Monday, August 18, 2014

Is "Sales" a Dirty Word?

Is it time for college admissions to acknowledge and embrace its role as higher education’s sales division? Or is “sales” a dirty word that threatens the ethical standards that make college admissions a profession? Two posts in Eric Hoover’s Head Count blog for The Chronicle of Higher Education during the same week at the end of July highlighted the two horns of that dilemma.

The first reported on a presentation at the ACT Enrollment Planners Conference by Brian William Niles, founder of Target X, a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) company for higher education.  His presentation was titled, “Five Dirty Words You Need to Start Using (in Admissions),” with the five words being “customer,” “sales,” “competition,” “experience,” and “accountability.”  At least some in his audience found those words as offensive and obscene as network censors once found George Carlin’s Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.

That post was followed several days later by a post about the release of a NACAC report, “Career Paths for Admission Officers: A Survey Report.”  That report, an interesting look at the challenges faced by our profession in attracting, training, and retaining good people, revealed that the culture of sales, with increasing pressure to generate revenue and potential collateral damage to ethical standards, is among the greatest concerns for members of our profession.

The tension within college admissions between sales and counseling is not new.  It was present when I entered the profession nearly forty years ago, never dreaming I would stay for longer than a couple of years  (a common story, according to the NACAC survey).  Even then there were admissions counselors using admissions as a stepping stone for a career in sales and others with a counseling orientation.    

Niles’ ACT presentation argued that admissions offices should embrace their sales missions, that thinking of admissions staff as sales force will lead to better training as well as better understanding of the needs and wants of prospective students.  He also argued that admissions officers should master the “elevator pitch,” able to explain their institution in 30 seconds.

I agree that it’s foolish to pretend that college admissions isn’t partly about sales, especially at institutions that are tuition-driven. But I don’t see evidence that admissions offices are giving short shrift to the sales dimension. I see far more young admissions roadrunners today arrive for school visits well prepared to do their sales presentation, but unable to converse with either students or counselors about anything other than talking points. 

The dinosaur in me wishes that there was less sales and more counseling in college admissions.  Admissions reps, especially those who are young, have credibility and influence with high school students, and I wish they would use that power to educate students about the admissions process and about the college experience.

Are the admissions-as-sales and admissions-as-counseling world views irreconcilable, an Armageddon where one side must win and the other lose?  Or is there a balance to be struck between the two?

There is nothing inherently wrong with admitting that higher education is a business or that there is a sales component to college admissions.  But are they more than that? 

Colleges and universities need revenue to stay in existence, but a college education is an experience, not a product, and the mission of any college or university is broader and more important than generating revenue or profit.  Economic considerations are instrumental to other ends, not the ends themselves.

College admissions has considered itself a profession dating back to NACAC’s founding more than 75 years ago.  Professionalism implies dedication to a set of values that extend beyond institutional interest, values that are the underpinning of the NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice.  As a profession, we recognize that we serve the public interest and not just our own interest.  Enrollment and revenue are important for our employers and for our institution’s health, but we have a more important charge to help young people make important, life-changing decisions about their futures.

From an ethical perspective, the issue is not whether an admissions office is engaged in sales but what that entails.  Are the admissions staffers engaging in ethical sales practices, trying to meet the student’s/customer’s needs, or are they trying to close a sale/build enrollment at any cost?

The difference lies in whose interests the admissions officer acts.  Clearly there is a responsibility to the institution, but that is not the only ethical responsibility present.  There is also a responsibility to the student’s best interests, and there is a responsibility to the profession as well. 

Many years ago I was hired as the Director of Admissions for an independent school that was in the midst of declining enrollment.  On my first day I met with a young man who was interested in transferring from another private school for his senior year.  He was a full pay, and he could have helped our football team, but his transcript told me he would struggle to pass math and graduate, so I advised him to remain at his current school.  Later that day my secretary pulled me aside and told me that the school had never before discouraged a student from enrolling. 

Allowing that student to come and fail could have damaged both him and the school.  Given the declining enrollment it would have been easy but short-sighted to admit him. The way to build enrollment in the long run was to build trust in the school program, including the admissions process.

