Commentary: Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions

Author: Don Bishop '77

In April, as Notre Dame’s associate vice president of undergraduate enrollment, I attended an admitted-students reception in New York City. It was a lovely, blue-sky day with a scent of spring in the air, and we stood on a rooftop deck overlooking the Metropolitan Museum of Art. On a rooftop deck across the street, we could see a Stanford gathering for admitted students. They had red cardinal balloons tied in bunches. At both parties, parents and students seemed almost buoyant — balancing pride in the fact of admission to a chosen college with relief.

One student from New York who had just sent in her enrollment to Notre Dame confided in me that she had declined offers from an Ivy League school and another top college away from the East Coast. I asked the student what drove her final decision. She noted that Notre Dame had at each meeting talked about developing the whole person and expected its graduates to live full, meaningful lives that impacted others. “I think I will be a happier person if I go to Notre Dame,” she said. “I will become the best version of myself.”

Then she shared this story: She was told by her high school principal that among the 500 graduating seniors she had been voted most likely to succeed. The school had 10 recognition award categories, and students were allowed to receive only one. The principal wanted her to know that the faculty and students actually voted her tops in two categories: the most likely to succeed and the kindest person in the class. They selected her for what they viewed as the more impressive award — most likely to succeed. She informed the principal that being regarded as the kindest student in the class was far more meaningful to her. Now that, I thought, is a Notre Dame student.

This past week the Harvard Graduate School of Education released “Turning the Tide,” a report written by Richard Weissbourd, senior lecturer and co-director of the Making Caring Common project, and Lloyd Thacker, executive director of the Education Conservancy. The report is endorsed by many of the top national colleges. I read the report earlier this week, and Notre Dame is also now endorsing it. We plan to be one of the most active partners in future efforts to identify practices to further its goals.

Early in the report the authors note that high school students “often perceive colleges as simply valuing their achievements, not their responsibility for others and their communities. While some colleges have diligently sought to convey to applicants the importance of concern for others and the common good, many other colleges have not.”

I believe Notre Dame has consistently been one of the diligent leaders.

The driving concern of this report is for the wellness of our college-bound high school students and those enrolled in college. Students and parents have misguidedly valued achievement metrics over an authentic development by the student of a healthy sense of self and purpose.

The reason they have done this? In part, it’s a result of how the public perceives the college admissions and selection process of the most selective colleges. As the admit rates of some schools have now fallen into the single digits, the sense of competition has reached epidemic levels and generated an angst never before seen by many high school counselors.

Although the most selective 50 colleges in America enroll perhaps only 3 percent of all college students, it seems they have created the pace by which too many students have been placed on the treadmill called high school. An irrational exuberance for performance has resulted. But at nearly 95 percent of all colleges in America, a good, honest, hard-working student can gain admission and receive a top-notch education. This seems to be a lost fact.

The disconnect between a productive and healthy high school experience and the college application/selection process has somehow developed into an arms race. Students are chasing a list of accomplishments rather than allowing themselves to develop an essence. This is not a singular insight from this report; these same concerns are also expertly discussed in the 2014 book Excellent Sheep, by former Yale University professor William Deresiewicz.

The “Turning the Tide” Harvard report proposes less emphasis on test scores and a hyper number of AP courses, and more admission selection based on demonstrated “passion” and “caring.” Colleges should want fewer neurotic achievers piling up 20 activities and awards, and instead encourage students to seek a deeper and more thoughtful experience that centers on well-chosen activities which are focused on making contributions toward others. It is hoped such community engagement will help students develop a sense of gratitude and also responsibility. This includes a greater desire to achieve cultural competencies beyond the comfort zones of their own neighborhoods.

The report also embraces the need of colleges to reward students from lower-income households who must spend more of their time as caregivers for their family or in weighty part-time jobs to assist the family. It also recommends being more alert to the resilience and potential of such students, which may not be evidenced in higher test scores because their environment did not give them ample resources to excessively prepare for the SAT/ACT exams.

The report also asks the colleges to help the public expand its view of the worthiness of various colleges: “There are many paths to professional success, and students and parents should be far more concerned with whether a college is a good fit for a student than how high status it is.”

Over the past three years I have had the honor of being a Coca-Cola Scholar reviewer. The attributes we focus on when selecting these scholars — “demonstrated leadership not only in academics but . . . in dedication and actions that positively impact others” — are closely aligned with the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Education Conservancy report. Our future leaders need to have a greater sense of comfort with who they are and an interest in helping others. Healthier leaders focused on the welfare of others bode well for a healthier society.

The Coca-Cola Scholars program understands this. The Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Education Conservancy understands this. And Notre Dame will continue to practice this.

Don Bishop, who has been Notre Dame’s associate vice president for undergraduate enrollment since 2010, directs both undergraduate admissions and student financial services.