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The Multifaceted Nature of College Admissions: An Interview with Logan Powell, Dean of Undergraduate Admission at Brown University

Image via Brown Daily Herald

Logan Powell is the Associate Provost for Enrollment and Dean of Admission at Brown University. He is responsible for the recruitment and selection of all undergraduates seeking entrance to Brown. Prior to joining Brown, Powell worked as the Director of Admission at Princeton University. Previously, he served as Senior Associate Dean of Admission at Bowdoin College and Senior Admissions Officer at Harvard University. He earned an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management, an Ed.M. from Harvard University, and an A.B. from Bowdoin College.

Avital Strauss: With prominent discussion about whether a university degree is even worth it, what do you think is the primary goal of a university? In making admissions decisions, do you prioritize collecting the best and brightest students and providing them with practical skills to enter the workforce? Or, is it about preparing people to have an impact on the world and providing an education that inspires society-changing consequences? 

Logan Powell: I think different colleges prepare students for different sorts of life missions. In some cases, it’s very practical training, and in some cases, it’s more general preparation for hopefully a life of productivity, but in a way that involves a broader set of learned experiences. At Brown, I think we do a number of things. I think it’s our goal to prepare students for postgraduate study. It’s our goal to prepare students for careers. It’s also our goal to bring together students from a wide array of perspectives to learn from each other so that no matter what they do after they graduate, they’re prepared for what the larger world throws at them. Having that exposure to different ideas and learning to engage with difficult topics in a civil way is a meaningful element of the Brown experience. 

AS: Building on that, how do you define diversity?

LP: As broadly as we possibly can. I think for many individuals, and historically when one used the word diversity, it was in reference only to racial diversity. When I use the word diversity, it is much more broadly defined. Certainly, it means racial diversity, but it also means geographic and socioeconomic diversity. We want students from rural backgrounds, urban backgrounds, students from every conceivable walk of life, with the central thread being that all are academically excellent and prepared to join this community and share their own knowledge while they learn from others. You can think about it also in terms of the lived experiences students have had that are outside of geographic or political or racial categorizing. For example, part of diversity at Brown means the inclusion of student veterans and first-generation students and having diversity of interest in extracurricular activities. We want students who are interested in playing a musical instrument, playing in the orchestra, or participating in visual and performing arts. We want students who are dedicated scholar athletes. I would also say diversity of intellectual perspective is critical, where groups may have different opinions about a particular topic, but can come together in a way to inform one another and hope to reach some kind of resolution. That diversity of perspective on political issues or economic issues is also something that we look for.

AS: What did you believe was the purpose of affirmative action, and how do you believe you can still accomplish some of those goals without violating the Supreme Court decision? 

LP: The articulated purpose behind affirmative action and racial diversity was that it served a compelling state interest and that diversity in classrooms in fact helped prepare all of the students in that classroom for life after graduation from college. Now that affirmative action has been overturned, you must find the least intrusive way of doing it, and it can’t be formulaic. That is to say that points could not be awarded to students based on a racial background, and you couldn’t have a formula that determined a particular outcome based on a student’s racial identity. Now, that is a principle that we have always adhered to here at Brown, but it was reaffirmed by the court. The decision overturning affirmative action said that you cannot use race for race’s sake. However, race as it is linked to a student’s experiences can be considered. So, what we are navigating is, how do we take those experiences that may be linked to race while not using race in and of itself? And, how do we do that, I would say, across the entire applicant pool? We still value diversity of all kinds, so now the way that we have to do it will be in compliance with the law, which means looking for where a student talks about their race vis-a-vis discrimination, inspiration, leadership, commitment, and joy. It will be one of the many factors that we consider, and race in and of itself will not be a factor that determines an outcome.

AS: In the Supreme Court decision that overturned affirmative action, Justice Kavanaugh said that while race-based admissions policies are impermissible, giving preference to the descendents of slaves affected by the history of the university would not be race-based and is therefore an acceptable policy for colleges and universities to enact. Policies predicated on supporting applicants descended from those who suffered other historical injustices might follow. Is this something the admissions office might consider? What would such policies look like at Brown? 

LP: I think Brown has done an extraordinary job in responding to the issues that face the United States, that face the world, and that face the city of Providence. I think it is also important for us to be proactive in as many ways as we possibly can. If students talk about those groups with which they identify in their application and then link those identities to their experiences and to ways that they can contribute to the Brown community, we’ll take that into consideration. An example of a group that is very important to us is prospective students who attend Providence public schools. Providence public schools have traditionally been severely under-resourced and students there face enormous challenges. We, as an institution that exists in the city of Providence, really try to give back in any way we can and support these local public school students. I think Brown does an excellent job of responding to issues that matter to us and providing a safe academic home to truly excellent young people who show great academic promise.

AS: Legacy admissions have become integral to the debate about fair college admissions. What factors must be considered when deciding whether or not to continue considering legacy status in admissions practices? Is legacy admissions affirmative action for the rich, as many people proclaim?

