sometimes loss. They are big contributors to their families, either through a job or by taking on a significant portion of the responsibilities at home. Some manage to commute for hours each day in search of better opportunities for themselves or their families. They are transitioning, discovering their identity, overcoming mental illness, fighting stereotypes and daily microaggressions; basically, making the best with what they’ve got.
Their experiences are inspiring, as are their goals and what they hope to achieve with their degrees. They do so much. And yet, at a time where selectivity in the college admission is at an all-time high, it is frustrating when it seems that they can never do enough.
I think that’s what’s so promising about the “Turning the Tide” report the Harvard School of Education put out back in January. Identified as the first comprehensive effort of its kind, the report brought institutions together in a hope to “reshape the college admission process and promote concern for others and the common good.” These are all great things, and things that leaders from both sides of the desk have been discussing for many years. We all hope our students won’t travel through high school feeling pressure to check all the boxes on a never-ending list, but will choose instead to engage and contribute to their community by pursuing their interests in a balanced way.
Here is my concern: I worry that even as institutions change the message they convey regarding admission (following the recommendations included in “Turning the Tide”), families will pick and choose which parts of the message they need to hold on to. One of the recommendations in the report touches on the fact that, instead of overextending themselves, it can be most beneficial for students to take a smaller number of AP or IB courses. It can be hard, however, for students to convince themselves (and honestly, their families) that it’s ok to do this, especially when it’s possible many of their peers won’t. Similarly, while I’m a big fan of the idea that students should find ways of engaging in meaningful service, I wonder what the actual outcome of this recommendation will be. Will we actually see students find “forms of service that are authentically chosen […] consistent and well-structured, and that provide opportunity for reflection both individually and with peers and adults”, or will we see a string of low-impact, low-commitment opportunities? I worry about the potential for our students to prioritize quantity over quality, which is the exact thing “Turning the Tide” argues against. I also worry about those students that are already incredibly involved, and that give back to their community in other ways, whether it’s through music, leadership, athletics, etc. Will those students now feel that they have to drop one or more of the things they enjoy so they can engage in service, or even worse, feel that they now have to add one more thing to the list of many they already do? I want to stop for a moment and emphasize that the report in no way promotes any of the options I just mentioned, but these are just a few of the things plaguing my mind this evening. Perhaps I’m being pessimistic, but I worry the report could have the unintended consequence of turning the college-application-stress dial in the opposite direction than it intended, at least for the first few years.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m very excited about the potential changes “Turning the Tide” will bring to our offices. I look forward to new policies and practices that further acknowledge all the incredible things our students do. I also hope we are ready to answer many questions, and to support our colleagues from the other side of the desk as we continue to work together to guide students to college.