THE BLOG
02/17/2016 03:02 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2017

It's Time to Rethink How We Evaluate Students for Higher Education

Higher education is starting to question how students are admitted and what it means to be "college-ready." Our current system of evaluating college applications was built in the 1920s at Ivy League institutions, and while the world has changed tremendously since then, our evaluation methods haven't. A few weeks ago, Harvard University released a report, "Turning the Tide," calling on colleges and universities to give students credit for their work toward service and the common good. The report challenges colleges to rethink their admissions processes and to find ways to bring to the table students who don't traditionally consider higher education.

This report represents a much-needed change in our current system of applying to American colleges and universities. It calls into question our current evaluation methods and what it means to be successful in college. Throughout my career, I've admitted hundreds of students with academic profiles that highly selective colleges might deem "unprepared" for college. Some didn't have the perfect SAT scores, and others weren't in the top of their class. Yet they had other qualities and characteristics that made them rise to the top. Some students persevered against all odds. Others allowed their curiosity to guide them into academic and co-curricular projects that transformed communities. Some had extraordinary levels of empathy and channeled that energy toward serving others. These qualities can't be overlooked. Even though these students didn't have the highest test scores, they worked hard and persisted. Among these (now) graduates are Fulbright Scholars, doctors, lawyers, activists, Peace Corps Fellows, Ph.D. candidates, and White House staffers.

My own story defies traditional measures of admissions evaluation. A first-generation college student, I overcame a poverty-stricken childhood, did well in class, and excelled in extracurriculars. My SAT scores were abysmal, and I went to one of the lowest-performing high schools in New York City. A traditional admissions evaluation lens never would have predicted my journey to a Ph.D. or my current position as a vice president at a top liberal arts college.

In our own effort to lead a more purposeful and student-focused admissions process, Trinity has made several changes to the way it evaluates students. In October, we announced we would no longer require standardized tests for admission. Research shows that standardized tests are not the best predictors of success in college (high school grades and rigor are). In my own experience working at test-optional institutions, I also know that dropping the SAT requirement allows otherwise high-achieving students to consider applying to schools they never would have considered.

We also began taking a closer look at students' personal characteristics, which the traditional admissions formula does not take into consideration. Students who show grit, optimism, curiosity, persistence, and the ability to overcome adversity, and who engage in future dreaming are among those who research has proven are most likely to succeed. We are working closely with school counselors and teachers to understand which of our applicants exhibit these qualities and giving them extra consideration in our process. It's important to remember that while the college student experience is primarily academic, it takes much more than book savvy, memorization, and regurgitation for a student to graduate. We should give students credit for skills that will help them thrive.

We are also asking students to write a reflective essay about Trinity College in our application. Many colleges fear doing this because it could mean losing applications. Those students with less "skin in the game" won't want to write the essay, and we know this could mean a smaller applicant pool as a result. The college admissions process is a time for reflection, and students should take the time to write not only about themselves but about why they want to attend particular institutions. Colleges and universities should build their applications as a tool for learning and reflection, not just a checklist to be completed.

I'm keenly aware that some of the changes to make our admissions process more student-focused may be viewed negatively by the outside world. Organizations such as U.S. News and World Report and Moody's bond ratings evaluate colleges favorably for receiving more applications, increasing SAT scores, and denying more students. Our society has bought into the notion that more applications and increased selectivity equates to academic excellence and prestige. Getting into college has become less about learning and more about winning. It's time for colleges to take bold steps toward changing the admissions process. Let's widen the conversation about who gets in, and more importantly, how.