College Counselor as Consumer Advocate Handout

This entry is one of the handouts that accompanied my talk at IACAC on May 5th:

College Counseling as Consumer Advocacy:
Ten Ways to Think Differently

If we adopt the paradigm of college counselor as consumer advocate, meaning “teacher,” not just go-between, we can help make students truly applicants and not just supplicants, and help colleges and universities do what they do best, which is to educate people. Here are ten ways to make a difference:

1. Educate your students in the marketing practices being used on them. Disabuse them of the notion that they are truly desired by the institutions that send them mail, sometimes nearly every day. Show them how they are initially “demographic fodder” and teach them what to look for in a way that gives them a psychological advantage.

2. Talk to students about their own strengths. Give them the resources to realize that they carry with them the ability to succeed no matter where they attend. Just as buying a Nike shoe doesn’t make you Michael Jordan, neither does going to a “brand name” school make you a genius. Focus more on who students are and what they want instead of on how they can contort themselves to fit an idealized goal.

3. Help parents get beyond marketing messages. Dissect statistics with them and let them know it’s OK to challenge a college’s presentation. Help them be informed consumers, not just dreamy status shoppers. Encourage them to talk with financial aid people; with career services people; and with academic departments and athletic coaches to investigate the realities of classes and sports teams.

4. Question and challenge institutional use of standardized testing. Ask colleges how and why testing is used in relation to other factors. Ask who on the admission staff has been trained in the uses of standardized testing beyond “High scores good, low scores bad.” Ask if the college thinks the price (in money, time, social and educational conditions) is worth the result. Research and promote schools that honor their students’ true achievement by making testing optional or not required.

5. Insist that colleges make decisions that align with their educational mission or goals. Accepting an unqualified student to beef up statistics disadvantages that student unless the institution is willing to support him or her; trolling for more applicants with the intent of rejecting or putting most of them on the waiting list creates a negative climate among students and at schools; rejecting top students because of fears they will go elsewhere turns college admission on its head; adopting practices that ignore a strong base while fishing for “better” students sells out students who apply to the institution in good faith and for whom it might be the perfect fit. Insist that colleges examine and be straightforward about these practices.

6. Name names. Identify publicly colleges and universities that ignore NACAC’s Statement of Good Practice, adopt high-pressure scare tactics, shift deadlines to unreasonable dates, manipulate waitlists or statistics, or insist on a commitment when none is required. Speak out when college policies seem anti-educational.

7. Be teachers, not simply go-betweens. Reveal as much of the “man behind the curtain” as possible to rationalize the process and make it more manageable. Show students and families how “branding,” anxiety creation and the formation of desire have migrated from the world of Coke and McDonald’s to the world of education in order for students to resist them.

8. Think long term as well as short term. Our next class is always on the horizon. We owe it to colleges not only to be open in our criticisms but also to help them fight the pressures to bring in numbers or manipulate statistics with an eye to rankings. Most colleges would prefer to spend money on students instead of marketing; we can help them do so by speaking up more forcefully and frequently, ensuring that they will get educated students, not just calculating consumers.

9. Adopt a more skeptical attitude toward the college process as a whole. Challenge the assumption that college admission procedures are somehow pre-ordained. Challenge the idea that only one school or group of schools can make someone happy; that a student’s life will be shattered if he or she doesn’t get into his first choice college; that our schools should be measured by the number and frequency of acceptances to “top” colleges; and that we are totally subservient to college admission offices. Ask more questions, insist on straight answers, work with colleges to make changes where necessary.

10. Insist that colleges examine how their admission policies affect high school curricula and requirements. Go beyond admission offices and into provosts’, presidents’, and even trustees’ offices. Especially in the case of high profile or state institutions, ask tough questions on behalf of our schools and our current and future students. When the college tail wags the high school dog, it’s time to make big changes.

A Selected Reading List

These books provide some cultural context for the college admission process:

Thomas Hine, The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager
Alfie Kohn, The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools
Nicholas Lemann, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy
Linda McNeil, Contradictions of School Reform: Educational Costs of Standardized Testing
Peter Sacks, Standardized Minds: The High Price of America’s Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It
Lloyd Thacker, ed., College Unranked: Affirming Educational Values in College Admissions
B. Alden Thresher, College Admissions and the Public Interest (originally published by the College Board in 1966 and reprinted in 1989; now out of print)

IACAC Conference 5/5/05