The “sales culture” identified in the NACAC report isn’t about sales.  It’s a different gift from the business world, the pursuit of short-term goals in a way that’s short-sighted and self-serving.  College admissions is founded on public trust, and that trust is put in jeopardy whenever we act out of our interests rather than the public interest.  The dirty word is not sales, but rather self-interest.

So how do we defend our profession from an invasive species like the sales culture?  One of the answers is contained in the NACAC report.  The future of our profession lies in our ability to attract, train, and retain the next generation of leaders, counselors and admissions professionals who see our work as a noble calling and who are committed first and foremost to serving students.

The other solution is finding a way to reach out to our supervisors, the new generation of college presidents and provosts, and educate them about the values of the college admissions profession.  I suggested several years ago that NACAC develop programming for that constituency, and I continue to think that’s a good idea.  


Saturday, June 21, 2014

ECA on Holiday

Ethical College Admissions (the blog, not the concept) is going on summer break, to return in August.  It’s been a good year, with no shortage of ethical issues to tackle and recognition for the blog in places like the Washington Post,, and I am grateful to all those who read the blog, with special appreciation to those who comment either privately or publicly.  Your interest and support means a lot.

Part of the reason for shutting down now is that I have an opportunity this summer to do something I have never been able to do.  Beginning tomorrow my wife and I will be going “on holiday” in Europe for five weeks.  We will be spending four weeks in the Tuscan city of Lucca, combining a writing vacation for me (unless I find the Italian lifestyle and ambiance so appealing that I give up on that plan) and some day trips.  We’ll follow that with a week of travel through the Swiss Alps by train and on to Paris and London.

My plan (subject to change) is to blog about the trip.  If you have interest in following our adventures, you can access the blog at Ciao!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Skepticism and Impressionism

Back in graduate school I took a class in philosophical skepticism.  It met on Wednesday afternoons in a windowless room in the basement of the business building, and every week we would spend three hours discussing topics like “How do I know that the chair I’m sitting in exists?” (Does It really matter as long as I can sit in it?) This was long before Donald Rumsfeld talked about “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns,” but the class would have been right up his alley.  I lived in perpetual fear that someone would walk into the class by accident, hear our discussion, and then padlock us in.

Early in my college-counseling career I was introduced to a college counselor whom I found both impressive and intimidating at the same time.  He had an encyclopedic knowledge of colleges that I couldn’t hope to match.  Name any college or university, and he could provide multiple factoids about its programs and campus culture.  He could wax eloquently about the differences between the education programs at Murray State and Morehead State despite the fact that he had never lived or worked in or anywhere close to Kentucky. I couldn’t decide if he was full of (rhymes with) it or simply a bigger admissions geek than I was (and am).   

Over the past couple of weeks both of those came to mind as two events made me think about the distinction between what we know and what we think we know.  One was an interesting discussion thread on the NACAC Exchange, and the other was the process of finishing up lists of college suggestions for my juniors.

A counselor posted on the Exchange asking for suggestions of colleges that will be accepting and have support for a transgender student.  The ability to get help generating a list of options for a student with special needs or circumstances has always been one of the best features of the Exchange and its ancestor, the E-list, and this particular question seemed much more appropriate than those who ask for northeastern colleges with an English major.   

The conversation that ensued was vibrant and worthwhile.  Several people suggested liberal-arts colleges with culturally liberal reputations, and one regular poster recommended that the student look at “activist” schools.  Those generated responses asking why one would assume that a transgender student is either liberal or activist, or would gravitate to those kinds of places.

The more interesting part of the discussions came after another counselor posted that he was “nervous” about throwing names around and “branding” institutions, especially when the recommendations as good fits for the student weren’t coming from representatives of the institutions themselves. Some of the nervousness clearly was related to the fact that the query had to do with a transgender student, but some also related to how easily the common wisdom becomes stereotype.  A number of years ago I met Ted Fiske, editor of the Fiske Guide to Colleges.  “How do you find the time to visit all these colleges?” he was asked.  “I never visit colleges,” he responded.  “I send out questionnaires, and if I get two back, I can tell you exactly what a place is like.”  At some level he’s probably right, but that answer bothers me nonetheless, and it reveals the limitations of guidebooks and other mass-market sources of information.  They are based on a limited spectrum of opinions, and you are unlikely to find a take on any college that’s contrary to what the public already believes.

