Many of you may be following the lawsuit that is being filed against Harvard University for discriminatory admissions practices. If you haven’t heard of it or want a quick refresher, here’s a solid explainer of what’s happening:
In essence, this case is going to eventually be brought before the Supreme Court, one way or another - it will be appealed all the way to the top and may very well change the way that admissions for both universities and applications for jobs are conducted in the United States. Regardless of the result of the case (which may be years away), I think there are some pretty remarkable implications for our work.
While I know it is not healthy to speculate on the future, I find it hard to resist in this instance - largely because the future of our work may be radically altered because of it. And since I’m not a scholar of the literature on affirmative action, education policy, or racial policy, I’ll keep my ideas confined to what I think I know a little bit better: the ‘retail education’ industry in China.
In short: the cat is out of the bag. As this case continues to progress through court after court, documents about the admissions process will continue to be unearthed. A remarkable example of this is the document linked below this paragraph. Read through that whole thing - it explains step-by-step exactly how Harvard Admissions Officers review applications. Granted - the document is four years old, but it is hard to believe that there has been a radical amount of change in their processes in these past four years.
Moving forward, I think this case is just the first of many more public moves to shed light on (or expose, depending on your position) the operations of universities. With the increasing focus on unfairness, inequality, and the widening of the rich and poor, the issue of university access is not going to go away.
[To be clear: I’m 100% supportive of debate, public speaking, and communication skill development for the lifelong benefits. I am eager for the day when we have an aLLumna or aLLumnus write us an email saying that we helped them get their fourth job, or have enough confidence to talk to their future wife/husband, or have the speaking skills to energize an audience to fight for a cause they believe in. I just mean to talk about our work at LL within the context of this recent news and how I feel it has a strong possibility to change the industry in which we operate.]
In my opinion, this means three broader results: 1) The asymmetry of the college admissions process is greatly reduced. 2) Non-standard qualities among applicants will increase in value. Let’s unpack this. 3) The admissions process is going to need to change.
Harvard has now released their admissions criteria playbook. Within weeks, this document is going to be read by every college admissions officer, eager beaver parent, and then forwarded to seniors, juniors, and eventually, freshmen in high school. The evaluative criteria are now out in the open and clearly brought to bear. Of course, nothing in that document should be a shock - schools generally value hard-working, intelligent, creative students who have a demonstrated passion and thirst for leadership roles. Tell us something we don’t know.
Regardless of whether this was all an open secret or actually clandestine, it’s now no longer a secret at all. It’s table stakes. Applicants have a clearer and clearer picture and access will only become broader. Mark my words: within 12 months, the Harvard Admissions website will be available in Chinese. Parents won’t need admissions counselors to decipher the webpages anymore. (Special shout-out to MIT, who has had a Spanish-language admissions blog Spanish since 2012 and whose admissions site is also available in Spanish!)
Admissions consultancies who boasted of ‘inside knowledge of the admissions process’ now need to look elsewhere for their competitive advantage. But let’s watch this space carefully, because it directly affects our work. Admissions consultants have gotten to this point by saying all the same stuff ‘We have Ivy-League grads! We know the process backwards and forwards! We have personal relationships with the schools!’ Now, these first two advantages will disappear in 2-3 years and the third only takes one year or one visit to build. (Interestingly enough, we see some LL parents operating boarding school consulting businesses on similar grounds - “I visited the campus once with my kid during his/her interview. Therefore, I can get your kid in to the school because I know Mr. Smith by name.”)
A potential exception to this rule is that college consultancies become more specialized, say, focusing on art schools, design schools, law schools, schools in New York City, Carnegie Mellon University only, etc. I think this will be a challenge for the consultancies because the client size is naturally limited. We will see some all-star small businesses do this and become masters of their craft. For the most part though, consultancies will be hurt by the transparency - they will need to charge less for more work.
In all likelihood, the move for these college consultancies due to this increased transparency is to continue the growing trend of ‘candidacy building’ at an ever-increasing rate. College consultancies will begin to stress longer-term relationships with their clients. More on this later and how it benefits LearningLeaders, if we adapt to this change effectively.
So what does this asymmetry mean for applicants? Their admissions rubric is clear to them, meaning that efforts for students who are interested in these schools will continue to flow into the evaluative criteria listed on Harvard playbook document: Academic, Extracurricular, Community Employment, Family Commitments, Athletic, Personal, School Support.
