The past few months have been college entrance exam season, with lots of students and families waiting for SAT and ACT scores that will -- and should -- play major roles in demonstrating their readiness for higher education and qualification for universities with competitive admission standards.
My daughters attend Walnut Hills H.S., a particularly outstanding and extremely college-focused high school. Latin is required. PSAT and SAT prep and detailed college counseling are built into the fabric of the place. Many AP courses -- generally the most rigorous classes in a given subject -- are offered and students are expected to take several of these courses. And that's how it should be. This is exactly why people send their kids to Walnut Hills: to give them the best available public college prep education in the city.
So it comes as no surprise that handfuls of Walnut Hills students get perfect scores on their ACT and SAT exams. However, I was surprised to learn how limited the value of a perfect score can be in terms of college admissions and financing.
Perfect scores on these tests are rare. Very rare. So one might think that a student getting a perfect score on a college test would be treated like the academic superstar they are. If colleges and other organizations grant merit-based scholarships, a perfect score would seem like an automatic pass to the front of the line.
What SHOULD a perfect score mean?
In my imaginary world, a perfect score would guarantee admission AND guarantee full coverage of tuition, fees, books, room at the dorm of their choice and the best-available food contract. AND such students would go to the front of the line for scheduling courses.
For those who had less-than-perfect ACT and SAT scores, it makes some sense for competitive college admission (and financing) to based on other factors -- high school grades, high school quality, extracurricular activities, race, gender and cultural balance concerns, family wealth, alumni legacies, the college's own entrance exams, individual hardship cases, geographical preferences (State schools WERE built to support and serve state residents, right?), etc. After all, once you get to the commonly achieved SAT/ACT scores there has to be some way of settling the ties. There's no choice but to use political and arbitrary standards.
Yet for those who get perfect test scores, there are surprisingly few guarantees. Yes, a perfect score virtually guarantees admission to any state university and nearly all private colleges. But it doesn't guarantee admission to the Ivy League schools. In fact, a fair number of perfect-score applicants are not admitted.
For example, in the past academic year, 143 students with perfect ACT scores applied to Brown University -- but only 41 were admitted. So Brown found reasons to REJECT more than 100 students with PERFECT scores in favor of students who got lower scores. Wow. That really shocks me. Similar data exists for other highly selective schools.
Such an outcome reeks of political and social favoritisms. It reduces college admissions to completely arbitrary, non-tangible and extremely debatable "standards."
Politically correct extras
In the name of limiting "unfair" tests of academic skill, it becomes important to be involved in "extracurriculars." But which ones? And how many? Is student council more important than editing the school yearbook? Are sports more important than music?
It also becomes important to show "community involvement." Again, which activities count the most? Does volunteering at a hospital trump joining a church mission to El Salvador? Does stuffing envelopes for a political campaign mean more than raising funds for a local charity?
It truly amazes me that the most competitive academic schools wind up basing admissions decisions on fuzzy, arbitrary qualities that have little to nothing to do with academic achievement, while setting aside a professionally designed test that specifically measures college skills.
Who SHOULD get a full ride if kids with perfect scores don't?
Then there's the bigger issue -- the money.
When the costs of a college education are soaring out of the reach of so many families, one might counsel high school students to work really hard to do well on college entrance exams. One might think a perfect score would mean "writing your own ticket."
A number of state schools do guarantee admission for those with high tests scores. Some also offer "automatic" scholarships for high scores. But you don't need a perfect score to qualify and the scholarship amounts tend to be far less than a full ride.
Very few state schools guarantee big scholarships for perfect scores, even for their own state residents. In fact, the trend is going the other way. For example, the University of Kansas recently ended a program that awarded full rides to perfect ACT scores -- with the stated intent of spreading partial scholarships around to more students.
Even when full-ride scholarships are available to high achievers, nearly every one expects something in addition to a perfect test score. On one hand, I "get" handing out big college discounts to those kids who got less than straight As, less than perfect test scores, but did other amazing things. But I don't get rewarding such students over someone with a perfect score. Yet this happens every year.
We wouldn't accept this stuff in other settings
What is it about people that makes them so willing to accept competition in sports -- and recognize the winners in many, many ways -- yet go to considerable lengths to resist the results of competition in academics? We celebrate gold medals and championships, but many or our high schools have eliminated honors for valedictorians. We give tens of thousands of full rides to college athletes, but precious few to academic stars. And we grant those sports scholarships primarily upon sports skill and achievement, while using a host of non-academic factors to decide academic "winners."
Should Alabama's quarterback be the guy who did the most volunteering in high school? Do we judge the quality of the main course of a restaurant meal by how sweet the dessert tastes? Do we judge the power of a singing voice by the clothes the person wears?
So why should it be any different when colleges are choosing the students they'll admit?