Does the college admissions process reduce creativity?

This past weekend as part of the Mason Arts Festival I had the chance to have several conversations with award-winning television and movie writer, producer, and director Marshall Herskovitz. Among the things he shared with me was a great concern (and this is my paraphrasing of his point) that students with creative passion are less and less likely to pursue their artistic dreams because we measure success so narrowly, usually by the size of one’s paycheck.

This got me thinking a lot about the college admissions process and how much we focus our recruitment on convincing you that there is only one right school you can attend. Usually this has a vague threat attached – that if you go to the “wrong” school you won’t be as successful as you might otherwise be. And, I’m ashamed to say, for the most part we seem to view that success as, you guessed it, the size of your paycheck after you graduate.

I’m fortunate that Mason has a vast array of arts majors, including dance and creative writing programs, that are among the most competitive in the world. I say that not just as my usual shameless plug, but because it gives me a chance, on a nearly daily basis, to be among people who judge their success by a standard other than the number of dollars produced. The artistic merit of their product is, by and large, far more important to them than any monetary value estimate that society may make. Perhaps that concept needs to be carried more deeply into the college recruitment process.

My friend Lloyd Thacker is a huge risk taker, of the type I most admire, who advocates this concept. He abandoned a very successful career in admissions and college counseling to try to bring some rationality to our profession. His Education Conservancy is dedicated to decreasing the hype around college admissions, and especially to lowering the marketing mentality of higher education in general.
One of Lloyd’s big concerns is that we spend far too much time judging colleges by their rankings, especially in US News’ College Rankings, and that those rankings add to the sense that college is a commodity with high-stakes stress involved. While I’m not as opposed to the rankings as Lloyd (and think they can be helpful when used in context – more on that soon), like many of my colleagues I much prefer the more rational approach of the National Survey of Student Engagement, which provides information on student satisfaction rates.

Regardless of approach, rankings or no rankings, there is little doubt in my mind that the materials that my colleagues and I send you tend to add to an unfortunate sense of lmiited options and heightened panic. I have this sentiment reinforced as I present seminars across the country. The questions I’m most often asked regard how a student can game the admission system. I’m asked to ponder how many AP classes should be crammed into a year, whether a particular club or sport is more advantageous, and even whether clubs or sports should be abandoned in favor of grades. All in the name of “winning” this admissions game we have developed.

I think it’s worth asking what prizes are being won in this game. Admission to a particular college, according to every study conducted, does little to change your eventual salary (especially when compared with the current income level of your parents, how you’ve done in school so far, and how you perform in college). And is that even the right question to be asked? At what point are you asked to consider what INTERESTS you, what MOTIVATES you?

Marshall was asking me (again, my paraphrase) whether we could really expect to solve the world’s greatest problems and generate the next wave of great art with a generation raised to think first about profit margins and lastly about personal passion and societal need. I have to admit that I tend towards optimism on this point – the students I encounter are so incredibly creative, so deeply caring, so ridiculously brilliant, that my hopes for them fixing the mess we have created is rather unshakable. But I worry that the emails, mailings, IM, text messages and all the rest I am sending are doing little to contribute to that lofty goal – and may in fact be standing in the way.
Our university relations department developed a tag line that I rather like (although it seems out of order to me, it sounds best in that order) – Think, learn, succeed – as I’m partial to the idea of thinking and learning first. But maybe we need to change that part about succeed, or at least clarify our definition. Maybe another way to state it might be Learn, think, change the world. And maybe we need to think about how our admissions process, from recruitment to decisions, should reflect that ideal. Be seeing you.


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