As a wave of protests against gun violence spread in high schools across the country, top universities reached out to reassure prospective students that breaking school rules for a principle won’t ruin their chance of attending.
In the highly fraught and often opaque world of college admissions, it was a rare moment of clarity. As Dartmouth College told students Thursday: “Speak your truth.”
It showed how deeply admissions calculations permeate the daily lives and decision-making of some high school students, as they paused — mid-outrage — to wonder whether joining a protest might hurt their chances of getting in.
“There’s anxiety that is inextricably connected to this work and this moment,” said Lee Coffin, vice provost for enrollment and dean of admissions and financial aid at Dartmouth. “You see in this issue those two things have twinned.”
He said he couldn’t remember another such time, and certainly not one when students were asking his office and alumni interviewers if walking out of class to protest could imperil their admission prospects. The Common Application for college admission asks whether students have been disciplined at school, and many colleges stipulate in their letters of admission that the offer could be rescinded if the student is suspended or behaves inappropriately.
Coffin said he and colleagues at other schools wanted students to know that if “this is an act of conscience . . . don’t think about college admissions right now.”
On Friday, the president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling spoke out about the movement, encouraging admissions officers to respond to a survey so that students and parents could know how disciplinary actions might be factored into admissions decisions. The organization created a website to centralize that information.
“Student activism at either the secondary or postsecondary level is not problematic on its face,” David Burge, the president of the organization, wrote. “Activism signals that students are ready to take control of the world around them, that they are finding their voice, building confidence, and are on the path to be engaged citizens.”
After a gunman killed 17 students and teachers at a Florida high school on Valentine’s Day, an outpouring of emotions and demands swept the country.
In the Washington area alone, more than 1,000 students walked out of class Wednesday and swarmed the U.S. Capitol grounds to demand action on gun control and school safety, many facing penalties from their high schools.
The Boston Globe reported Thursday that a Massachusetts Institute of Technology admissions official had responded to applicants’ questions with a blog post reassuring them that discipline for peaceful, meaningful protests will not negatively affect their admissions outcome. Stu Schmill, dean of admissions and student financial services at MIT, wrote on his blog Thursday:
We have long held that students should not make decisions based on what they think will get them into college, but instead based on values and interests that are important to them. We believe students should follow compasses over maps, pursuing points of direction rather than specific destinations and trusting they will end up where they belong. As such, we always encourage students to undertake whatever course of action in life is most meaningful to, and consistent with, their own principles, and not prioritize how it might impact their college applications. We do not expect or prefer any particular choice in the abstract, and even if we did, it shouldn’t change what students do.. . . We also believe that civic responsibility is, like most things at MIT, something you learn best by doing . . .
At Brown University, admissions officials have received questions from students and parents, said Brian Clark, a university spokesman. On Friday, they made their position clear: “Applicants to Brown: Expect a socially conscious, intellectually independent campus where freedom of expression is fundamentally important. You can be assured that peaceful, responsible protests against gun violence will not negatively impact decisions on admission to Brown.”
At Yale University, a post on the admissions blog noted, “Yale will NOT be rescinding anyone’s admission decision for participating in peaceful walkouts for this or other causes, regardless of any high school’s disciplinary policy. I, for one, will be cheering these students on from New Haven.”
Other schools also put out statements.
Some spoke directly to faculty or to high school students, encouraging the protests.
Some universities remained silent. Stanford University does not have a statement about such protests, spokeswoman Lisa Lapin said. Spokesmen for some schools did not respond immediately.
Harvard spokeswoman Rachael Dane said Friday that Harvard College has not made any comments about Parkland protests, but this is what the school would say in response to a question about students and civic engagement:
The mission of Harvard College is to provide a deeply transformative liberal arts and sciences education that will prepare our students for a life of citizenship and leadership. As always, those who engage responsibly in exercising their rights and freedoms would not have their chances of admission compromised.
There was pushback from some people who saw liberal colleges supporting an anti-gun message, and some asking if there would also be support for students joining in Black Lives Matter or antiabortion events.
“To me, it has been remarkable to witness” this youth movement, Coffin said. “They’re showing that they do care — they have a voice; they’re paying attention.
“We’re encouraging students on both sides of this issue to express themselves. That’s part of the discourse that the country needs.”