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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Ed Taylor and Phil Ballinger: What should count in college admissions: the quality of future leaders we most need

By Ed Taylor and Phil Ballinger

A large majority of youth across a wide spectrum of races, cultures and classes in the U.S. appears to value aspects of personal success – achievement and individual happiness – over concern for others, and we fear that college admissions processes bear some responsibility.

“Our youth’s values appear to be awry, and the messages that we are unintentionally sending as adults may be at the heart of the problem,” reads a research report by Harvard University’s “Making Caring Common Project.” Colleges and universities send strong signals about what matters and what they value through their admissions communications and practices. These signals affect the decisions, values and behaviors of students, parents and schools.

Even though colleges value higher education as a primary means of improving the common good, many teens and parents perceive that our institutions value only the highest levels of academic and other personal achievements in a competitive environment. These perceptions can lead to excessive pressure, greater levels of anxiety and depression, dishonesty, and – as we have witnessed – efforts by those with means to try and game the system.

We may be failing to help our teens “develop the critical cognitive, social and ethical capacities that are at the heart of both doing good and doing well in college and beyond,” Harvard Professor Richard Weissbourd concludes in the report, “Turning the Tide 2: How Parents and High Schools Can Cultivate Ethical Character and Reduce Distress in the College Admissions Process.”

How can we help encourage our prospective students to focus more on contributing to others and their communities? How do we promote in them a genuine commitment to the collective good, and a deeper understanding of and respect for themselves and others – and that character and values matter? And how might colleges and universities lead by example and send more compelling messages about the essential importance of these commitments and values?

What if colleges selected academically prepared students not primarily because of metrics reflecting their individualized, competitive achievements, but rather because of their lived commitments to the welfare of others and their communities?

In light of these findings and concerns, the University of Washington initiated the Presidential Scholars Program to help identify and recognize Washington high school students who already demonstrate exceptionally strong orientation toward and commitment to the welfare of others and their communities, whether those communities be towns, schools, neighborhoods or families. The students in question do not apply for the program and its associated scholarship; rather the University identifies them through active outreach to community leaders throughout the state. The near full-tuition scholarships fall upon these teens as a total surprise, and the university makes it abundantly and publicly clear that they were chosen for the values they espouse and live on behalf of others, and that these are values of great importance to society and to the university.

The Presidential Scholars Program and associated scholarship began with a founding endowment from William and Pamela Ayers, who sought to support the enrollment of such students at the UW while recognizing, celebrating and further developing their leadership skills and deep community engagements. Other donors continue to add to the Presidential Scholars endowment, and the university’s hope is that the Presidential Scholars cohort will grow to 50 or more students per year.

The UW does not primarily seek teens for this scholarship who hold high-profile positions or structured forms of leadership in school associations, clubs or other formatted activities. Rather, we seek the Presidential Scholars among students who – often without recognition or accolades – significantly pursue forms of self-initiated service to those with whom they live, learn, worship or work. In short, the university seeks teens who already at their young age embody a spirit of self-motivated leadership and commitment to improving the welfare of others and their communities, students who may have less on their resume but reflect humility and devotion to the common good.

The university widely shares these students’ stories and also invites a wide range of community, business and educational leaders to assist with the development of these young people and offer them practical opportunities to develop and hone their skills. Our hope is that these future community leaders and the stories of their commitments will strongly convey the primary importance of these values not only to the UW but also for broader society.

When we share these thoughts with gatherings of adolescents, and then ask them whether they know of such students, they universally say yes. When we speak to community and not-for-profit organization leaders and describe the students we seek, they often tell us of young people who may not be the shiniest students in their schools, but who quietly and often without fanfare are improving the lives and welfare of those around them.

These are the students we seek.

These are the future leaders we need.

Ed Taylor is the vice provost and dean for undergraduate academic affairs at the University of Washington. Phil Ballinger is a retired vice president for enrollment management at the University of Washington and former dean of admissions at Gonzaga University.

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