Goucher College Embraces Two-Minute YouTube Applications From Prospective Students -- No Transcripts Required

No grades. Just the honor system.
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September 10, 2014
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college, YouTube, grades

Goucher College is a small liberal arts school located in a suburb of Baltimore, MD. Like many small liberal arts colleges, it has its distinguishing quirks, such as being the only college in the US to require all its students to complete a study aboard experience.

And now it has a new one: Goucher is scrapping the traditional undergraduate application process -- which, aside from the application itself, historically requires applicants to assemble official, sealed transcripts from high school; at least two letters of recommendation; an essay, statement of purpose or other form of writing sample; and optional test scores -- and replacing it with a video, produced by the student. The video application must be supplemented by a digital application, a fee, something called a “signed statement of academic integrity,” and two “works” from the applicant’s high school career, one of which should be a graded writing assignment.

This approach has been spearheaded by Goucher’s new president, José A. Bowen, who explains:

“For most Americans, applying to college is a giant mystery,” Bowen said. “The whole system is broken. Nobody thinks this is a good thing. It’s very high-stress. It’s all about privilege and wealth. I’m convinced we are leaving talent on the table in this country because the process is so complicated and stressful. I want to level the playing field.”

Naturally, this move has created a lot of buzz. Video attachments to college applications are not a new idea, but supplanting the time-honored practice of collecting documents and presenting oneself on paper with instead presenting oneself at arm’s length from an iPhone is a whole other deal. And yes, Goucher’s new video application rules are insistent that selfie-style phone videos are fine; their interest is not in brilliant filmmaking, but the ability of a student to organize and present their thoughts clearly and effectively. According to the video application FAQ on Goucher’s website:

Production quality is not important to us. We should be able to see and hear you, but that is all that we are looking for. We believe there should be greater accessibility to a private liberal arts education, and production quality should not be a barrier. We care more about you and why you want to be a student at Goucher than flashy special effects.

Whether this effort will level the playing field as intended is an open question; video may be a more comfortable medium for some students, certainly, but it’s hardly as though these videos will be viewed in a vacuum in which personal bias -- the kind of thing paper applications are supposed to avoid -- is conveniently erased. In some respects, this move creates as many problems as it seeks to solve:

"It puts an emphasis on how well you perform for a camera," says [Robert] Sternberg, the author of College Admissions for the 21st Century. "Unfortunately, people can't help things like interpersonal skills and attractiveness."

And video could lead to bias, Sternberg says, based on how applicants look, how they dress, or how they present themselves on camera.

"The best admissions process," Sternberg says, "is always going to be one that uses multiple measures, so you hope to cancel out the bias. People have unconscious racial biases or gender biases that they're not aware of."

Much of the coverage of Goucher's video application has lit on the “NO TRANSCRIPTS!?!?!” angle as a major concern. We tend to assume that college demands there be some semi-objective measure of meritoriousness -- or at least a good reason to give a crap about your grades in high school -- and making the process more creative and open to individuals who didn’t excel on paper seems to fly in the face of what college is thought to represent. Work hard, get a degree, be a success, and get used to standardized methods of assessment.

On a cultural level, transcripts and grades are inextricable from college attendance. Even as more and more institutions are making standardized test scores optional (or just eliminating them altogether), the shift has been controversial. Opponents of tests like the SAT argue that tests do not supply any additional information not already imparted by other application materials, that even brilliant students may test poorly, and that persistent race gaps in test scores -- gaps which can still be seen even when family income is controlled for -- demonstrate that standardized tests are inherently flawed.

On the other hand, test supporters argue that widespread grade inflation renders transcripts less predictive of collegiate success, and that SAT scores still have a place as a reliable indicator of intelligence. (For its part, the College Board -- the company that designs and administers the SAT -- has recently announced plans to rework the test to address its acknowledged problems as a barrier to college access for many low income people of color.)

The point being, even test scores -- which have loads of contradictory and questionable data on both sides -- are a controversial thing to eliminate. Eliminating transcripts in favor of the aforementioned “signed statement of academic integrity” can come across as abandoning any standards whatsoever. Said statement, as included on the Goucher video application, reads simply:

By typing my name below, I attest that all materials submitted within this application are of my own work. If secondary sources were used, they are properly cited. I also understand that any violation of academic integrity will result in the withdrawal of my application.

No grades. Just the honor system.

Part of the background here is about Goucher needing to fill its classrooms; as a former employee in higher education admissions at a smallish liberal arts university, my first instinct on reading about this experiment was to wonder if Goucher isn’t trying to address problems getting bodies in the door. Sure enough, according to their admissions office, Goucher received 3,615 applications for its 2012 freshman class; it offered admission to 72% of those prospective students, but only 16% chose to enroll, putting Goucher firmly in the b-school (i.e., “If I don’t get into my first choice, this is my backup optinon”) status.

There’s nothing wrong with not being highly selective, or even being a backup school. Many such colleges are excellent institutions that graduate students with solid educations. And the truth is, unless you went to an Ivy or are entering an outrageously competitive field, the overwhelming majority of prospective employers care little for where your undergraduate degree came from. But clearly, Goucher would like to see more of its admitted students actually choose to attend, and demystifying the application process is one way to do that (although I’m left to wonder if the lower income students most likely to benefit from this opportunity are going to one day find themselves suffocated by the student loans they’ll likely have to take out to do so).

Still, even if it is a bit of a gimmick, I think this video application option is an interesting development. And students who aren’t as comfortable in front of a camera can still choose to do things the old-fashioned way and use Goucher’s traditional application.

As a page-oriented person myself, were I applying, I imagine I’d be inclined to stick with the paper option. But on the other hand, the main reason I was admitted to the program that would result in my second Master's degree -- a program that was slightly beyond my ability, and which my mediocre grades didn’t qualify me for -- was because I met with the program director after I applied and made an impassioned case for my admission. Although I spent most of my first semester being convinced it was all a terrible mistake and I didn’t belong there, in time I rose to the challenge and earned the best grades of my life. This was before anyone was putting video cameras in phones, but still, the impact of a personal appeal cannot be overstated.

I doubt that video applications will be overtaking Harvard anytime soon, and certainly many universities will laugh at the absurdity of Goucher’s dramatic move and question its practical import. Nevertheless, I have difficulty condemning experiments like this when they have the potential to help someone grasp an opportunity they may have thought out of their reach. And anything that inspires us to reconsider our assumptions about what denotes intelligence and predictors of academic success is a useful effort -- so long as it doesn’t simply trade one set of biases for another.