LP: There’s a lot there. We could spend an hour talking just about legacy admission. I think it’s important to separate what we do at Brown versus what happens at other institutions, because it’s easy to lump a single policy all together to essentially paint the picture that what happens at other institutions is what happens here. Our process is specific to Brown. Our standards are extraordinarily high. And, how we conduct the admission process here, including the review of children of Brown graduates, can be, and I think is, very different from the way that that process is considered at other institutions. There’s an ad hoc committee on admission policies that is considering this topic. I don’t know what the outcome of that will be. I know they are a very thoughtful and exceptionally insightful group, they will issue some recommendations at some point in the future, and we will see if there’s a policy change after that.

AS: Though most of the public debate surrounds legacy admissions, many researchers and outspoken leaders have expressed concerns that only eliminating legacy admissions without initiating other changes will not sufficiently respond to issues of socioeconomic disparities in the application process. What other kinds of reforms need to be made to ensure that low-income students—of all races—have equal opportunities in the admissions process and that socioeconomic diversity is regarded as an important factor in the admissions process, like racial diversity?

LP: I don’t often delve into my personal background, but here I think it’s important because I grew up in a low-income household. I grew up in a trailer park, surviving on government assistance and food stamps. I went to college as a result of the generosity of institutional financial aid, as well as being a recipient of a Pell Grant, which goes to the lowest-income Americans who have a child going to college. So, I was part of that family. I was that kid way back then who needed fee waivers to apply to colleges and who couldn’t afford to travel to see college campuses after I was admitted. And that was really formative to me and my understanding of the things that we as an institution can do to make sure that appropriate access and opportunity exists at Brown. We’ve done an array of things here in the last decade, including but not limited to automatic application fee waivers for any student who belongs to a community-based organization or college access group and automatic fee waivers for any student who qualifies for free or reduced price lunch. In my first year here, we doubled the funding available to cover travel fees to bring to campus students from low-income families who are admitted to Brown who might not otherwise have the chance to see College Hill and Providence. We are growing the Pell-eligible population and expanding the need-blind admissions process to include international students. We also eliminated all packaged loans from financial aid awards. It is one of our central goals to build a class that is socioeconomically diverse. 

AS: Nearly two-thirds of Brown’s applicants identify as female, yet men and women are accepted to the university in equal numbers, which means the acceptance rate for women is lower than that of men. The data also show that women tend to score higher than men on standardized tests. Doesn’t it seem like we got rid of race-based affirmative action but retained affirmative action for men? How do you grapple with the fact that it is men, rather than women who have been historically marginalized, who boast a greater benefit in the admissions process?

LP: There’s a lot to this process. In principle, it’s really important for the university to maintain gender balance. That is something that we as a university strive for. Different applicants bring different individual attributes and strengths. I would suggest that all young women applicants have a certain set of strengths and all young male applicants have a different set of strengths. Our process is centered on individualized, holistic, and contextual review. As we are building a class, we are looking to create a balance. We’re looking to create a diversity of perspective. In that process, we are trying to create gender balance in the class and to bring in a diversity of perspective from all backgrounds. We don’t review groups by gender. We’re thoughtful about creating the composition of the class.

AS: In a given year, 20 percent of adolescents and young adults experience mental health struggles. Many high schoolers state that a major contribution to these mental health struggles is the stress associated with the college admissions process. Knowing this, how do these mental health considerations fit in with Brown’s philosophy of pushing students to be creative thinkers and risk-takers? What is Brown doing to reduce the stress associated with applying to colleges?

LP: We’ve made some policy changes in that we signed on to the Making Caring Common Compact, which works to reduce the stress on students by indicating to them that there is not a set number of extracurricular activities that they need to participate in or a set GPA they need to earn to be considered for admission. We admit students from all backgrounds, and they’re not perfect. Importantly, and I say this to groups of students all the time, if Brown is potentially the right place for you, that’s wonderful, and it’s exciting. But, please know that our process is highly selective and that the decision that we make is not a reflection of you, the student, your potential, and your worth. I try to shout that from the rooftops. Our applicant pool is phenomenal. One of the most important messages that we can send is the message we send to students who are not offered admission saying that we still think incredibly highly of you. Students’ feelings of self-worth should not be tied to an admission outcome. I think it’s also tied to social media. We can have a whole separate conversation about social media, but students now live their lives in a much more public way than they ever have before. That creates a great deal of pressure, including pressure for likes, subscriptions, thumbs ups, and creating an image of themselves that is hard to maintain. Part of that pressure could be tied to the college admission process. Students should maybe think carefully about what presence they have on social media and what story they want to tell.

AS: How does an applicant discussing their mental health impact how their application is assessed? Should students be talking about mental health struggles in their application or not? 

LP: That’s a very personal choice. I can’t issue guidance or recommendation to all applicants to say you absolutely should or you absolutely shouldn’t. But, to the degree that a student’s mental health has impacted their grades, their course selection, or extracurricular activities and is a story that they feel they need to tell, then they should feel comfortable sharing that information with us. We’re not going to make a decision on the basis of that information, but it can inform the decision. I think it’s a powerful message of self-awareness. Students should know that they can feel comfortable telling their story to us, and we’ll include it as part of our individualized, contextual, and holistic review process. And, if we admit a student, we trust that Brown will provide the resources to them that they need. That is the obligation we have as an institution. We want to make sure that they have the structures in place to support them throughout their Brown journey.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.