The Tangled Web of College Access

Whatever one thinks of the Coalition, the “Tide” document, the current college admission system, or the College Board/ACT changes, the issue of “access” to college for all who aspire to it remains a major hurdle for American educational and national progress. No one response can provide an answer to the issues confronting the many bright young men and women left behind because of nonexistent support or the unfairness of a highly unequal educational system. No one response can address the problems colleges with slim endowments have when it comes to enrolling talented but high need students.


To tackle the injustices surrounding college attainment is to become immediately entangled in a web extending well beyond college preparation and admission itself. Changing any one aspect of the system means changing other aspects, but all have their own “stickiness,” that is, their own commitment to the complicated system already in place. Asking colleges to back off from earlier and earlier recruiting, for example, affects their own prospective plans and futures; asking parents to “back off” from the frenzy of college admission requires a culture-changing effort, not just individual will. Who or what has the capacity to take on these issues? We can recite the moral and ethical reasons for doing so, but can they stand up to the implacable forces of the market? What other forces exert their pressures on the field?

When college attendance was largely a matter of wealthy white men (and a few women) going through a modestly rigorous process to gain admission, it could be considered a closed (even fairly informal) system. Most people didn’t go to college anyway, so there weren’t too many expectations outside that particular group. And most of those eventual graduates didn’t have to worry too much about what they were going to do afterwards.

Now, of course, with college attendance seen as all but inevitable for most high school graduates, the expectations for all parties involved are far greater and the results both more critical and more diffused. At the same time, the implications of the system by which students are “sorted” into higher education have become much more significant. Trying to deal with any one aspect always leads to many others; no one solution can address every other aspect.

One of my personal guidebooks in this effort has been B. Alden Thresher’s College Admission and the Public Interest, currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, although as far as I know out of print. (Stephen J. Handel highlights some of its best features in this month’s Journal of College Admission.) My copy is dog-eared and heavily underlined; Thresher, dean of admission at MIT, was amazingly far-sighted and humane in his assessment of the college admission process. It should be reprinted and made required reading for anyone involved in college admission. He understands the personal, social, and cultural implications of the sorting process very clearly.

Another way to try untangling the web entangling college admission would be for national organizations to join forces to study it and recommend action. Luckily, this effort has already begun. Along with the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) and several other national counseling organizations have joined to form the (somewhat cumbersomely named) Council of National School Counseling and College Access Organizations (CNSCCAO). This broadly-based effort to address the issues facing students will be important in the years ahead.

iu-1Let’s take that one step further and involve the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU), the American Association of Presidents of Independent Colleges and Universities (AAPICU), the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), and similar organizations. Let’s also include the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) and related groups. Although admission officers constitute the front line regarding college admission policies, we should remember that they do not make those policies, they carry them out. College and university presidents, provosts, and even boards of trustees should be part of the conversation regarding college admission. The days of college presidents being public intellectuals may be long past, but they can have considerable influence on the ways that college admission–as a system–is conducted.

Rather than simply tinkering with the mechanics of college admission and declaring access achieved, it would be more productive to see the mechanics as only part of the picture. A broad study of college admission as a cultural phenomenon, with accompanying recommendations would enable all participants to deal with it more substantively. We should try pursuing every strand of the web to arrive at a manageable result.





4 thoughts on “The Tangled Web of College Access

  1. Will: As you age, you are making more and more good sense. This is a constructive, balanced, reasoned and helpful contribution to the discourse. I worry about this however: although inclusion of everyone connected with educational enterprise from the admissions angle makes sense, there is the concomitant risk that it could fall and fail of its own weight. There is a time for inclusive democracy, and there is a time for efficient action. Sometimes the two don’t intersect. Thanks, Alan Haas


    • Alan, you’re absolutely right, of course that if everyone’s involved it’ll be a tangle. However, I hope the case is made that voices outside the admission world should be included if we are to tackle the issues that seem to be getting more complex each year. Thanks for your comment.


  2. Will, what you have outlined makes very good sense, but, in my opinion, it does not go far enough. A comprehensive examination of these issues, in my view, requires that we include consideration of the paths for young people who either do not need or do not want to attend four-year colleges. College is not for everyone, and we need to pay careful attention to meeting the needs of those who can embark upon fulfilling careers without attending a four-year college.


    • Hi Carl, I agree and it’s a topic worth addressing on its own. A book that really changed my thoughts about “college for all” is Beyond College for All: Career Paths for the Forgotten Half by James Rosenbaum, who teaches at Northwestern. Do you know it? He relies on something called the “linkage model” to look at the transition from high school to the labor force and the problems that arise when that linkage breaks down. Here’s a passage: “…American society offers stratified incentives: it offers strong linkages and incentives to high-achieving students and weak linkages and few incentives to other students, who consequently see no reason to exert effort in high school….Contrary to a common assumption, we find that many low-achieving students plan high career goals but obtain poor information about the requirements for their goals and about actions they could take to achieve desirable payoffs.”


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