A Maize & Blue Convening on Digital Credentials for Admissions

On May 16th and 17th, a little over 40 people attended a convening supported by the National Science Foundation and hosted by the University of Michigan’s School of Information, where university administrators, admissions, academic researchers, faculty, and a few K12 youth-serving organizations continued what is now a years-long conversation about the potential of portfolio-based digital credentials (or badges). This time, the topic more focused: what is the potential of alternative digital credentialing systems as we contemplate the challenges of higher ed admissions today? For Mouse: we wondered about the potential, even more specifically, to influence a system where, right now, not all students have the same opportunity to pursue their academic interests.

The makeup of the room was a big part of the week’s success. Two thirds of those who were attending were from higher ed — academic researchers, faculty, admissions, and other administrators at schools represented below. Mouse and Chicago City of Learning presented case studies of youth-serving organizations experimenting with digital credentials toward goals of equity and access to high-quality learning.

Schools represented at the convening.

You can read about why Mouse was one of few (from many worthy) youth-serving organizations represented at the meeting in previous posts like Your university can make an impact on college access without spending $$$. The meeting was two-days long, and while I could easily make this post book-length if including all that was compelling about the conversation, I won’t. I just want to note here why the meeting was so important to us at Mouse.

For starters, we learned so much about higher-ed admissions.

By mid-morning on Day 1, my mouth was agape. As admissions representatives from University of Michigan (U of M), Kalamazoo College, and U of M’s Stamps School of Art and Design presented the lay of the land for college admissions, I felt the surf receding under my feet and the boats on the horizon consumed by a tidal wave of challenges that haven’t fully hit shore yet, but draw from a hundred+ years of institutional history.

Fun fact: Harvard University reviews over 40,000 applications for 1,100 undergraduate acceptances a year. A school like University of Michigan now gets roughly 70K applications per undergraduate class for about 6,500 enrollments. Students who apply have roughly 90% odds of being rejected, and an army of application reviewers are likely spending less than 10 minutes with an application in a round (but there may be several rounds if you’re a contender).

Meanwhile, small private colleges, which fight the behemoth state institutions for enrollment, admit more students overall than the schools at the top, but they are also expensive. And while the trendline nationally for applications heads steeply upwards, the competition at the top is widely understood as a delicate and very expensive art of hoop-jumping. This has been documented in detail, one of my favorite sources so far is William Deresiewicz, who you can read about in The Atlantic, or his book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.

It’s all very daunting, but my greatest takeaway from this meeting is that there is a field of professionals nationally who are working hard to work through these challenges, have extremely difficult jobs, and ARE open to innovation.

And there are innovations:

One representative in the group cited that ¼ of colleges in the US have eliminated ACT and SAT as requirements for application. Is this good? Maybe(?)…it certainly represents a shifting paradigm around how colleges analyze the “whole student,” another term I learned at this meeting. That same admissions expert (I’ll protect his/her inbox) cited that in their extensive experience (and they have data(!)) — there is no correlation between pre-admittance test scores and students’ successful completion of a four-year degree. (Whoah, I say. That even surprised me.)

Believe it or not, SAT and ACT scores were originally intended as an innovation, in the spirit of the ones we were there to discuss, to open access and build equity in the process of college application. We know how that’s working out, but if you ever wonder whether admissions knows it, too…they do, and things are happening to attempt change.

Check out the 90+ schools who have joined the Coalition for Change and the work that they’re doing to change the application process. And the Making Caring Common Project, who describe themselves as “a broad coalition of college admissions offices have joined forces to collectively encourage high school students to focus on meaningful ethical and intellectual engagement.” It focuses on avoiding the kind of hoop-jumping mentioned above (among other youth-centered challenges that threaten the well-being of students).

A group at Stanford d.school has worked on a number of designed experiments for Stanford2025, which is another refreshing acknowledgement by our country’s universities that things aren’t working as effectively as they might have at one time and certainly don’t yet accommodate the future we think is coming. Now, if only these experimentalists had the tools they need to conduct their experiments.

Bernard Bull, Assistant VP of Academics and Chief Innovation Officer at Concordia, whose blog you should read, turned me on to models like Wayfinding Academy in Portland, OR, and his ideas about “Outsider Higher Ed” orgs that he writes about, and seem worth watching.

And, which beg big questions for me:

What if lifelong learning portfolios were the next evolution of the Common App, such that application to college wouldn’t be a cramming process, but a matter of curating work and experiences you’ve been collecting your entire life? Similarly, admissions professionals would be “scouting” learners much earlier, using a more robust data set…the way their colleagues do in the athletic department.

What if admissions counselors were a part of the fabric of communities? Not dropping in each year to “pitch” their school, but working alongside youth development programs, schools, and other universities to fulfill the needs of communities, and our country. To reciprocate, every formal and informal program in the country can learn from university admissions professionals about makes for successful students in higher ed, and work as opportunity “brokers” (See Dixie Ching, Rafi Santo, Christopher Hoadley, Kylie Peppler) to support interest-driven transitions between programs, and from K12 institutions into higher education.

What if we re-narrate “gap years,” and turn “drop-out” into what I heard Karina Moore, Director of Admissions and Enrollment Management at U of M’s Stamps School of Art Design called “stop out.” She and I agreed that students who become overwhelmed in their first year by things as real a drastic change of context shouldn’t have the experience devalued, and certainly shouldn’t be taught by our system that it’s the end of the road. For many, that experience could be one of the most formative of their lives…one that helps them focus, and come back to their academics with renewed perspective. That’s IF we stopped perpetuating the myth that “some are equipped, and some just aren’t.” Karina herself is a first-gen-to-college woman of color, and the topic hit home, so another question: how do we foster the rise of more professionals like her into the career? I don’t pretend to know the full answer, but I bet it starts with better college access (wink emoji here).

What if more programs were a la carte, and stopped pretending that every field in our vast world requires four years? I need to do more research, but understand, also, that it’s very hard to garner student loans for non-4-year degree pursuits. So if, for example, I went to a school in a place that didn’t realize (or didn’t offer supports for) my inclination for engineering and I decided to put my toe in the water on my own, while working another job, I can’t get a loan without committing to a multi-year program? A growing percentage of college loans are being paid back by students who never finished their degree… huh? (he offered with irony).

These and so many other terrific questions came up during the convening. I’m crossing my fingers that a re-convening is on its way. It was one of the most productive conversations on alternative credentials that I’ve attended since Mouse started designing badges in 2009. Many were converts to the potential of micro-credentials as a doorway to portfolios of rich data. All were sold that such an innovation has the potential to change how we address equity in higher ed admissions. Many left the meeting already working on par-baked ideas with new thought partners. There was intellectual momentum.

Huge thanks to Barry Fishman and Stephanie Teasley at University of Michigan for all of the hard work to assemble the group, and for the many colleagues who inspired at the meeting that didn’t get a mention here. There were so many.