College Applicants Get Chance to Visually Make Their Case - Higher Education
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College Applicants Get Chance to Visually Make Their Case

by Catherine Morris

Goucher College President Jose A. Bowen says his school’s application process helps take into account that there “are circumstances that would keep a person from reaching their potential in high school.”

Goucher College President Jose A. Bowen says his school’s application process helps take into account that there “are circumstances that would keep a person from reaching their potential in high school.”

Can a cell phone video get you into college? As of this fall, maybe. At Goucher College, prospective students will have the option to forgo transcripts and SAT scores in favor of a short video.

In the opening of the promotional video for Goucher’s new video application, a student holds up a high school transcript and calmly tears it into four pieces. “­That’s it, no test scores! No transcripts!” he says. “At Goucher, you’re more than just a number.”

Goucher, a small liberal arts college serving around 1,500 students on almost 300 wooded acres near Baltimore, is rethinking how students apply to college. By offering the video as an alternative to the traditional application, Goucher representatives say they hope to attract a more diverse type of student and even students who might not consider going to college at all.

“­There are lots of circumstances that would keep a person from reaching their potential in high school,” says Goucher President Jose A. Bowen. “We wanted to have an alternative way for those people to feel comfortable, and we want it to be clear and simple and transparent, as to how they could get into college.”

The video — a two-minute clip in which students explain why they are a good fit for Goucher — will be the crux of the application, supplemented with a brief application, a statement of academic integrity, a graded writing assignment and one of their best works from high school.

Out-of-the-box step

While the video application is a radical step, it is not unusual for an institution like Goucher. In 2007, Goucher went test optional in its admissions process, and all Goucher undergraduates are required to study abroad in order to graduate. Nor is the college highly selective. According to U.S. News and World Report, Goucher has an acceptance rate of 72.27 percent.

“[Offering the alternative Application] is a continuation of how we’ve differentiated ourselves all along,” says Christopher Wild, an admissions counselor and project manager of the group that developed the video application. “I really don’t see this as a rebranding as much as it is a continuation of who we are as innovators in the marketplace.”

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the newness of the concept of the video application, it has already found some detractors.

Without a high school transcript to measure students’ academic achievement in high school, how can admissions counselors be sure that prospective students are prepared for the rigors of college?

Others have posited that the video application is a cynical attention grab, meant to differentiate the school from the scores of others that participate in the Common Application, a universal undergraduate college admission application.

But Goucher representatives say that critics are missing the point. “There’s been a quick rush to judgment, in any number of ways. ‑ The thing that I keep trying to explain to people is we’re trying something new,” Wild says. “What we’re trying to do is reach out to the potential that [are] not applying to college.”

Targeting untapped potential

The idea of the video came about over the course of the summer of 2014, at the proposal of Bowen, who joined the university in July 2014. Bowen says that the video application will capture more of a student’s character than can be encapsulated in an essay or a test score — and is intended to reach out to two groups of students: the ones who “undermatch,” ending up at community colleges or not going to college at all, and those whose high school transcripts do not reflect their talents.

“While the SAT and grades are predictive, they don’t catch all the potential. They’re not perfect,” Bowen says. “History is full of examples [of that], the most striking of which to me is Dr. Martin Luther King with his C- in public speaking.”

Low-income students who are accepted through the video application will have the option of applying for need-based financial aid and merit scholarships. It is worth noting that some of Goucher’s merit scholarships do require a high school transcript.

The alternative application appeals to Bowen on a personal level. Although he was a talented high school student in Fresno, California, he and his parents had little concept of the postsecondary options that were available to him — or even that the SATs were a means of getting accepted into a good school.

“Despite having good grades, I didn’t have good SATs, because no one told me they were important. So I took a gig the night before [the SATs] until 3 in the morning,” he says. “Music was more important to me when I was 17 years old.”

When it came time to apply to college, his school college counselor handed out open enrollment forms. “I was one of those people at a 600-person high school with one counselor,” Bowen says. But his mother suspected there were other, better schools out there that her son had not been made aware of. So she marched to the college counselor’s office and grabbed a form from the top of the piles that littered the room. She made her son fill it out, and soon enough, he ended up at Stanford.

“I’d never heard of it,” Bowen says. “And I lived in California!”

Bowen says that he hopes the video application will appeal to students like him.

Drawing in students

According to Wild, the alternative application has already attracted some student interest. Already, 11 prospective students have initiated the Goucher video application. To qualify the video application as a success, Wild says that 25 to 40 students would have to be accepted through it this year.

“At the end of the year, if we don’t find that this is working, we’ll re-evaluate it,” Wild says.

For high school seniors, applying to colleges can be a stressful process that drags on for months. So Goucher representatives listened to student voices as they created the new application.

“We convened a couple [of] focus groups with students over the summer and one thing that kept coming through their voices was how much stress and anxiety is involved in the college application process,” says Dr. Nina Kasniunas, an assistant professor of political science and international relations and a member of the working group that developed the video.

“We want to differentiate ourselves (and) have something as an alternative to the Common Application, but at the same [time] it has to be something that doesn’t add more stress, more anxiety into this process.”

Though ease and convenience for students is one factor in the video application, it is not the total goal.

“We try to avoid any type of language which would try to communicate that this is something that’s flashy and outrageous and kind of a gimmick,” says Kasniunas. “Being able to sit down and plan out what you’re going to say for a two-minute video is not an easy task.”

Bowen compared the alternative application process to interviewing for a job.

“Nobody looks at your transcript. They interview you,” he said. “Why shouldn’t we do the same?”

It is too early to predict if the video application will catch on at other institutions, appeal to large numbers of students or even survive at Goucher. The effect of admitting students based mainly on a compelling video will only be able to be measured years, even decades, down the road, as Goucher graduates move on to jobs and careers in their chosen fields.

Catherine Morris can be reached at cmorris@diverseeducation.com.

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