Beyond Formulas

By Logan Powell / September/October 2016
September 7th, 2016

This issue I have invited Dean of Admission Logan Powell, who joined Brown July 1, to share his personal story and admission philosophy. —PRESIDENT CHRISTINA PAXSON

Normal is all a matter of perspective. When I was growing up in a single-parent family in Jacksonville, Florida, my mom worked several jobs. We lived in trailer parks and survived on food stamps and the generosity of family and friends. I qualified for free school lunches and thought everyone enjoyed bologna sandwiches. To me, all of it was normal.

Frank Mullin
Dean of Admission Logan Powell.

Now I see that small things can make a big difference in the life of a student. And today, as Brown’s dean of admission, I see how an under-resourced state of awareness bears on college admission strategy in two important ways.

First, there are thousands of students, from rural Texas to northern Maine, who lack access to fundamental information about the college application process, or whose families may not understand the nuances of application-fee waivers and need-based financial aid. At a time when higher education recognizes that diverse experiences and perspectives advance academic excellence, we are making a strong push to identify talented applicants from underrepresented backgrounds. Admission officers comb the world to find them and make them aware of what is possible.

It was in college, where our ideas and assumptions are often contested and our perspectives broadened, that I first encountered people from worlds vastly different from my own. What bound us was a common intellectual purpose—a desire to learn, from books and from one another. The classroom was any location where a conversation was taking place.

Second, college admission professionals need to make concerted efforts to reduce the anxiety around applying to college. We must acknowledge that there are many paths to success, that learning takes time, and that nothing worthwhile is accomplished without significant effort. This calls on us to look at, and then beyond, GPAs and test scores to engage with applicants in every possible way and to respect the pressure many of them feel to be “perfect.”

Our work, after all, is not a search for perfection. It is a humbling, gratifying process of bringing together the most intellectually curious and hardworking students from around the world. This underscores the importance of noncognitive factors we identify through applicant essays, extracurricular activities, employment history, or volunteer involvement—the insights and skills gained from life experience that, to varying degrees, may lead to success in college.

Students are often not even aware that they bring anything unique to campus. And that is a powerful story. These intangibles enable the individual to go beyond academic talent to round out the compelling narrative of who they are and how they might flourish in an opportunity-rich environment.

I have a deep humility about the extraordinary opportunities available at places like Brown, because they were foreign to me growing up. In college, I immersed myself in them—museums, athletic competitions, guest lectures, student government, and work-study jobs.  The best advice I ever received was to try something new and get to know a professor every semester. Every experience offered a chance to grow.

So as I see it, the job of an effective, collaborative admission office is to foster conversations across the university and find a reasonable balance between the difficult decisions we must make and the talent in the applicant pool.  If we can change the composition and strengthen the fit of the pool by engaging with working-class families, first-gen students, civic leaders, and the most talented students from all walks of life, we will honor the best traditions of Brown. It would be an equally positive outcome, though, if we acquaint all applicants—even those who do not come to Brown—with the idea of a rigorous educational experience at a well-resourced university.

There are no formulas for success, in college admission or beyond. However, if Brown is honest about the challenges, optimistic about the possibilities, and encouraging to those who have more potential than resources, we can, together, author a new narrative.

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Related Issue
September/October 2016