Making character matter more
by Heidi Hormel
University admissions may have reached an inflection point where qualities such as grit and empathy are becoming as important as GPAs and SATs.

Bill Conley, the University’s vice president for enrollment management, says that if schools like Bucknell stress these character qualities, then “we’re getting to truly measure the potential of a human being.”

The Character Collaborative, of which Bucknell is a charter member, is a new all-volunteer organization exploring the qualitative rather than quantitative assets of potential students. The group has united educators and administrators from the likes of Swarthmore, Carnegie Mellon and MIT plus secondary schools and research and testing organizations interested in elevating noncognitive, character-related attributes in the admissions process.

Robert Massa, senior vice president for enrollment at Drew University in New Jersey and interim chairman of the collaborative’s board, says that administrators are searching for better ways to choose students for their classes “because we know that overemphasis on academics is damaging. We want learning to be fun. We want to see [applicants] helping fellow students. Those attributes are more important than loading up on the maximum number of AP classes, for example.”

While Bucknell has a holistic approach to admissions decisions, Conley explains there is currently not a “thoughtful and systematic way of identifying and evaluating the noncognitive dimensions of a student,” such as empathy, compassion, perseverance and honesty.

To address the need, the collaborative plans to develop a workbook to help admissions officers create rubrics that tease out the noncognitive attributes that are important to their educational institutions, Massa says.

The workbook isn’t enough, though.

Massa and Conley agree that the admissions process must be transparent enough for students to understand the qualities that are important to their chosen college or university’s mission and campus climate.

“We’re looking beyond the numbers,” Conley says. “We’re moving away from something very numerical in favor of an open and holistic process of recognizing talent.”