It's the college admissions decision season, a time when colleges and universities beat their chests with statistics for their incoming freshmen classes. Class rank, GPA, standardized test scores, racial diversity, socio-economic diversity are all bragging points for many of these schools. But in the midst of all this self-aggrandizement, one term you probably won't hear referenced is neurodiversity.
Neurodiversity is a concept that stresses the need to recognize neurological differences like Dyslexia, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and matters that fall along the Autism Spectrum. Despite a growing amount of research, very few, if any, colleges and universities even recognize the term neurodiversity let alone display any specific information on how it factors into consideration for admissions. "For university admissions offices, the so-called "epidemic" of autism may offer an opportunity," wrote Diane Krieger in the 2013 Summer issue of USC Trojan Family Magazine. "Recruiters see a promising pool of applicants who can bring unexpected ideas and single-minded focus." Sadly, admissions offices seem to be falling short ... way short.
I know this firsthand. One of my sons has Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form of autism. In his case, Asperger's manifests itself through a certain degree of brilliance in math and music. It also presents sizable challenges. His primary Common Application essay dealt, in part, with challenges he's faced with Asperger's, and his high school counselor's letter also addressed how he has succeeded in dealing with Asperger's.
My son recently applied to and was rejected by my alma mater. For our purposes, let's call it the University of Narrow Diversity or ND for short. While his SAT scores (1490 combined with a nearly perfect math score) were near the top 75th-percentile of last year's incoming freshman class at the school, his GPA was a half-point below last year's average (3.82 on a 4.5 scale).
Looking for a better understanding, I corresponded with various individuals at the school, including the university's associate vice president for Undergraduate Enrollment, the provost and even the president. Here's a sample of some of the replies I received.
Based on his GPA, my son was "not performaing [sic] yet at a level that represents he should be enrolled at (insert school's name)."
The Office of Admissions considers diversity beyond "race and income." Oddly, the school's website stated "students are admitted to the University on the basis of their academic and personal records of achievement, not their financial circumstances." (After I raised this issue, the relevant page on the school's website was updated and no longer includes that verbiage.)
The university, based on national research, is aware of a supposed socio-economic bias in the SAT that favors children from wealthier families and "is less predictive on lower income kids."
The university has admitted students with Asperger's and is "interested in enrolling students who have overcome all manner of hardships and disabilities."
People with Asperger's don't overcome it. They attempt to overcome challenges associated with the disease, but it never leaves them. Anyone with even the slightest understanding of Asperger's knows people who suffer from it struggle with organizational skills, challenges with completing simple daily tasks and difficulties responding to changes in routine, among other things. Often their grades suffer slightly as a result of these challenges. That doesn't mean these individuals are incapable of doing quality work in the classroom. To the contrary, they often outperform their peers in certain classes and can offer genuinely unique perspectives.
There's no guarantee my son would have been admitted even with special consideration for Asperger's. But the university's responses clearly indicate neurodiversity doesn't simply pale in comparison to other preferences like race and socio-economic status. Just because the school has previously admitted students with Asperger's and now has a pilot program for current students with Asperger's doesn't mean there's an understanding of Asperger's or that the admissions office even considers forms of neurodiversity. The College Common Application, which is used by the University of Narrow Diversity and many other schools, has no box to check for someone suffering from any form of neurodiversity such as Asperger's. Of course, there is a spot on the application specifically to self-report one's race, and the University of Narrow Diversity routinely showcases admissions data pertaining to students of color but none related to neurodiversity.
If schools continue to offer special treatment to applicants in order to achieve those goals or quotas for racial and socio-economic diversity, then they should do the same for neurodiversity. In their quest to marry racial and socio-economic goals with exceptionally high GPAs, class ranks and standardized test scores, colleges and universities have ironically become less diverse in other areas. And they are missing opportunities to admit truly brilliant individuals who could help the schools reflect, and the students learn from, the many forms of diversity those students will encounter after graduation - in their workplaces, their communities and maybe even their own homes.
Another option would be to eliminate all forms of affirmative action in the college admissions process. But that's for another discussion or perhaps a Supreme Court ruling.
Rob Hahn, of St. Paul, Minnesota, is a 1991 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.