The rise of portfolios within college admissions

Panel from MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Maker Media, and Learning Machine discussed college admissions beyond grades and the SAT.

Learning Machine CEO Chris Jagers hosted a conversation about the growing role of portfolios during the college admissions process at the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). Participants from MIT, Carnegie Mellon University, Maker Media, and Learning Machine Research presented findings, told stories, and answered questions from High School Counselors and College Admissions Officers about the role of portfolios within admissions, classrooms, and society at large.

“This discussion happened within the wider context of schools looking for new dimensions of merit, becoming test-score optional, and an information economy that increasingly values competencies above all else. So, it’s not surprising that we see more and more schools turning to portfolios to help admissions officers make the best decisions,” said Chris Jagers, CEO of Learning Machine.

Dale Dougherty, CEO of Maker Media, kicked off the discussion with the clear message that everyone is a maker. “Making occurs not because [students are] doing it for school or assigned it. Making happens because this is who they are and this is how they express themselves. This is how they connect to other people. This is how they learn about the world around them. And so my argument is, why doesn’t that have a wider place in school or in evaluating people for opportunities in higher education?”

Many schools outside of the arts are beginning to consider portfolios a critical part of the admissions process. Representatives from MIT and Carnegie Mellon participated in the discussion to share the lessons they have learned from being early portfolio adopters.

Chris Peterson, Assistant Director of Admissions at MIT, summarized the motivation behind their famous Maker Portfolio: “If you’re already running art and music portfolios, you’re just running a portfolio system for a different domain of creative expression. Bringing that process over into the technical domain has been super useful for us as admissions officers.”

Daragh Byrne, Intel Special Faculty at Carnegie Mellon, shared some of the school’s internal debates around assessment: “When people encounter portfolios for the first time, particularly in engineering or computer science, they see it as an entirely subjective way of reviewing work that doesn’t provide the rigor that other assessment criteria hold. I think once people are embedded in the process of portfolio review, that perception goes away. Once you get hands-on with the work, it’s a much more tacit way of understanding, through the work, how [the student] has actualized knowledge and encoded the things they’ve actually learned into physical things.”

Larger societal trends around creativity, equity, and access during college admissions were discussed by Natalie Smolenski of Learning Machine Research. “Portfolios are a reminder that imagination is not simply an add-on, but in fact constitutive of any professional trajectory. They are also part and parcel of the new media economy where you have generations that have grown up online who have been self-presenting, who have been self-curating, since childhood. It’s second nature to them… all we need to do is create a place for that to land and convert into opportunity.”

The recording of “Accepting Portfolios for Admission: Lessons from Early Adopters” is available from NACAC.

Material from a press release was used in this report.

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