The college admissions process has never been more stressful and unpleasant for ambitious high school seniors than it is now. Unfortunately, if a group of reformers have their way, it will soon get a whole lot more so.

This week, a consortium of admissions professionals from elite colleges and universities released a proposal to reform the process, called “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions.”

The reformers claim that they want to make the admissions process less stressful. The report notes, with apparent concern, that “fierce pressure to attend high status colleges is taking a large emotional and ethical toll” on young people — especially those from high-achieving high schools, where the competition to get into the “best” colleges is most intense.

But that is not their primary goal. As the report’s title suggests, the principal aim is to encourage ambitious high school students to engage meaningfully in genuinely valuable acts of public service by enabling colleges and universities to recognize such service alongside more conventional measures of individual, academic achievement when deciding on whom to admit.

Counting meaningful service more — and academics less — probably will enable elite colleges to enroll more economically and racially diverse student bodies.

It is unfortunate, but true, that parents’ incomes are closely related to childrens’ academic achievement: the children of the rich tend to get better test scores and higher grades than the children of the poor.

In part, that’s because they tend to live in wealthy communities than can afford the nicest facilities and pay teachers premium salaries. And in part it’s because higher income parents have more time and money to spend on their children’s education.

Other factors matter, too, and individually outstanding scholars can and do arise anywhere, finding ways to learn and excel, even in very weak school systems and very difficult home environments.

But it remains true that, if colleges admit students mainly on the basis of traditional measures of academic achievement, they will disporportionately admit the children of the well-to-do. Although some kinds of service projects are open only to the rich, such as the programs that will fly your child to somewhere in Africa or South America to do a few weeks’ work of volunteer work, there are real opportunities to do meaningful service in every community. Nor is there any reason to think the rich are more community-minded than the poor.

The reformers caution that they are looking for evidence of meaningful service to others. They want to admit students who exhibit genuinely good character in the work that they do, not to reward the children of the rich for being able to afford opportunities that others cannot. The student who divides his summer days between paid work and taking care of an ailing relative may well be more committed and engaged in his family and community than a wealthy student who jets off to an exotic locale for a prepackaged “service” experience to burnish his resume.

Unfortunately, there’s no infallible way of measuring public-spiritedness in the soul. So the reformers urge colleges to ask students to write application essays about such things as what they learned from their service, about themselves, about their communities, or about the larger society.

The reformers hope that, by making public spiritedness count in the admissions process, they will not only encourage more high school students to do even more public service than they do now (which is already a lot), but will create more opportunities for public-spirited youth from weaker schools and poorer backgrounds to win admission to selective colleges.

They may well be right on both counts.

But the changes will also make the admissions process much more stressful for applicants, not less so.

Students are being told they have to do more, or at any rate something that is more difficult and as time-consuming as what they are doing now: to serve others in a sustained and meaningful way. More work means more stress.

And the competition for spaces will be getting tighter: there will now be more applicants for the same number of seats. More competition means more stress.

And the process will become still more subjective and unpredictable: who knows whether the reader of your applicant will believe your commitment to service is phony or sincere? More uncertainty also means more stress.

These reforms may be good for the colleges, but let’s not pretend they will also make students’ lives better. They won’t.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.


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