Published on 2016/11/28

Putting the Mission Back in Admissions

Co-written with David Goodman | Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Advising in the Woods College of Advancing Studies, Boston College

The EvoLLLution | Putting the Mission Back in Admissions
Diversifying program offerings and audiences served must also lead to a discussion focused on the transformation and evolution of key services built to support the academic mission of the institution.

The task of managing multiple academic programs across a diverse range of subject matters presents colleges and universities with daunting logistical challenges. But this task can also give rise to deeper, more philosophical questions. Particularly when the objectives and the governing principles of its academic programs differ widely, an institution is confronted with the question of how to integrate its various program offerings with its core institutional identity and mission. By sharing our experience of navigating these challenges at the Woods College, we hope to generate discussion around the role that admissions can play in advancing the mission of an educational institution.

The James A. Woods College of Advancing Studies is the college of continuing and professional studies at Boston College. Originally founded in 1929, and later formally renamed to reflect Fr. James Woods’ lengthy and fruitful tenure as dean, the Woods College has recently embarked on a period of rapid growth. Under Fr. James Burns, appointed as interim Dean in 2012 and then Dean in 2014, we redesigned and renamed one of the master’s degrees and introduced three new Master’s programs—in the areas of Applied Economics, Cyber Security Policy and Governance, and Healthcare Administration. This revision and rapid expansion of our program offerings has necessitated new academic infrastructure, including specialized admissions sub-committees that are able to evaluate applications to these new programs with the appropriate level of expertise. It also prompted a great deal of reflection on our overall admissions priorities. What kind of considerations do we bring to bear as we decide whether to offer a given applicant admission? What kinds of programs and educational experiences are we hoping to foster through our admissions processes? How do our admissions processes fit into the larger vision and purpose of the Woods College?

Undergraduate admissions at the Woods College has always been firmly based in the mission of Boston College, which emphasizes the importance of personal and ethical formation alongside intellectual and professional development.  But admissions at the Woods College also reflects the distinct place of the Woods College within Boston College. As admissions to the Boston College “day program” becomes increasingly competitive, the Woods College is tasked with ensuring that a Boston College education remains accessible to underserved populations in the Boston area and beyond. How is this priority reflected in our admissions process? In the main, it means that we adopt a slightly broader focus than might be typical at peer institutions. In addition to looking at a student’s grade point average and SAT scores, we also look very closely at their personal essays, letters of recommendation, work experience, and overall academic trajectory. We seek in this way to discern evidence of character and perseverance. We look for students who have a self-awareness with regards to strengths and weaknesses, and a clarity of purpose with regards to the decision to pursue postsecondary education.

But undergraduate admission also demands self-awareness on the part of the admissions committee itself. When considering an application, we cannot simply look at an applicant’s strengths and weaknesses; we need to ask whether we are in a position to provide the support that the applicant will need in order to succeed at Boston College. Like other continuing education schools, we frequently receive applications from students whose road to postsecondary education has been far from smooth, and who face considerable obstacles as they move forward toward a bachelor’s degree. In many such cases, we are pleased to be able accept these students, or to invite them to take courses as a non-degree student (with advisor support) as a way of ramping up towards a later application. In other cases, however, we reluctantly conclude that the applicant in question needs more faculty and advising support than we can offer. As difficult as these decisions are, they grow ultimately out of the mission of the Woods College as an entity within Boston College. What we want to do, ultimately, is to extend the resources of Boston College as widely as possible. In order to do this, we focus on admitting students who can thrive within Boston College. To admit an applicant who, in all likelihood, will not excel at Boston College would be to do them a disservice.

As the Woods College has moved further into the sphere of graduate education—with the introduction of the new master’s programs mentioned above and with recent authorization to admit international graduate students—we have had to think seriously about how to approach admissions at this level. What are our main admissions priorities as we strive to build strong programs and to provide meaningful learning experiences for our students? In keeping with the core identity of the Woods College, we continue to prioritize inclusivity in our graduate admissions process. This means that we take a broad view of the applicants to our graduate programs, avoiding strict numerical cut-offs, and looking instead for evidence of focus and determination. But a number of other priorities come into play at the graduate level. Indeed, it is at this level that we are best able to advance the mission of Boston College as a whole, that of fostering the development of globally minded people for others.

This priority comes into play in the admissions process in a number of ways. On the one hand, we are strongly focused at the graduate level on cultivating diverse cohorts. With the knowledge that our students will be entering a rapidly changing global marketplace upon graduation, we strive to ensure that they are exposed to a wide variety of cultural, generational and professional perspectives in the classroom. At the same time, we are interested in the quality of the contribution that a given applicant will make to classroom dynamics and to the overall experience of their peers. We look for students who will set a standard of active engagement and seriousness in the classroom and who are eager to exchange ideas and perspectives with their classmates. Concretely, this means conducting in-person or Skype interviews with applicants and scrutinizing their letters of recommendation for evidence of a strong willingness to contribute in the ways indicated. By shaping our cohorts in this fashion, our hope, ultimately, is to create a learning environment in which students are called upon not simply to master a certain body of information, but to be present for and responsible to others. It is our core conviction—flowing ultimately from the mission of Boston College—that these virtues of character will allow students to succeed professionally and to have a positive impact within their chosen fields of endeavor.

As recounted above, the last four years have seen significant changes at the Woods College. From an institution focused largely on accessible undergraduate education, we have transformed into a place where students can explore a diverse range of undergraduate and graduate degree options. Among other challenges, this process of transformation has raised important questions concerning our admissions practices and philosophy. It obliges us to think about how admissions practices across a diverse range of programs can all flow toward a single goal, that of advancing the mission of the Woods College as a whole. Our reflection on this question has resulted, we think, in a more nuanced and multi-dimensional understanding of that mission itself. Whereas undergraduate admissions can continue to answer primarily to our goals of access and inclusivity, graduate admissions can be oriented around a closely related set of core objectives—that of fostering the development of virtuous individuals poised to make a positive impact in their professions and beyond. As we continue to grow, we look forward to deepening our engagement with our institutional mission, by thinking about how new initiatives, policies and practices, can help us to achieve what we are called to be and do in the world.

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