Report calls for changes to 'de-escalate' the admissions process

Critics say plan focuses only on privileged applicants

About 85 college admissions chiefs, educators, and high school leaders announced support for a unified effort to curb college applicant stress, but critics say the plan addresses issues only the elite and wealthy face.

"Turning the Tide" calls for colleges and universities to put more emphasis on the quality of community service and academic engagement than on long lists of extracurricular activities and Advanced Placement enrollments. 

"We are trying to de-escalate the admissions competitions, the arms race," says Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard University Graduate School of Education senior lecturer whose research inspired the plan. "Stopping an epidemic requires collective action," he says.

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The plan also recommends new messages for students: avoid appearing "over-coached", don't feel obligated to describe more than three extracurriculars, and don't take entrance exams more than twice.

Cornell University, Drew University, Trinity College, Princeton University, Kenyon College, and Connecticut College are among the institutions backing the report.

But some industry leaders remain skeptical of the plan, arguing that it focuses too much on the stress high-achieving, high-income students face and not enough on low-income students.

A majority of students won't notice a difference, says Ben Wildavsky, State University of New York's director of higher education studies at Rockefeller Institute of Government. "This is a sort of elite phenomenon," he says.

Last fall, three experts argued in the book "Overloaded and Underprepared" that teens are overscheduled and sleep-deprived, but other studies have found that the problems are most common among children from high-income families. For example, a 2006 study found that nearly 40% of high school students actually have no organized, afterschool activities.

And education research Kim Nauer, from The New School's Center for New York City Affairs, says that as long as weighted GPAs are used, the incentives to enroll in more and more AP courses will remain strong.

However, Wildavsky and Nauer agree that "Turning the Tide" is at least a first step.

The report comes as more than 80 selective colleges and universities prepare their own overhaul of the admissions process. The coalition plans to launch a new portfolio-based application to replace the Common Application in April (Kolodner, Hechinger Report, 1/20; Brody, Wall Street Journal, 1/20).


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