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Changing college admissions to reflect motivation and ambition

Bard College President Leon Botstein says the higher education admission process is flawed
University Business, January 2014
Leon Botstein says of college admissions: “It’s not an objective process. It’s completely subjective.”
Leon Botstein says of college admissions: “It’s not an objective process. It’s completely subjective.”

Bard College in New York made news last fall when President Leon Botstein announced that prospective students would no longer be required to submit their grades, SAT or ACT scores, teacher recommendations or the typical personal essay. Instead they will now be able to apply to Bard by writing four analytic papers—10,000 words total—chosen from a variety of weighty, thought-provoking topics.

Botstein recently discussed the school’s new system and why he believes the admission process, as a whole, is flawed. “It’s not an objective process. It’s completely subjective,” he says. “And the parents ought to know that.”

How did the change to the admissions process come about?

We didn’t change the admissions process so much as add to it. In other words, students can continue to apply through the Common Application. What we did was create another option because we had become dissatisfied with the way the application process is handled and what we learned from the application process as normally conducted.

What is your objection to the Common Application?

One of the things about the normal application process is that young people want it to be easy and convenient—as it should be. However, as the Common Application became more streamlined, we wanted an application that is more connected to what goes on in college and that has more educational merit.

The answer was to find out whether students are interested and motivated to do the kind of work they would be asked to do in college—not to test what they know, but are they willing to sit down, think about a question, and come up with a response. What is your curiosity? What is your motivation?

That’s the only thing we need to know about a student. We don’t need them to be captain of the baseball team. We don’t need to know whether they are popular, unpopular, or whether they ran for class president, or whether they did some requisite charity work.

How does the process work?

We created an application based on four essays. You have to answer questions in three areas, and you get to double up in the area of your choice. You can choose from science, mathematics, computing, the humanities and the arts and the social sciences.

The questions also signal our values and the connection of learning to life. So it might be a question about lying—whether it’s right to lie—that shows how the intellectual tradition can help people think through these very difficult issues. Then there is a question regarding the relevance and continued significance and appropriateness of the U.S. Constitution. We also ask about art.

People say a picture is worth a thousand words, so we offer a library of images from which you can choose three to write about what you think they represent. There are also a bevy of choices in sciences and mathematics and so on. It appeals to the adulthood, to the maturity and to the ambition of the student.

Some critics wonder how you can be sure the essays are truly the work of the applicant, but a student who had someone else write his or her essay would be in big trouble in Bard’s first year seminar program, which is based around reading and writing.

Right. It’s very connected to our curriculum. It’s like a trial run. This gives you an idea of what it’s all about. It focuses the applicant’s attention on the education, not on how pretty the buildings are or what the extracurricular life is like.

It’s not a country club. We are really appealing to your motivation and ambition. We are targeting the student that has curiosity, motivation and ambition. Those are the three most important things.

What has been the reaction to the new option so far?

We had well over 300 people who have chosen the essay process initially, which is much larger than we thought. We won’t know until January how many people complete the exam. But when we rolled it out we expected the real impact to hit next year, because many seniors were already pretty far along in the process.

It was a risk worth taking. We didn’t know how much upside there would be, since it wasn’t replacing the existing mechanism, but there certainly isn’t a downside. It is also a very nice way to signal what we’re about as an institution.

You were recently quoted saying that you wanted to start a debate about the kind of dishonesty that prevails in college admissions.

Oh, yes. The dishonesty is No. 1. They make students go through hoops when, in fact, most institutions are recruiting.

They give the illusion that they are sort of assessing the person. They are not transparent about what their criteria are for admission and rejection. They don’t want to confess that if you are the daughter of a famous person you are in a different position than if you are the daughter of a public sanitation worker—even if the sanitation worker has inherited money. Do you follow me?

It’s not only a matter of money; it’s a matter of social class and standing.

No one tells the truth that institutions admit students for reasons of their own, not because of the student. They need their distribution of students in every field. They are like a supermarket. There’s an aisle of produce, and an aisle of meat. There’s an aisle of canned goods and an aisle of fruits. And they need customers in all those departments. They can’t have people buying only canned goods while everything else goes to rot.

Every applicant pool in every institution is biased with certain interests. They are looking for balance in the entering class. They need gender balance and ethnic balance. They need regional balance. They have specialty interests. If they are big in sports, they need to stock the teams like a fish tank. But the parents are not told this.

And finally, the most important dishonesty—it doesn’t make a difference where you go to college. It doesn’t at all. It does makes a difference how well you do in college, so it makes a difference to you personally where you feel best.

But it doesn’t make a difference from an external career point of view. When I look at my own children, the question is not what the name on the door is. It’s where are they going to get the biggest head start to improve their self-confidence, their competitiveness, their ambition and their motivation?

People think, “If I want to be a scientist, the only places to go are MIT and CalTech.” Well, not true. Grinnell produced Tom Cech, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Swarthmore produced David Baltimore, who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1975. Harold Varmus, a product of Amherst, won the Nobel in that same category in 1989.

The whole thing is manipulated to be way out of proportion. Where the student ends up in college is an exaggerated variable.

You’ve published a few op-eds over the years where you said: “High school should start earlier and end earlier. And middle school should be discarded.” Why?

It’s simple. America has this ambivalent and paranoid view of maturation. We actually don’t, as a society, like adolescence. And we glorify a mythic notion of pre-sexual childhood. So rather than having a simple system which is age-integrated, where older students and younger students are in the same building and learning in the same environment, we’ve segregated and age-segregated young people.

Instead of the older system, where there’s an elementary and a secondary system, we’ve now created the junior high school/middle school because we want to protect the little innocent children from the pubescent and early sexual development of the middle schooler. And we want to protect that middle schooler from the corrupting influence of older adolescents. The whole thing is nonsensical.

Life is not age-segregated. You and I don’t live in a world where the only people we talk to are within six months of our birth date. So why should schooling be that way? The fact is that I’m for simplification. There should be an elementary system, K-6, and then 7-10, that should be high school.

There’s no acquisition of knowledge that justifies six years. Four is plenty, ending at age 16. And that’s it. Then the student should be deemed as an incipient adult and decide: go to community college, go away to school or take some time off.

Maybe if we had a national service program we could do something—go into the Army, then go to school when their service ends, at their choice. They should be treated as adults, not as big children, which is how most of our high schools treat them. I may be wrong, but at least let’s have an honest conversation.