Colleges make it easier for students to show , not tell, in their applications

TOWSON, Md. — Madeline McDonough had a wistful “what if?” moment, pondering the offer that her school, Goucher College, has made to applicants: Instead of showing us your grades, send us a video.

“I really wish there had been options like that when I was applying to college,” said Ms. McDonough, 19, a junior studying sociology. “I didn’t have the best numbers, and I was stressed, worrying about how to show that I deserved the same opportunities as anyone else.”

Under the policy announced this month by Goucher, a 1,400-student liberal arts college near Baltimore, a prospective student may apply by submitting two pieces of work (at least one of them a graded high school writing assignment) and a two-minute video, rather than a high school transcript. José A. Bowen, Goucher’s new president, readily admits that he has no idea how many applicants will go that route, how many will be accepted or whether they will work out.

“This is an experiment, and there are plenty of reasonable objections,” he said. “We’re going to track these students, and we’ll really know in a year. If the kids who did video apps do worse than others, we’ll stop. If they do just as well or better, colleges around the country will be doing it.”

Students, parents and academics have long complained that competition for admission to highly selective colleges has become an overwhelming ordeal that favors bright but conventional, privileged worker bees over peers whose trials or quirks have gotten in the way of school. That is one of the criticisms in a much-discussed new book, “Excellent Sheep,” by William Deresiewicz, and a growing number of colleges have tried to address it.

As recently as the 1990s, there were only a handful of selective colleges that did not demand to see applicants’ ACT or SAT scores, but now there are dozens, including Bowdoin, Smith, Holy Cross, Brandeis, Wake Forest and the University of Texas, and more join the list every year. In the last few years, some top colleges have invited students to supplement their applications with a video.

Last year, Bard College went a step further, making transcripts optional, offering the alternative of an entrance exam consisting of four 2,500-word essays on a choice of scholarly topics, graded by professors. Now, Goucher, which was already test-optional, has raised — or lowered — the stakes, with a far less rigorous option.

On Wednesday, Bennington College announced that an applicant may submit a collection of work rather than a standard application. While the college would prefer that the submission include a transcript, it is not absolutely required.

The change at Goucher is characteristic of Dr. Bowen, a charismatic jazz musician and composer who took over the college in July. He bubbles with ideas about how to make higher education better and more inclusive, and talks about doing away with grades, having students declare a mission rather than a major, and coming up with new ways to assess how students grow. The video application drew scattered charges that Goucher’s move was a lowering of standards, a gimmick to draw attention and more applications, or both.

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Brian C. Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, wrote, “This move sends an awful message to high school students and to a broader public that is already fed a steady diet of nonsense about the nature and value of education.”

Robert J. Sternberg, a professor of human development at Cornell and an author of books on teaching and intelligence, said, “A video can measure creativity, initiative and practical skills in a way a typical standardized assessment does not,” but it is not “a substitute for a high school transcript.”

“The video is also susceptible to bias in scoring,” he added, “for example, with regard to the attractiveness, ethnicity, weight or other perceived physical features of the video maker.”

But in general, reactions in higher education have been muted, with people voicing skepticism rather than condemnation — perhaps because Goucher, which accepts more than 70 percent of its applicants, is not risking the same kind of reputation as the most competitive colleges. Those elite schools still have far more demand than supply, but for other small colleges, this is a nervous time.

The number of college-age Americans is stagnant, consumers object more to rising costs and student debt, and cheaper, online alternatives are growing. Even with private colleges offering discounts, some have had trouble drawing enough students, and many others wonder if that will soon be their lot, too.

Dr. Bowen says Goucher’s new policy does not reflect a concern about enrollment, though the number of applications has slipped in recent years.

It may turn out that few people take Goucher up on the video offer; at Bard, just 41 of almost 7,000 applicants took the no-transcript route last year, though that was partly because it demanded a lot of work. On the Goucher campus, the reaction is largely positive, though here, too, curiosity about the results mingles with skepticism. Students said they would be interested, next year, to meet people who had enrolled at Goucher after submitting video applications, and equally interested to see how they managed academically.

“It accepts that different people have different styles, and that’s part of what Goucher’s about, so it’s an interesting option,” particularly for people interested in visual arts, said Colton Cincotta, a 20-year-old junior. “But is it going to be an easy cop-out for someone who hasn’t really done the work?”

Maria Venturelli, a first-year student, said students mostly liked the video idea, though many of them wondered if two minutes was long enough for an applicant to make an impression, or for the college to make a judgment.

“There is something very genuine about a video,” said Ms. Venturelli, 18. It fits the nature of the admissions process, she said, in which “you have to be a little narcissistic and sell yourself to the college.”

Dr. Bowen said he and the faculty, which endorsed the video applications, were moved by studies showing that many high-achieving students, especially those from low-income families, do not apply to selective schools.

“You have to find a way to encourage people to apply; they need a different kind of invitation, and students by and large have a phone and they understand video,” he said.

“People have learning differences, they mature at different speeds; a lot of great people might have blemishes on the transcript, and think they can’t get in,” he said. “We get mail from teachers thanking us for this, because they have students who want to hang themselves because they got a C in algebra.”

Goucher gives loose guidelines for the videos, and says production values do not matter. It tells applicants to say what they have to offer and why the college appeals to them, and says they will be judged on how clearly and convincingly they express themselves. (If they are admitted, the college will get their transcripts then, if only to know what classes they have already taken.)

The video, Dr. Bowen said, resembles what happens in the real world, in a job interview.

“All things being equal, I’d rather have a transcript,” he conceded. “Let’s say you’re a doctor. All things being equal, you’d rather have all of the tests done on every patient, but you can’t. Each of those tests comes at a cost.”


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