Low Income Applicants, Merit, and the Usefulness of Portfolios

Everyone is interested in building a larger talent pool for today’s economy. This begins with increasing the number of people with access to education, particularly the low-income students who may not be aware of opportunities or worry they lack the basic requirements. Initiatives like Questbridge — backed by Silicon Valley — has spread to 35 universities and succeeded in placing 2000 low income students from a total pool of about 10,000.

Another initiative includes looking at non-cognitive traits as the dominant indicators of success, in school and in the real world. Leaders such as Angela Duckworth suggest that detecting personality traits like grit and self-discipline are more useful indicators of success than test scores.

In spite of these positive initiatives, schools still struggle with how to discern merit from within the largely standardized toolsets that currently preclude the disadvantaged. We can all see how test scores correspond to zip code … so what other tools can schools use during the admissions process?

We have long advocated that portfolios offer the best view into the various dimensions of a person: skill, curiosity, persistence, and the ability to pursue open-ended problems. Almost every school we have talked with agrees with that opinion but seemed to be concerned whether allowing an electronic supplement would benefit those who might use financial resources to create an artifact with greater production value. We know from past experience with art schools that this will not be the case. Admissions staff and faculty have deep experience looking past superficial differences and are able to hone in on the traits that matter.

Here is an example from Tufts University. Starting in 2009, they gave applicants the chance to submit a video as a response to one of their supplement questions (an option, not a requirement):

At the end of the first year, we realized that the most memorable and impactful videos were those done by students on their smart phones or video camera in their home or school — done either alone or with the help of a friend to hold the camera. As we had anticipated, it was the message that resonated, not the actual production of the piece. -- Susan Garrity Ardizzoni, Director of Undergraduate Admissions

We have yet to hear an example within higher education admissions where this was not the case. Seeing these additional dimensions provides the necessary clues to better perceive the person as a whole and the insight to make informed decisions outside of the standardized channels.

If your school is interested in accepting projects from applicants, but fear whether the logistics of that situation are feasible for admissions staff, check out this MIT case study about devoting just 3 minutes to seeing what applicants make.