From Scandal, the Opportunity for Reflection and Evolution in Higher Ed

by President Mark Lombardi, PhD

The college admissions scandal is a symptom — not the disease.

It tells us that it’s time to rethink how we value our institutions of higher education, the degrees they confer and the students they choose to admit (or not).

Yes, in the coming months, we need to deal with this admissions scandal thoroughly and unflinchingly. We must shine a strong light on the unethical practices taking place at some institutions and levy significant penalties on the people engaging in them.

President Mark Lombardi, PhD

However, our work doesn’t end there. We need to take concrete steps to level the playing field, making it simpler for students who want to earn degrees to do so — and harder for those seeking ways to game the system.

As a start, I support formally eliminating mandatory SAT and ACT scores from the admissions process. That’s in line with the direction higher education already is heading as we move deeper into the 21st century. It’s a time of disruption, and we should take advantage of the opportunity for self-examination and evolution.

For the past 100 years, we’ve placed too much value on how many students colleges and universities don’t let in. Many schools center their reputation on this metric, as if it has any bearing on the quality of the education they provide.

Our society largely has bought into this concept of exclusivity, fed and fueled by the cottage industries that have sprung up around admissions, including test preparation. Too many people believe that the best educations — and the brightest futures — come from elite schools with minuscule acceptance rates. That the more you have to pay, and the more hoops you have to jump through, the more value there must be.

They are, quite simply, dead wrong. The future of higher education does not lie in exclusion. The future of higher education lies in access and opportunity.

Like many industries, higher education is at an inflection point. We’re in the midst of the fourth Industrial Revolution and a digital transformation age that will touch every aspect of our scholastic, professional and personal lives. If colleges and universities are to put students on the path to success, we cannot coast on antiquated notions of education established centuries ago. We must do our work better than ever before, providing not only a higher quality of education, but one that truly prepares students for the careers and skills of today and the future.

As a society, we must judge colleges and universities on the merit of their outcomes. How many students graduate — and do their degrees earn them jobs in their areas of study in a timely fashion? What do they contribute to their employers and communities?

As institutions of higher education, delivering acceptable answers to these questions means changing long-standing approaches and mindsets. We must treat all students as individuals with diverse learning styles capable of learning and applying knowledge, because that’s what all the research tells us. We must use their time in our schools not for one-sided content delivery, but to create multifaceted partnerships — students working together with faculty and the university to facilitate their learning journeys. We must help them achieve the digital fluency required for the workforce of the future. And, we must deliver on our promise and ensure that they find relevant employment after graduation.

The colleges and universities that adapt most effectively have the best chance to survive and thrive into the 22nd century.

In this disruptive environment, SAT and ACT scores simply do not have a meaningful role to play as a required element of recruitment and admissions. Research repeatedly shows that these tests have no reliable correlation to collegiate or career success. At Maryville University, we have not used SAT or ACT scores as a benchmark for admissions since 2015, meaning that there is no minimum score a student must receive to be considered for admission.

We are in excellent company — more than 400 colleges and universities no longer require SAT or ACT scores, including the University of Iowa, New York University, Wake Forest University, the University of Chicago, DePaul University, Brandeis University and Smith College. It’s time to make this a consistent practice across all institutions, creating one less barrier for underrepresented students and one less advantage for the privileged to manipulate in their favor.

The wake of this admissions scandal leaves us with many questions to consider and hard truths to face. However, it also has created a pivotal moment to address systems of inequity. It’s time to recognize formally what we have known for years: high-stakes testing for teenagers tells us nothing about who they have the potential to become. And, it’s time to focus on fulfilling that potential with an education that prepares them with the job, life and soft skills necessary for the 21st century, not those of the last century. We owe it to our students — and our society — to seize this opportunity for change.

This story originally appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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