DLI and College Admissions

I thought it might be nice to start my series of letters to the community at the end, so to speak, with college admissions. This is one question that is frequently asked relative to college admissions:

Do colleges hesitate to admit Wooster students because we have Deep Learning Initiative (DLI) courses instead of Advanced Placement (AP), and will my child be viewed as less well prepared than students from schools that have AP?

So, Madyn and I have a sophomore in college and a senior at Wooster. I want to begin my answer to this question by sharing a few details about their experience and outcomes in the college process to create some context for the broader discussion.

My sophomore, Kernochan (that’s a Dutch name), is at Kenyon College, a small liberal arts school in Gambier, Ohio, which is very much like Colby College or Bates College, with which you might be more familiar. Kenyon has quite a strong reputation as a school whose students write a lot, which because of my background as a teacher of writing has always made it a favorite of mine. Kern was at Wooster for all four years of Upper School and only took one AP course while here, AP US History. Truth be told, he loved his teacher, Henry Cataldo, but hated the pace of the course and the big, fat, shallow test at the end.

Kern also took a number DLI courses, all of which pushed him out of his comfort zone in ways that were difficult, but manageable. DLI courses like The Essay and Europe in the 20th Century played to his interests and strengths, so he thrived. In the DLI courses which required skills and knowledge that were not strength areas, like Big Data, which is a statistics course, he struggled, but persevered. Regardless of his affinity, or lack thereof, all of the DLI courses required deep thinking, reading, skill building, hard work, independence and the application of those things to relevant questions or problems in the area of inquiry. It’s a college-like learning environment, but not a replacement for the real thing.

Kern is now double majoring in English and History and made the Dean’s list in his first semester this year. He did not really know what he wanted to major in when he got to Kenyon, but as is usually the case, gravitated toward areas that piqued his interest, and which were a good fit for his skill set and dispositions. Kern is also playing college lacrosse at a high level, something that many people also don’t think possible because of Wooster’s small size. He was even the Newcomer of the Year in his college athletic conference, so apparently, playing at Wooster may have actually been a benefit. Our whole family is proud of Kern and how he is finding his way in college, and credit his experiences at Wooster, especially with the Deep Learning Initiative and our faculty, for much of that success.

I won’t go into too much detail about Cooper, my senior here at Wooster, because he is still here and he would kill me if I did. He was admitted early to Boston College and is the recipient of an Army ROTC scholarship. Boston College saw a 50% increase in its Early Action applicants this year, so it was very competitive. It’s also pretty tough to get a full tuition Army scholarship. Cooper never took an AP course. Same story as his brother with DLI. In most he thrived, in others -- hello, DLI Calculus! -- he has really had to dig in and face some challenges. It is very good that he is learning how to do that before he gets to college.

I share these personal anecdotes for a couple of reasons. First, they are real. My family and I are right here with you, living through the Deep Learning Initiative and the college process. My children are also products of our wonderful school. We could dial up any number of the parents of other recent graduates to hear similar stories. Second, I too worried about “what would happen” when my kids entered the college process. I wasn’t worried about DLI because I had talked to enough college admissions people and knew about the impressive and eclectic matriculation lists of many other schools that had moved away from AP years ago. Further validating our choice was the announcement this past summer that eight of the most prestigious independent schools in Washington DC were all dropping AP together. They won’t be the last. I also knew that when our best faculty got the chance to design their own courses, we’d be blown away by the learning that was going to happen. That’s become real too.

I was worried because that’s how the system is set up. How could any responsible parent not be? The more we worry, the more money, time and energy we spend trying to assure a good outcome for our kids. This is good business for colleges, the Educational Testing Service Corporation (ETS) -- which brings us the joys of PSAT, SAT, and AP -- and all of the other peripheral businesses that have sprung up to cultivate and feast upon our collective anxiety. Because of my research and lots of conversation, Madyn and I were able to keep the craziness and worry to a minimum, but it wasn’t easy. The first step in establishing a healthy college process for you and your children is to acknowledge the power of the “achievement culture” in our country, and how profoundly this plays out in our society and schools, particularly in hard-charging Fairfield, CT and Westchester, NY counties. The second step is to push back against it. Wooster School’s overall work to combat the anxiety, stress, and sheer wrong-headedness of this culture will be the subject of a later message.

So what is the bottom line on college admissions, Wooster School, and the Deep Learning Initiative? Above all, it is that we’ve developed a system which helps us to leverage each student’s curiosity and each teacher’s expertise and deep knowledge base in the service of college-preparatory skill, disposition, and knowledge building. We designed our own program so that we could lower the stakes (no AP test or curriculum) while actually elevating the expectations and the learning.

When we look internally, we know that DLI is working because we see our students struggling and thriving every day. We are creating healthy stress within the context of a high-expectations learning environment. When looking at qualitative and anecdotal data, we also see that our teachers and students are a lot happier since we made the switch. Happy people learn and teach better.

When we look externally, at our college admissions and matriculation list, we are also very pleased. It is important to note that Wooster School has always sent students to a broad mix of schools, including the most highly competitive. We have a strong reputation, one that is getting stronger as we continue to take our programs to the next level.

Now, I am going to share some names to make my point, but I want to be clear that I do so with reservation. At Wooster School, we do not believe that the quality of any college, or its “fit” for individual students, can be determined by the level to which it has managed to shrink its acceptance percentage, or grow its endowment. That said, many of these schools have been successful in both of those areas, and each has admitted a “deep learning” Wooster School student in the last three years:

Bates College, Boston College, Brown University, Colby College, The Colorado College, Davidson College, Furman University, Johns Hopkins University, Kenyon College, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, McGill University, Middlebury College, New York University, Oberlin College, Rhode Island School of Design, Rochester Institute of Technology, Smith College, Stanford University, Tufts University, The University of California at Los Angeles, The University of Michigan, University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, The University of Notre Dame, The University of Pennsylvania, The University of Virginia, Vanderbilt University, Vassar, Washington University in St. Louis, Wesleyan University, College of William and Mary, Yale University. The list goes on.

So let me ask you, after reading this list -- do you think colleges hesitate to admit Wooster students because we have DLI instead of AP? My answer? Quite the opposite.

Be well,

Matt Byrnes
Head of School

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