About 33 percent of all college students are Black or Latino, yet at selective four-year schools they make up only 15 percent of the student body. A new report called “Turning the Tide” from the Harvard Graduate School of Education project Making Caring Common seeks to address this. Endorsed by the same selective schools where Black and Latino students are underrepresented, the report calls for increased minority student access to higher education. It is the first step in a two-year campaign that seeks to substantially reshape the existing college admissions process. And it’s the first comprehensive effort of its kind. As a high school counselor working with a population of students that is almost entirely Black and Latino, I applaud the report’s authors and want to make sure that underserved students know this is a step toward equity in college admissions.
To every underserved minority high school student:
Imagine a world where we place importance on caring for others. I know it can be hard when you think about all the bad things that happen in your community, or when you watch the news. But it’s possible.
At the Jesuit high school where I work, we have a phrase—“men and women for others”—that embodies the call to care for others. It is the reason many Catholic schools ask students to complete service hours and why we reward students who serve others. And now, these same social teachings we instill in you to help you become better citizens may even help you get in to college.
As you know, the college application process isn’t always equitable to you, your experiences, or your families. Right now, one of the most important factors in the college application process is test scores. Yet there is a disparity between the test scores of white and minority students by as many as 100 points on the SAT. But this may change, as about 60 of the country’s most selective schools have said they want to de-emphasize applicants’ standardized test scores. These include big names like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, and also smaller schools like Kenyon College and Swarthmore College. If others follow their lead, college admissions could change for the better.
Specifically, these schools have committed to emphasizing care for the common good rather than valuing personal achievement as they have traditionally done. They commit to emphasizing quality of service over quantity. They have committed to recognizing your service to your families and to your communities.
Many of my students go straight home after school because they need to look after younger siblings or help cook and clean. One of my students missed a few days of school to watch siblings while her mother was in the hospital. Another works on the weekend because someone in their family recently lost their job. Another missed an amazing summer program so she could help take care of her older relatives. I’ve spent time with all of these students, helping them to balance family obligations and school, making sure they are still able to get their homework done. I’m sure this is familiar to you. I worry every day about how they will compare to other students applying to college. Will their stories be valued more than another student’s test scores? Will putting priority on their community over their GPA hurt them?
The answers from colleges who have signed on to Making Caring Common are encouraging. For example, Yale’s dean of undergraduate admissions Jeremiah Quinlan said in a press release, “Yale has agreed to add a question on next year’s application asking students to reflect on their contribution to family, community, and/or the public good.” Under the current admissions process, one of the only ways to make sure this gets across is either in a personal statement or a recommendation. For a prestigious university to include a new question like this in its application validates all kinds of non-traditional service that benefit the common good.
At its core, Catholic social teaching is really about concern for others and the common good. To see secular schools care about this is a great sign. The first tenet of Catholic social teaching is “Life and Dignity of the Human Person,” an all-encompassing theme. At my school we show our students this by example. Our very existence is based on the fact that we believe you deserve a quality education just like anyone else, and that not getting one is an insult to your human dignity. Every day we try to show you how much you matter, that you have the power to impact the world in the most positive ways, especially if you have a degree. We know that if you learn from example that it will only help you and the community you are from. You are learning to work with your classmates, not to compete against them. You can bring each other up instead of having to put each other down to succeed. Knowing that colleges care about the kinds of students they admit means I can worry less about the people that you will be around when you go to college. I can feel more confident that you will succeed in college, not only because you will know how to find the people who will support you but also because they will be easier to find. There will hopefully be larger communities of students just like you. They may or may not be Catholic, they may or may not have attended a Catholic school, but they will share your values because colleges have deemed them important.
The second tenet of Catholic social teaching is a “Call to Family, Community, and Participation.” Schools are communities, and at ours we carefully mold a community of people who care for each other. We want you to care for the other communities that you are involved in as well, including the one where you eventually go to college. Different studies have shown that being involved on a college campus or even just living on campus leads to higher retention and graduation rates in college. By instilling in you the value of community we increase your chances of graduating from college. As you work with your classmates to strengthen your community, you will strengthen your chances of graduating college at the same time. I know it may seem counterintuitive given how our culture values personal achievement, seemingly, above all else, but focusing on others is going to allow you to succeed. And when you succeed, we all succeed.
Hopefully this convergence of values between religious and secular worlds will help to make this a priority for everyone.
So let’s applaud the schools that endorse these ideas and push others to follow, because once everyone is on board we can start to build a global community that works in community to bring people up and honor their dignity as a human person. I know I can’t wait to see all that you accomplish.
This article also appears in the October 2016 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 81, No. 10, pages 36–37).