A New Perspective on the College Board


Photo courtesy of the Wall Street Journal.

College Board CEO David Coleman gives a talk on College Board’s recently released SAT preparation service.

Catherine Cossaboom, Editor

The other day, I read an opinion piece published by the CEO of the College Board in The Atlantic magazine, and it really got me thinking about all the aspects of the school system that aren’t serving us well and to what extent the College Board is involved in all of it. 

What surprised me the most was how genuine the editorial was. Even though the author, David Coleman, is the leader of an organization that has practically monopolized our education, he seems so enlightened about all the anxiety such a system has created in today’s teenagers. 

He’s bold and unwavering, asserting that students “scramble” to apply to college and “give away more of their childhood” in the process. He even equates AP classes and standardized tests like the SAT to an “arms race,” an analogy that very accurately describes how students continue to pile on more and more coursework and extracurriculars in an attempt to step ahead in admissions. In the process, we lose more and more of our free time and fall subject to an increasing avalanche of standards and expectations society has placed on high-achieving students, and Coleman seems to get that.

Most of all, Coleman is remarkably defiant that the current college admissions process inherently teaches values that completely miss the idea of what a meaningful college experience should be. Notably, our current system enforces quantity not quality, forcing students to spread out over a vast array of commitments and courses in an attempt to appear well-rounded instead of actually delving into subjects they’re likely to passionately pursue in the future. 

But first of all, let’s address the obvious question. This is, after all, coming from the man who’s led the invention of the very tests causing all of the anxiety he’s condemning. It’s coming from the leader of an organization that has allegedly repeatedly violated its nonprofit status, a company that has a practical monopoly over not only our standardized tests but all our AP coursework. With that amount of power, why not implement some changes? 

And that’s exactly where Coleman falls short. In his editorial, he tries to offer a solution to the situation, but he focuses more on how students should reorient themselves to have a meaningful college experience than actually how the snowballing stress so many of us experience can be resolved. 

His “solution” consists of three pieces of advice, all of which are completely valid: find good teachers and mentors; pick an activity to focus on; and learn to love ideas. The last was especially meaningful, offering solace by letting students know that sometimes learning “hurts” because it’s difficult to move past your initial opinions and intimidation to learn to appreciate great ideas. Those that succeed, Coleman argues, are able to grow from every subject instead of pigeonholing themselves, pushing past their failures to find meaning. He also makes it clear that a valuable education means finding a passion and pursuing it, meaning picking one club and not stretching yourself out over way too many.

All in all, this was very inspiring and reassuring, and I’m incredibly impressed and honestly shocked that such enlightened and powerful ideas have come from the CEO of the College Board. It’s such a well-crafted piece, and I’d recommend you read it. 

But at the end of the day, I didn’t see any solutions. Coleman addressed the situation eloquently and brilliantly, exposing the problems and shortcomings of our current admissions process (there’s a reason our generation discusses mental health so openly and frequently), but he doesn’t take it any further. 

One of the only things Coleman mentions the College Board will do involves limiting AP courses, stating, “We therefore recently announced that taking more than five AP courses should provide no advantage in admissions. Students can take more AP if they want, but not to get into college.”

Those are simply empty words. Unless the College Board is somehow able to establish AP course quotas for students nationwide, students will continue to fight for a higher class rank by taking more and more classes, a statistic that colleges often care about, and of course, that’s not even mentioning whether or not admission officers will actually abide by such an informal “announcement.”

Coleman also claims we need to use the SAT as just one factor on our applications and to “change the culture” around it so we stop fixating on it, but the only solution he offers is a Khan Academy promo so students can improve their scores to stop worrying about them? At best, these Khan Academy resources will just be yet another factor in the “arms race.”

That leaves us back where we started⁠—with no solutions⁠—and a competitive, cutthroat, consuming college admissions process. Where do we go from here?

All in all though, I think Coleman’s stance is a step in the right direction. We’ve reached a point where not only do all the students and many of the teachers recognize the mental health epidemic felt by college-aspiring teenagers, but the CEO of the College Board does too. We’ve reached a milestone where we can talk about the issues and the possible mindsets and ideas that in theory would work better, even if in practice there’s no real way to implement them. 

Maybe the College Board won’t do anything soon, and maybe they can’t. Maybe this is simply something that’s grown beyond all of our control, and solutions are hard to come by, even by the powers that be.

But I refuse to believe the College Board can’t at least make things 100 times better if they tried. And maybe with these ideals, we’ll see some changes in the near future. I mean, we can only hope for change, and the College Board may just comply and make things better — if not for us, then for the next generation.