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Will It Still Matter Who Gets In and Why?

Wednesday, September 9, 2020  
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What changes are afoot in higher education and how might they impact, reflect, and/or inspire the work of independent schools? Who better to ask than higher education experts and futurists Michael Horn and Jeff Selingo. Horn and Selingo will be co-presenting at the SAIS Annual Conference.

Stalled Progress in Improving the Online Learning Experience

Hybrid learning is here to stay in higher education. That seems to be a foregone conclusion given that nearly all colleges and universities have offered options for online instruction in the midst of COVID. However, Michael Horn says that unfortunately, this comprehensive adoption has not resulted in across-the-board improvements in how the online education is delivered. This he attributes to a delayed investment in technology and training.

He explains, “The friction between the desire of many faculty members to avoid in-person instruction for safety reasons, and the countervailing push politically for schools to be in person caused school leaders to hold off on investing the time and money needed to develop a high-quality learning experience.” How can independent schools learn from the college experience and make the investments needed to improve tools and teacher training?

As independent schools look to improve the online experience and deepen student engagement this fall, Jeff Selingo also says it will be key to focus on re-creating the concept of community. “Even for those schools that have successfully translated their pedagogy online," he says, “the next challenge will be to ensure that connections with peers and connections with the institution are in tact.” Independent schools should be thinking about how they can create opportunities for those informal conversations that typically would happen in the hallways, before or after class. And how to ensure a connection to a school’s physical campus itself when the learning is not actually happening there.

More Flexibility, More Pathways

Just as hybrid learning is here to stay in higher education, so too is more flexibility in scheduling and calendars, predicts Selingo. Before COVID-19, most four-year institutions ran on basically the same calendar, offering a similar number of in-person instructional weeks with a similar schedule of breaks. As the pandemic evolved in different ways in different communities, colleges and universities were forced to change their schedules and calendars—and then often change them again. Some of these changes, and/or a greater openness to flexibility, are likely to remain for the long-term.

Alongside that flexibility, the adjustments made during the pandemic will accelerate the emergence of new pathways for students to earn college degrees. “There will likely always be a desire and need for the full four-year residential experience,” says Selingo. “But more colleges will begin to offer three-year degrees and additional low-residency options, where students are on campus for less time but participate in work or internships off campus to earn money and/or experience.”

Re-Assessing Admission Assets 

In admission, Selingo can see another change accelerating. In his book Who Gets In and Why, he reveals that even pre-pandemic, admission tests like the SAT and ACT were not as important to the college decision process as many parents would have thought. “Grades and curriculum,” he says, “have always been the most important factors.” This coming year, without all the traditional assets in hand—most notably test scores—admission deans will lean in even further toward teacher recommendations and student essays as they make admission decisions.

Given that, independent school faculty and administrators can help students by using recommendations to fill in gaps in the full picture of a student. It will also be more important than ever that students take the time to tell their own story in a cohesive way through the essays they submit to each college.

Meanwhile, inside college admission offices, important conversations will be taking place over the next five years. Admission leaders will have to look at how this cohort of students performs, and then re-evaluate what assets they truly need to enroll a successful class of students who stay, engage, and graduate.

Growth in Gap Years

Another headline-grabbing change in higher ed is the significant increase in college deferment. Horn reports, “20 percent of Harvard's first-year students are taking a gap year—roughly three times the number that usually defer. At MIT, 8 percent of students are deferring admissions, up from 1 percent in normal years. At Bates College, the number is 10 percent—nearly three times the usual rate.”

Many independent school families fear this deferment will create pent-up demand and will disadvantage the high schoolers graduating in 2021. In response to this concern, Horn says we should consider the possibility that activity on many college campuses might still not be “normal” next year, which could impact the number of students trying to attend. He adds, “That reality might also might encourage students to think about more affordable online options than they would have otherwise considered, depending on what their goals are for the college experience.” The number of students taking gap (or “discovery”) years may also remain high for the next several years. In his book Choosing College, Horn makes the research-based case that there are many more students who could benefit from doing so. He also points to a growing number of options for curated gap-year experiences.

Supporting Families 

What can administrators do to support students anxiously watching this changing and uncertain higher ed landscape? Horn starts with the basics. “I think the first key is to help students and families to remember to breathe. Remind them that we're all going through this experience, and that no one's schooling experience is normal or uninterrupted. Sports have been suspended, extracurriculars put to the side, grades upended. The onus will be on colleges to work through that, not penalize everyone.” Horn also says that independent school administrators can educate themselves on gap years and other new emerging options for schooling, in addition to more traditional college options.

As in any aspect of any crisis, Horn also reminds us that communication is critical. “In these times, leaders—despite their uncertainty—must err on the side of what may seem like over communicating and being fully transparent. Even when they don't have all the answers, there are principles in crisis communications to share what you do know, help people see your thought process, and focus on bringing people along to where you think you'll end up as a community.” 

Michael Horn is senior strategist at Guide Education, executive editor at Education Next, and author of Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life.

Jeff Selingo is the author of two New York Times bestsellers, a contributor to The Atlantic and the Washington Post, and a special advisor for innovation at Arizona State University. His recently published book, Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admission.

Hear the latest from Michael Horn and Jeff Selingo at the SAIS Virtual Annual Conference, October 21-23, 2020. Register at


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