Will the Coalition for College Success be good for low-income students?
A guest column by Carol Barash, PhD
Just about everyone agrees that the Common Application, whose founding mission in 1975 was to simplify and streamline college admissions and level the playing field, has made US college admissions more centralized, but not simpler. The massive tech failure of the new version of the online Common App in 2013 pushed various groups to explore other options.
When the Coalition for College Success presented its new plan to transform the college admissions gateway at NACAC, there were naysayers in many camps. The Common App’s virtual monopoly, however flawed, patched over a quagmire of inconsistencies that admissions stakeholders are reluctant to give up or to thoroughly think through: one size fits all vs. holistic admissions criteria; admissions favoring the few who can afford to pay for college vs. a level playing field; where students get in vs. what they can afford among them.
These vital discussions around our admissions gateway are part of a much larger rethinking of the role of and pathways through higher education in the 21st century. In that larger context, there are three big ideas in the Coalition’s model that offer fundamental improvements for low-income students:
The portfolio model
This shift in admissions criteria from one standard (transcripts, test scores, diploma) to a “portfolio” model that includes all aspects of coursework, career exploration and community engagement is the most significant change. The Coalition shifted, almost immediately, from calling this a “portfolio” to a “locker,” but the shift is nonetheless substantial and helpful for all students, and especially low-income students from under-resourced schools:
Using the International Baccalaureate model, students reflect on their work each year.
They develop summative work around their core learning as is common in many European high schools.
Students will be able to document real learning outside of school, including summer programs, online courses, work, internships and community service.
They will be able to build a collection of materials–coursework, self-assessments, videos, their own blogs and articles–that more broadly reflect what they have learned and where they are going.
Many schools encourage student reflection and self-assessment throughout high school, as a valid and positive aspect of students’ overall academic record. And as there are more and more opportunities for learning separate from traditional schools, this new model provides a framework to capture pre-college learning in all its forms.
Financial transparency and college completion
To be in the Coalition, private colleges must meet a student’s “demonstrated financial need” and commit to 70% graduation rate for all students in six years or less; public universities must commit to low in-state tuition and offer need-based financial aid.
In a critical article in the Washington Post, Jon Boeckenstedt, associate vice president of enrollment management and marketing at DePaul University, argued that some private college members of the Coalition are among the worst in admitting low-income students, and several of the public university members have very poor graduation rates: “It is one of the dirty secrets of higher education that the most selective and prestigious private universities carry far less share of the load when it comes to enrolling low-income students, especially in light of the enormous wealth they collectively hold.”
But if students are admitted to college without the financial aid or courses and support services to graduate, it doesn’t help them much in the long run. So, yes, the Coalition’s bar is high–aspirational even for many Coalition members–but the basic promise that college must be both affordable and completable for all students is the most significant of the Coalition’s foundational assumptions and one we should all embrace, hard as it may be to implement.
Admissions officers serving as college advisors
The Coalition’s third big idea–that college and university admission officers will step into the breach left by too few college counselors in most public high schools–is another bold step in a good direction. Most people in admissions love high school students; many of them were first-generation students themselves. The more time they spend in local high schools–as teachers, counselors and mentors–the better, so long as they remember that the point of education is not just getting into college, but learning how to learn, innovate and solve problems.
I would argue that the Coalition’s shifts are a solid start in the right direction, but it will take much bolder collective action to change the game of college–to make it both affordable and completable. This is especially true for low-income students. Until there is one fair and shared system for all–one that serves students and families rather than colleges and consultants–let’s extend the Coalition’s bold promises and figure out ways to get more colleges on board.
Dr. Carol Barash, founder and CEO of Story2 and author of Write Out Loud, has been building digital communications tools for over 20 years, and through Story2 teaches the art and science of storytelling to expand college access and career readiness. Have questions about storytelling, college admissions, and life choices? Ask her anything on Twitter @carolbarash.