Changing the Paradigm of College Admissions: The MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program

When institutions of higher education bill themselves as ‘holistic’, how truly holistic are they? In looking at higher admissions trends and factors that play into world rankings, SAT scores and high school rank play a strong role in determining these rankings.

We are seeing a shift, albeit small, in global admissions towards holistically reviewing applications in the appropriate context, not just pegging a SAT score and a GPA to students. In 2018, the University of Chicago became the first elite university to become SAT optional for all applicants, which is a positive trend; and the global education sector is looking at other institutions to follow suit. But with the lack of SAT scores in a student’s file, does that mean that more emphasis is truly placed on a student as a whole, or is more emphasis placed on the transcript? While we can only speculate, we do know that admissions at higher education institutions (especially those that are deemed highly selective) still focus heavily on traditional metrics to predict success at university.

Testing aside, transcripts alone can be a misleading indicator of success for students from disadvantaged backgrounds from around the world. For a student who is held out of high school due to unpaid fees, a semester of no grades could be a deal-breaker at a school that is looking for top marks. Context is everything for a student from sub-Saharan Africa, and other economically and socially disadvantaged regions from around the world.

If universities do not dig into the context behind grades, the student’s true and genuine story cannot come through. What was the student’s academic path, what hurdles or barriers did they encounter along the way, and what strides they made despite the challenges are key questions that have to be answered before judging a student’s academic record.

The Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program at African Leadership Academy is trying to flip the paradigm of college admissions. Traditional admissions offices still rely on indicators such as scores and grades to filter students out and then look for the intangibles such as leadership, potential and character. Our program, which serves students who are high-potential, but come from disadvantaged backgrounds, puts potential to drive change and passion first and grades second. We cannot and should not hold students to standards which they were not set up for.

The Program would be doing a disservice to all stakeholders if we filtered students by grades. When an application comes to our desks, we look at the grades, as we need to ensure that a student can cut it in an academic environment, but the majority of our questions on the file revolve around potential. What is the potential for this student to drive change in their community? Does this student have the courage to tackle hard problems facing their community with poise and grace? Will this student be a leader in whatever field they chose to pursue, and lead with humility?

At the end of the day, that is what the African continent needs; sharp, ethical, passionate leaders. Being an ethical leader does not require a perfect score on the SAT or all A’s on your transcript, it requires an intrinsic desire to enable positive change and make their communities and countries safer, healthier and more peaceful.

We partner with universities that firmly believe in this model and understand the value of having one of our scholars on their campus. A student who may be deemed ‘inadmissible’ based on the SAT by an elite university can go on to become the President of their campus’ student body, run for public office, or manage an award winning Community-Based Organization.

Many of the students we have worked with may have been passed in the traditional application cycle, purely due to circumstances outside of their control. Students like Constance and George.

Constance, from South Africa, lost both parents and spent her whole life moving from one temporary guardian to the next. When it came time for her to finish high school and write secondary school leaving examinations, she found herself without permanent shelter. Her head was not clear, and naturally, her focus was on her livelihood; but her examination results just show numbers, they do not tell this story. Higher education in South Africa focuses strictly on academics for admission, leaving no room for this story to be told.

George is a South Sudanese refugee who spent most of his life in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. George was in and out of school during secondary school due to an inability to pay school fees. He would miss months of school at a time and return home until he raised enough money to return to school. His transcript shows this through an inconsistency; he secured strong marks when he was able to to secure funding and remain in school for a semester and his grades dropped when he missed summative assessments that made up a portion of his final grade. This inconsistency, without explanation or an context, may concern admissions officers.

These students otherwise may have been locked out of higher education, due to access or fees, but the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program at ALA saw that drive and commitment and welcomed them into our program.

The adage says, “It doesn’t matter where you start, it matters where you end up.” It is our hope that more universities will invest and open up to context-relevant admissions to give these students a chance. If the focus remains on traditional indicators, that adage does not reign true; it does matter where you start and your current circumstances. Universities will remain the gatekeepers, keeping out students who are bright and have the potential to add a great deal, but don’t have the indicators that they have been relying on to decide if a student can cope academically.

If students are not given the chance, they will remain victims of the system. A system where higher education is unattainable, and reserved only for a select few.