To Get into College, Be an Activist

Academics and hard work downplayed in new guidelines

If you want to go to college, it may behoove you to spend less time studying for the SATs or ACTs and more time planting trees, registering voters and scrubbing graffiti from highway overpasses.

In the latest instance of college-sponsored coddling, Harvard University aims to take pressure off stressed out college-bound teens by encouraging them to focus on academic subjects and “social causes they find meaningful,” rather than SAT scores, ACT scores and extracurricular activities.

We have a good idea where all this is going: straight into Ivy League-sponsored “Kumbayah” territory.

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The Harvard proposal, ‘Turning the Tide,” was endorsed on Jan. 20 by about 80 U.S. educators, including admissions officials at top American universities such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Columbia University, Purdue University and University of North Carolina, according to Reuters.

“Too often, today’s culture sends young people messages that emphasize personal success rather than concern for others and the common good,” said Richard Weissbourd, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, and a co-director of the Making Caring Common group that developed the proposal.

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The proposal is also endorsed by some American high schools and educational associations, and encourages colleges to actively seek out applicants who have long-term commitments to service projects in their own communities.

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In other words, if you yearn to be admitted to a top college, drop the pencil and pick up a rake.

Some of the Harvard proposal verbiage is befuddling.

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“Too often,” it reads, “current forms of service are patronizing to recipients and don’t spark in those providing service a deeper understanding of social structures and inequalities. Rather than students ‘doing for’ students from different backgrounds, for example, we encourage students to ‘do with,’ to work in diverse groups for sustained periods of time.”

By following such criteria, your future doctor, lawyer or engineer may be accepted to that top-flight college because she was better at community activism than she was at passing tests about her actual subject knowledge, a highly dubious qualification for a heart surgeon.

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Sustained Work?
The trendy new chestnut about kids and the avoidance of discomfort of any kind comes into play in the new proposal, too. Academics and parents increasingly view sustained hard work with a wary eye, employing a one-size-fits-all assessment of what is dangerous for kids.

“Escalating achievement pressure is not healthy for our youth. Young people are suffering from higher rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse as they juggle the demands of their lives,” Kedra Ishop, an associate vice president for at the University of Michigan and an endorser of the proposal, told Reuters.

Another reason for the proposal is the goal of making the college admissions process less daunting for lower-income families.

To achieve this, colleges may revise their applications to focus less on long lists of an applicant’s clubs and sports activities, and to consider making standardized tests like the SAT and the ACT optional. Students will also be discouraged from taking those tests more than twice, even though SAT and ACT fee waivers are available to students who qualify based on income.

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However, the cost of participating on a sports team, particularly in high school, is indeed rising, which certainly impacts the ability of lower-income children to participate. A 2013 study by the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital found that 61 percent of respondents reported paying to participate in middle school and high school sports.

But good admissions counselors will make the connection between family income and lack of expensive sports participation, and this most likely would not be held against a student in the application process.

The real reason for the proposal, eagerly endorsed by some of America’s top institutions, seems clear. It substitutes hard work with the trendier — and much easier to accomplish — community service.

“Why (do we need) challenging work? Because challenging work, when intelligently chosen, pays off,” Steve Pavalina, a successful personal development author and blogger, wrote on his website. “It’s the work that people of lesser character will avoid. And if you infer that I’m saying people who avoid challenging work have a character flaw, you’re right … and a serious one at that.

“If you avoid challenging work, you avoid doing what it takes to succeed. To keep your muscles strong or your mind sharp, you need to challenge them. To do only what’s easy will lead to physical and mental flabbiness and very mediocre results, followed by a great deal of time and effort spent justifying why such flabbiness is OK, instead of stepping up and taking on some real challenges.”

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