Students will continue to look for niche disciplines in which they can achieve national or international recognition and because they are truly individual and unique (we’ve already seen trends towards more gradually niche activities like fencing, speed skating, Go/WeiQi, etc. within the LearningLeaders community - and these are still mainstream! One of my classmates in college got into school for inventing wind turbines in his village in Malawi. Those are really the kids schools want - unique and original.) Words underlined in the Harvard report include ‘competitive,’ and ‘unusual,’ indicating that the more selective schools will continue to value niche contributors.
(Again, we’ve always known this, but now it’s here in black and white. Harvard always needs one tuba player per year - if your kid is going to learn an instrument to help you get into college, God help you if you choose the piano...Real talk here for a second: if your number one life priority is for junior to go to Harvard, I suggest you move to Wyoming, learn the tuba, and speak one or more indigenous languages - shoe in admit!)
A corollary of this is that more niche tutors/mentors will continue to be in higher and higher demand. There are only so many tuba teachers, whereas piano teachers are not only cheaper (overabundance of supply) but also more challenging to discern the quality (overabundance of supply).
In summary - what we’ve always known as educators in this space is that in order to fill out a well-rounded class of students, schools don’t look for well-rounded candidates, they look for specialists to help them in certain areas. This sounds remarkably like a... corporation. The most competitive companies generally don’t look for well-rounded people - they look for domain experts who can be star contributors.
So yes, I feel due to increased transparency, university applications are going to become more corporate.
The result of this could go in a few directions, though I think the following is most likely: universities will drift further and further away from standardized admissions practices and double-down on what makes students compatible with the culture and output each school is striving for. This is exactly what top-ranked companies do: every company or firm has their own bespoke recruitment process, complete with competency test, (IQ/aptitude tests for some), and a series of interviews.
Of course this comes with downsides: not attracting all of the best applicants, thereby reducing the applicant pool, thereby increasing ‘admit rates,’ thereby making the school appear less competitive.
I strongly believe that schools will move towards a model of two-phased applications, where an initial application will determine whether a student has ‘got the goods’ to apply in the first place (grades, tests, extra-curricular activities, etc.) and subsequently a second-round interview scenario where schools seek to gain greater understanding of the individual applicant. This is not dis-similar from a job screening and then a formal interview.
What are the implications for our industry? By focusing on what doesn’t change at the whims of universities’ admissions process is what will become the most valuable to parents in the medium term. In short - being able to communicate the value of your interests. As a college advising organization, or a basketball training organization, or as a debate organization - there are only so many champions and so many unusual contributors. But everyone can communicate the value of their opinions and actions more effectively - that is exactly the role that we can provide in this process.
With this said, what are the implications for LearningLeaders?
First, I’d say we’re doing one crucial thing correctly - focusing on fundamental skills that will only grow in value. Public speaking, debate, and communication skills are going to be among the most sought-after skills in the coming generation.
Second, we may choose to begin building relationships with ‘candidacy-building’ based admissions consultancies. Not referring our students to them, but just making them aware of our work. If they want their students to be successful, they may wish to send them our way.
Third, we choose to launch interview preparation courses. I believe that each university or high school’s admissions processes will continue to become more and more individual/siloed, and it places a premium on coaching for interviewing skills that are not memorized in a one-size-fits-all response, but rather effectively trained to adapt to new questions and information.
Fourth, we may wish to spend more effort educating parents about their choices in higher education more thoughtfully. Still electing not to enter that space doesn’t mean that we cannot become a trusted source of information. It only behooves us to help spread the transparency of this information more and more rapidly.
Finally, it may result in the desire for another segment of LL services - one where students and parents are seeking a further ‘edge’ within the competitive landscape of admissions.
I honestly don’t know how I feel about increasing the pressure on these kids to succeed. I don’t love the ‘pack every minute of every day with activities’ model. Yet at the same time, I’d rather my own children use their time productively than become couch potatoes. With most things in life, I guess there is likely a happy medium. If parents agree with a similar sentiment, we’ll likely have demand at all ends of the spectrum for our coursework, both for highly competitive students and those more interested out of personal curiosity and self-discovery.
These changes to the industry won’t play out all at once and there might not feel like a significant turn in the course of our sails. But the winds they are a’ changin’ and I feel LearningLeaders is perfectly positioned to benefit from it.