Earlier this year, two researchers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education set out on a mission to revolutionize the higher education industry: they felt that college admissions were getting too impersonal and were encouraging students to chase after the wrong things, and decided this needed to change. The result of their work was a report titled “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good Through College Admissions,” and an accompanying movement, Making Caring Common (MCC), which attempts to bring a more altruistic and humanistic focus into the realm of admissions.

Over 80 of the top schools in the United States have agreed to partake in this movement and revise their admissions criteria accordingly in the near future, so it’s safe to say that MCC and its new criteria it advocates may soon comprise a significant portion of admissions considerations.

We’ve already summarized what MCC is, but today we’ll look at this program from the opposite angle: what it isn’t. There’s been a lot of talk about MCC ever since the report was released, and everyone has their own take on what it means for higher education and college hopefuls.

In this post, we hope to demystify things by comparing many of these commonly-held beliefs against the official releases from MCC and Harvard.

 

“Making Caring Common is going to make colleges less selective.”

Many people believe that MCC will “soften” college admissions councils and that colleges will begin to lower their standards of academic achievement for prospective students.

But nowhere in the official MCC documents does it imply this — in fact, in MCC’s executive summary, it stresses that with MCC’s standards, “[c]ollege admissions can send compelling messages that both ethical engagement—especially concern for others and the common good—and intellectual engagement are highly important.”

What MCC intends to change is how colleges tend to disproportionately focus on an applicant’s achievements and hard skills over their more latent personality traits and soft skills. In fact, the MCC project was begun by Richard Weissbourg, a senior lecturer at Harvard, after he found that in a survey of 10,000 middle and high-schoolers, over 80% of respondents valued their personal gain and achievement over caring for others. Weissbourg believes that this is because most educational institutions put a high priority on personal achievement, and that altruism should therefore also be rewarded as a form of achievement. So at its roots, MCC seeks to elevate altruism  to the same level as intellectual and academic achievement in college admissions, not to bring the latter down.

Colleges who have had a strong record of admitting academic high-achievers will always want to admit applicants of a high academic caliber — however, what’s starting to become more important now is that these high achievers will have to also show that they are passionate about helping others, attentive to the needs of their community, and diligent about adhering to their own set of high ethical standards.

 

“Making Caring Common is going to make college more affordable.”

Most of the goals and proposals that Weissbourg and his colleagues suggested in their report are targeted at college admissions departments, and were mostly recommendations for the current standards that they use to evaluate their applicants. However, most colleges have bursar and financial aid departments that operate independently of the admissions office, and MCC’s proposals, as of this blog post’s writing, do not directly target those departments yet. As such, it would be a stretch to say that MCC intends for there to be any direct effect on tuition rates and financial aid.

However, one important facet of MCC is that it tries to even out the playing field in college admissions between applicants from more privileged backgrounds and applicants from less privileged backgrounds.

One of the recommendations that MCC makes for college admissions offices is to lessen the weight of standardized testing in evaluating a candidate by “making these tests optional, clearly describing to applicants how much these tests actually ‘count’ and how they are considered in the admissions process, and discouraging students from taking an admissions test more than twice.”

While this is a move to reduce testing pressure on the general applicant pool, studies have shown that standardized test scores are directly proportional to the income of a student’s family — students from higher income families tend to produce higher scores. In this sense, deemphasizing the weight of these scores also serves to give less privileged students more of a chance at admissions into more selective colleges.

Other provisions of MCC that aim to help applicants from a lower income bracket include an emphasis on the quality of AP courses and extracurriculars over their quantity, and a greater emphasis on an applicant’s everyday activities and the contributions he or she makes to his or her family.

 

“Making Caring Common will encourage applicants to overload on service extracurriculars.”

Quite the contrary — in fact, Weissbourg et al. explicitly outlined in their summary of recommendations that “applications should state plainly that students should feel no pressure to report more than two or three substantive extracurricular activities and should discourage students from reporting activities that have not been meaningful to them.”

This advice comes at a time when “voluntourism” and tokenism have started to arise as major issues in the social justice community around college campuses. Frequently, students take part in service or diversity initiatives perfunctorily and not out of genuine concern for other people’s interests, and oftentimes end up making light of other people’s struggles or unknowingly offend certain demographics.

To combat this, MCC proposes that students limit their service involvement to issues that they show sincere personal interest in, and participate in no more than a few of these. Applicants are also welcome to include family commitments in the service category if they feel that it is a cause that they’ve dedicated significant efforts to.

In terms of experiences with diversity, MCC suggests that consistency should be valued over quantity — the MCC standards look for a candidate that is open-minded and legitimately interested in learning about other cultures and backgrounds from their members’ perspectives. And instead of “doing things for” members of these communities, MCC recommends that students “do things with” people of these communities, as they believe this will result in a richer, more complex, and more humanistic appreciation of diversity.

 

“Making Caring Common is just advertising for lesser colleges.”

This is one possible interpretation of one of MCC’s provisions, which calls for counselors and parents to “challenge the misconception that there are only a handful of excellent colleges and that only a handful of colleges create networks that are vital to job success.”

It’s controversial, but it is indeed a misconception — the greatest factor in a student’s success or failure in college is the student him or herself. This is illustrated by the phenomenon of “undermatching,” where students from less-privileged backgrounds voluntarily refuse elite schools in favor of lesser schools because of tuition costs or family duties that keep them closer to home. Many of these students graduate from less selective colleges and attain relative success in life undeterred.

Conversely, many students who have accepted offers from elite schools choose to attend, but are ultimately unhappy with their experience. Some find the atmosphere too competitive and impersonal, others don’t like the dynamic of networking, politics, and privilege, some others can’t take the constant academic pressure — there are many reasons that students cite for transferring out of elite colleges. While these reasons are usually person-specific, the fact remains that personal preference are paramount to determining a student’s relative happiness at a certain institution, and by proxy their success.

MCC does not intend to advertise for colleges that aren’t at the top of the rankings, but instead hopes to emphasize a more student-specific and personalized approach to choosing colleges. It encourages both students and parents to look past the ranking and prestige of a college when compiling their college lists, and pushes for more of a personality match between the college and the prospective student.

If an elite college matches the values of a student and is where he or she would feel comfortable, he or she should be inspired to continue in that direction. However, if a student is just indiscriminately applying to the top 20 colleges in the nation without any regard for these colleges past their rank, this is where MCC suggests that counselors and admissions officers step in and help the student take a closer look at his or her choices.

 

The end goal of Weissbourg’s project seeks to create happier, better-adjusted, and well-rounded students who not only excel academically, but are also active and altruistic members of their communities. Granted, the project still is not perfect and does have its fair share of dissidents who oppose it for convincing reasons, but the fact remains that it has gained considerable traction in the higher education world in the span of a few months. Looking toward the future of higher education, it is — at the very least — something worth understanding, and something worth understanding well.

 

Jeanette Si

Jeanette Si

Jeanette is a junior at Cornell University double majoring in Information Science and China and Asia-Pacific Studies. As someone who’s received a lot of help from mentors during her personal admissions process, she’s looking to give back now that her own admissions season is behind her. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found singing show tunes (terribly), playing MOBAs (passably), or quoting Jane Austen (expertly).
Jeanette Si