Best students, best graduates, and/or neurodiversity: what should colleges be looking for?

The elimination or downplaying by more and more colleges of applicant SAT scores, along with a recent article on why that’s a bad idea, reminded me of an old OILF post.

The article highlights how the SATs used to benefit a type of student that today we might call “neurodivergent”:

the kind who is bright and talented but who had failed to live up to their potential in class. These students tended to be the brilliant dreamers; they were the ones in possession of uncommon cognitive skills, but who performed poorly in knowledge-based exams because of bad time management, resistance to the indignities of organised education, or an inability to prioritise school over their own interests. For decades, excellent SAT scores got students into colleges that they wouldn’t ordinarily get into, creating opportunities to find diamonds in the rough who had perhaps never found their footing in school.

Which raises the question of…

What should colleges be testing for?

We Need More Tests, Not Fewer, argues John D. Mayer, a professor of psychology at the University of New Hampshire and author of “Personal Intelligence: The Power of Personality and How It Shapes Our Lives,” in a recent Op-Ed in the New York Times.

He begins by talking about how effectively tests capture people’s later accomplishments, as well as more elusive aspects of cognitive potential and personality:

Research indicates that mental tests do predict people’s patterns of behavior in consequential ways. For instance, graduate students’ G.R.E. scores are correlated with the ratings faculty members later give them, their likelihood of remaining in a program, and the impact of their publications (as measured by citations). And tests like the NEO-PI-R that measure social and emotional traits like conscientiousness and agreeableness can predict a person’s longevity and likelihood of staying married.

In addition, tests are our only way to study and attempt to understand ineffable mental qualities like intelligence, openness to experience and creativity. They help make the mysteries of mental life tangible. Neuroscientists use them to discover who excels in particular mental abilities, and to try to identify the parts of the brain responsible.

So far so good. All this sounds reasonable and plausible. Over the last century, a whole host of different tests have emerged that predict, apparently with increasing accuracy, more and more aspects of cognition and personality.

Much less clear, however, is how these tests should be used. One good use, in Meyer’s opinion, is in college admissions:

What if, in addition to the SAT, students were offered new tests that measured more diverse abilities? For future artists or musicians, there are tests that measure divergent thinking — a cornerstone of creativity largely ignored by the SAT. For future engineers, there are tests that measure spatial reasoning. And new measures of “personal intelligence” — the ability to reason about a person’s motives, emotions and patterns of activities — may also tell us something important about students’ self-knowledge and understanding of others.

But considering non-academic skills like social skills, and, arguably, divergent thinking, smacks of the “best graduates” over “best students” strategy, discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s 2005 New Yorker article Getting In, that was used by Harvard, Yale and Princeton to limit the numbers of Jewish matriculates back in the mid-20th century–and that is probably being used by those same schools to limit the numbers of Asian students today. Should admissions favor those who look like they will have the most “successful” careers after college (as measured, typically, by fame and fortune) over those who look like they will do best in college classes?

Colleges, of course, aren’t monoliths, and different insiders will have different answers to this question. Professors, presumably, prefer students who show up to class, pay attention, contribute to discussions, write the best papers and problem sets, and have the greatest potential to master the course material; development officers, presumably, favor those who will donate the most money and generate the most publicity for their alma maters.

Ethics, I believe, are firmly on the side of the professors.

First of all, taken to its extreme, a best-graduates policy has you favoring not only those with certain types of social skills, leadership skills, and creative skills, but also those with certain physical traits and family resources. Beauty, stature, and family wealth and connections, after all, are correlated with future earnings and fame. Thus, in addition to the existing discrimination against Asians and nerds and Aspies you’d have (to the extent that this is not already the case–cf. legacy admissions) discrimination against the vertically-impaired, the not-so-good-looking, and those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds.

Second of all, what is the purpose of these non-profit, government-funded, academic institutions called colleges? Is it to coast off of those who will have a certain type of showy, real-world success regardless of how much, or how little, they actually teach them? Or is it to recruit, challenge and inspire the most academically advanced and motivated students and help them reach their academic capacities, both by teaching them well inside the classroom, and by providing fora–cafeterias, quadrangles, and common rooms–where they can interact among themselves, conversing, arguing, and bouncing ideas around, in ways that many of them have never before had the opportunity? 

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