A change in College Counseling

I have been a high school English and theater teacher, an Associate Dean of Admission at Amherst College, and am now a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory H.S. in Chicago. When I first got into the admission biz I was drawn by the idea of finding interesting, talented students to recruit for Amherst. I think most people go into admission with this in mind—they genuinely like kids and people and want to help them achieve their goals. (It didn’t hurt that Amherst was also my alma mater, which, again, I think is true for many people). Yet I also soon realized that there is a good deal of salesmanship and just plain “selling” involved, even for a nationally-recognized place like Amherst.

That didn’t really bother me, but now that I’m on the other side of the desk, as we say, I find myself conflicted about how to structure my duty to my students. Certainly, I want to help them discover, learn about, and gain acceptance to colleges that they like and that will be good for them. Certainly, I want to help lead them through the maze of information they receive, not just from colleges but from testing companies and other less scrupulous entities that are just trying to make a buck off the anxieties of students and their parents. At times like these, I also feel I need to be a consumer advocate, not just a guide. And this sometimes puts me in opposition to colleges and universities that I think are coming on too strong or doing things I think are inimical to my students’ overall best interests. Surprisingly, I often get flak from my high school colleagues in NACAC for “rocking the boat.” Although I usually get plenty of sub rosa support when I speak up, people seem afraid to anger colleges if they say anything about what they perceive as poor practices. I feel it’s important to do so.

Washington University in St. Louis is encouraging students to begin their applications as early as March of their junior year; Princeton University encouraged an application from a student of mine long after the official deadline; the University of Illinois has moved its application deadlines back based on “administrative” needs, compelling students to apply as early as the end of September if they want to meet priority deadlines. I think these things are wrong and I think it’s important to say so. Again, those who support me often say, “Well, say something, but don’t name the institutions.” And I say, “Why not?” Should those I consider to be doing something wrong not be named? If I were a true consumer advocate and I saw a company polluting, wouldn’t it be my responsibility to report that and name the company?

Counselors seem convinced that colleges will retaliate against their students if they say anything. If that’s true (which I in fact don’t believe), then we on the high school side aren’t true colleagues of the college admission folks, we’re merely supplicants and middlemen subsisting on the crumbs that colleges choose to throw us, making students’ admission contingent on our compliance with whatever they decide to do, no matter how negatively it affects education, students’ goals, and so on. No matter how much or loudly we object to something, colleges are really free to do what they want because they’re the only game in town.

I believe it’s time for the high school side to take a more consumer-active role in college admission. We should speak in a unified voice, publicly and naming names, when we see something happening that we believe is against our students’ interests. I know there’s support out there because I get lots of it from NACAC listserv members, but, again, they’re nearly always private. We need a way to speak publicly and not just scurry in fear when a college does something we think is off target.

Again, having been on both sides of the desk I don’t attribute any of these things to dastardly evildoing. I see it as a response to market forces that are all but inexorable. Like it or not, most colleges are just struggling to fill beds and so they need to keep on top of what the competition does and try to beat it. More and more, commercial methods of marketing and advertising are altering the ways schools approach students. Unfortunately, there seems to be little concern for how these things (like earlier deadlines–based on the idea that if you can get to ’em first, you’re more likely to get ’em) affect actual “studenthood,” in my friend Lloyd Thacker’s word.

So as a teacher as well as advisor and counselor I am compelled to speak up. Where do we go from here? I think we need to form within NACAC an exclusively high school wing that really monitors and brings a public spotlight to bear on college admission methodologies that we consider antithetical to education. I think we need to make this change sooner rather than later. It’s already eaten into our students’ livesr far too much. Let’s do this before senior slump becomes freshman slump or worse.