All Hype and No Substance: How "Turning the Tide" Passes the Buck

01/25/2016 02:42 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

It's a classic case of "wag the dog." Harvard gets national attention for its report, "Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions," and hopes to inspire a more caring and authentic generation of young people. While certainly a noble assessment lending sound advice to college bound students, this report is a smoke screen distracting from the real issues undermining the integrity of the college application process.

Ironically, days before the publication of "Turning the Tide," the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation released a different report. "True Merit: Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges and Universities" focused on what colleges can do differently to level the playing field and change a process that has given distinct advantages to students from privileged and well-connected backgrounds.

Without widespread changes from the top down, the idea of a "level playing field" in higher education is a fallacy. Giving students a high-minded outline for becoming better applicants doesn't change the underlying problem. Institutional biases continue to corrupt a process that should be pure and noble. Instead of admitting the best and brightest, elite colleges stick to an arcane blueprint which is drawn with bold lines favoring certain preferred groups.

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Our elite colleges admit and deny at will under the auspices of "holistic admissions." They don't have to explain why certain demographic groups have significantly lower admit rates than others. The public only sees an overall number, not a breakdown of how some groups are favored or not favored.

The fact is, students who know the realities of the college admissions process are afraid to be authentic. They don't want to be "called out" based on their cultural affiliations or, worse yet, share their real names for fear it will be held against them. Until colleges provide transparency with admit rates, this outright discrimination will continue to define college admissions practices.

"Turning the Tide" barely addresses the role of privilege and money in college admissions. In a glancing approach to this, the report suggests colleges should send out different messaging to ensure students understand that expensive activities and exotic service trips do not add value to their applications. But how will they effectively communicate this?

Colleges could rewrite the rules of admissions and access by embracing the very words directed at students in the Harvard report: "Promoting more meaningful contributions to others, community service and engagement with the public good." If elite colleges gave low income students the information they need, they would bear witness to a groundswell of genuinely great and diverse applications.

But, one look at a college admissions officer's travel itinerary makes perfectly clear which students matter to elite colleges. They visit the same high schools year after year -- those attended by "competitive" students who will drive up application totals and test score averages. The kids at these high schools will seek out elite colleges no matter what. It's the top students at lower performing high schools who won't. They need to see admissions officers in the flesh to believe these institutions truly want them on their campuses.

Harvard's report doesn't address the cost of education, nor does it discuss financial aid. With the exception of a few schools, the majority of the colleges endorsing "Turning the Tide" heavily factor in a student's "ability to pay" when making admissions decisions. At most institutions, applying for financial aid lowers a student's chance of admission.

Finally, "Turning the Tide" overlooks the way elite colleges lower their standards to admit legacies, athletes and well-connected students. We can no longer ignore this common practice that leaves little room for those authentic students the report hopes to cultivate. Until the leadership at elite colleges decides to depart from this practice, the exceptional applicants will need to settle for happy talk and empty encouragement.

"Turning the Tide" beckons our youth to focus on quality and authenticity. What's missing is a call to action for colleges who have been complicit and damaging to the "common good" of youth and opportunity. If colleges want to encourage caring, authentic and ethically-sound students, they need to make sure they are living by the same mantra. It is time to rebuild the playing field of college admissions. It should not only be a level playing field, it should be hallowed ground. To do that, colleges need to come clean about who really gets admitted before students believe that being authentic is more valued than being privileged.