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College Admission: Is There Hope for the Future?Article appeared in Worcester Magazine, January 2007
One of the benefits of my work as an educational consultant is the opportunity to meet many wonderful people. Over the years I've had the privilege of helping scores of teenagers struggle to make sense of the perplexing questions that students must answer as they decide where and how to continue their education after high school. I've shared their triumphs and disappointments as colleges let them know if their efforts would be rewarded with a letter of acceptance or a letter that begins, "Thank you for applying to Most Favorite University. Unfortunately, due to the large number of applicants… ." I've sat with parents who, despite years of wonderful parenting, face the task of launching their child from the family nest with concern.
I've also met the people who manage the college admission process from their desks in high schools, colleges and independent educational consulting practices. I hold many of these people in the highest regard; some have become close friends. As I've attended admission conferences and have visited colleges across the country, I have developed a network of admission professionals and consultants with whom I share the challenges and excitement of the work we do and whose opinions I respect.
I'm always happy to receive a call from one of these people who has a question about a college program or about the best way to work with a particular student or family. Sometimes my colleague wants information or advice, and sometimes they want confirmation because they already know the answer to a difficult question. At times colleagues call me because they want affirmation that the work they are doing really is serving the needs of the people we most want to help - our students. I feel fortunate that I can rely on my colleagues in the same way that they rely on me.
As we share our concerns about a process that we know is flawed, I am always aware that, if not handled with care and sensitivity, the college application process can not only deprive our students of an optimal educational experience, but may also leave them with a distorted sense of who they are as students and as young adults. In the years that I have helped students prepare for life after high school I have seen significant changes in the way that colleges and students relate to each other and in the process by which students gain admission to the colleges that interest them. I worry that, regardless of how many acceptance letters a student receives, he may be changed by the process in ways that are not helpful to him.
In September 2004 I attended the National Association for College Admission Counselors (NACAC) conference in Wisconsin. The conference followed a very busy week in my office and, as I was preparing to leave for Wisconsin, I received a frantic call from one of my seniors. This student, a young man who had appeared to be calm, thoughtful and in control of the application process, told me that he planned to file a binding, early decision application to Tufts. I expressed surprise, as the student had not previously indicated that Tufts was his definite first choice college. "It's not," he told me. "I just need to get this done and get in somewhere. I can't take this college stuff anymore. I don't care where I go."
As I flew west, I reflected on my student's anxiety. It exemplified the changes that I had been seeing in recent years, as college admissions had taken on the aura of a game to be won by the best players. I had seen students become increasingly concerned about following all the rules of the game, always aware that the rules were vague, not clearly stated and infinitely changeable. I had seen students try to present images of themselves that were not consistent with who they were because they feared that their true self would not be acceptable to an admission committee. And I had seen parents suffer along with their children because they could not bear the terrible disappointment they believed their child would suffer if the right college did not welcome them wholeheartedly.
My student's anguish and my concern for the state of college admission practices followed me to Wisconsin, where I spent several days speaking with college admission directors and attending workshops and seminars with them. As always, I was impressed by the difficulty of their job and by their commitment to doing it well. One young admission counselor spoke to me of the pull she felt as she worked to serve two masters - the college that employed her and the students who depended on her and her office to make decisions about their future. She feared that she was losing the capacity to look at students as people rather than as potential slots to be filled in the upcoming freshman class. She spoke to me of the strain of meeting her quotas and of attracting applicants who would meet the needs of her college. She confided that she sometimes worked hard to encourage students to enroll at her college without thinking about whether the college really was the best fit for the student.
That afternoon I was acutely aware of the number of workshops whose titles contained words such as 'marketing', 'branding', 'niche', and 'yield'. Although there certainly were plenty of workshops that addressed the needs of students, the number of workshops addressing the business concerns of the college admission office overwhelmed me. Having long worried that the admission profession was shifting the focus of attention from the educational needs of the student to the financial needs of the institution, I now feared that the transition was complete. If that were the case, I wondered, what more would I need to do to ensure that my students received the best possible direction and guidance in a field that seemed to be increasing unfriendly to them.
As I prepared to meet friends for dinner that evening, I anticipated sharing my dismay with like-minded admission consultants who had surely noted the same trend that I had found so disturbing. I looked forward to a meal of shared pessimism. The reality was very different. The buzz at the table that night was about Lloyd Thacker, a man with twenty-eight years experience in college admission and college admission counseling. Lloyd had recently left his job as a high school guidance counselor and had founded a non-profit organization called The Education Conservancy. The mission of the Conservancy was to overcome what Lloyd called "commercial interference" in higher education and to temper the fear and anxiety that color the admission process. Lloyd was a man with a mission, and his mission seemed to address issues that were of concern to all of us who care about the well-being of college-bound students.
Lloyd Thacker was scheduled to speak at the conference and I highlighted, circled and starred the time of his presentation. Lloyd's style is unassuming, but his presentation was dynamic and effective. His message clearly resonated with those of us who work directly with students and also with those who are part of the very institutions that Lloyd criticizes. Lloyd believes that colleges have adopted a corporate mentality in their approach to admission and that students have come to be seen as consumers to be recruited, processed and moved through the system. He assails rankings, standardized testing, the media that feeds the admission frenzy, early decision programs, and admission standards that ignore immeasurable qualities such as curiosity and imagination. He criticizes, yet empathizes with parents and students who buy into the hype that colleges have created and who accept college admission as a game to be won. He advises them to remember that a college's reputation has little to do with a given student's educational experience, and cautions them to be wary of the diminishing attention some college admission offices pay to an appropriate fit between the student and the college.
Weeks before he addressed the NACAC conference, Lloyd self-published a collection of essays written by college presidents and admission directors at some of the best known colleges in the country. Harold Wingood of Clark University was among those who shared their thoughts on ways that colleges might refocus the admission process so that it is consistent with the educational goals of higher education. Lloyd's book, College Unranked: Affirming Educational Values in College Admission, is a plea for reform and attention to those qualities that are intrinsic to a high quality learning and growth experience.
I stayed up late that night reading my newly purchased copy of College Unranked. By the time I brought it home to Massachusetts several days later it was heavily highlighted and annotated. I strongly agreed with much that the authors had written, yet disagreed with a good number of their ideas. The principles that guide the work of the Education Conservancy, however, reflect my wishes for the future of college admissions and for the experiences that I hope my students will have.
The following principles and guidelines can help make the college admission process more manageable, more productive, and more educationally appropriate. This guidance is offered by the Education Conservancy, a group of admission professionals committed to calming the commercial frenzy by affirming educational values in college admission.
These guiding principles are relevant for parents, students, counselors and admission deans:
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