It turned out that several of those recommending colleges had previously worked at those places.  Another counselor observed that she would be skeptical of suggestions posted on College Confidential, but trusted the professional expertise and judgment of the Exchange.  And voices such as Jon Boeckenstedt, Jon Reider, and Scott White (at least several of whom are regular readers of this blog) weighed in with thoughtful comments about the dangers of treating any information, even that from knowledgeable colleagues, as gospel truth.

I found the discussion poignant with because I was working on college lists.  It is easy for many families to see “The List” as a report card on their child (and perhaps on their parenting) and to take umbrage at the inclusion or exclusion of some name among the recommended colleges. I have always seen a college list as suggestions designed to expand horizons rather than a definitive judgment of where I think a student can or should go to college.  Putting together a college list is more art than science, and impressionist art at that.  After many years and many campus visits, I “know” a lot of colleges, but so much of that knowledge is based on impressions.  I don’t have the expertise to know with certainty that one institution is better for a student than another, and if one of the tenets of “fit” is that college selection is personal, then what I think is best may not be what the student thinks is best.

That raises a broader question (regular readers of this blog know that we always love the broader question).  What is the essence of good college counseling? Is it about being an expert, a provider of answers, or about being a trail guide and coach, an asker of questions and provider of context and background?  Is the currency of college counseling knowledge or wisdom? 

To some degree that debate mirrors the debate taking place in education about whether good teaching is about being a sage or a coach.  But it is especially timely for those of us in the college counseling trenches.  There is a perfect storm on the horizon.  At the same time that colleges are coming up with a myriad of application options and deadlines—Early Decision, Early Action, Priority Deadlines, Snap Apps—we have a generational change in both students and parents, and it puts new demands on college counseling professionals.  We may increasingly be asked to be managers and strategists rather than counselors, and that will carry it with expectations that, like the colleague who intimidated me with his command of college minutiae, we have specialized knowledge about programs, scholarships, and the games that admissions offices are playing to maximize revenue and selectivity/prestige.

I hope that day won’t arrive soon (or at least after I’ve retired).  But it’s a call for our profession to think about what we know and what we can’t know and be clear about the difference with students and parents. 

We need to follow our own advice.  Just as we would advise a student not to trust the opinion about a college from a classmate with different tastes, we should treat any source of information as one source and not definitive, and we should always understand the difference between what we know and what we assume.


Thursday, May 29, 2014


One of the things I used to like about the college admissions process was that there is a rhythm to it, a beginning and an end.  I say “used to like” because that long ago ceased to be the case.  I feel sorry for those who make the mistake of asking me around this time of year if this is my down time, but not as sorry as they probably feel for themselves once they have to listen to me explain that my job isn’t finished once the seniors are put to bed,  that the spring is even busier trying to get juniors starting the search process.

Recently a close friend, now a venerable admissions dean, reminisced about when we worked together as young admissions officers back in the late 1970s. During the summer there were interviews to conduct and fall visits to schedule, but our days were so laid back that we spent hours with the Assistant Dean of Students on what was billed as the world’s largest crossword puzzle.  Those days disappeared long ago on the college side, and today I am shocked when I hear about a school college counselor who doesn’t work during the summer.   

It is tempting and comforting to think of May 1 as the “end” of the admissions cycle each year, but the past couple of weeks have brought several reminders of how misguided that belief is.

The first reminder was receiving several e-mails from colleges still looking to fill their freshman class now that May 1 was past.  There is an art form to such communications.  You want to look welcoming without seeming desperate.

The most creative this spring came from a friend who is a rising star in the profession and Dean at one of the good liberal-arts colleges located in the Midwest.  He used the “X is the new Y” metaphor--“Orange is the new Black,” “60 is the new 40,” “Ted Cruz is the new Barack Obama” (that will offend everyone on both ends of the political spectrum)—to suggest that “June 1 is the new May 1.”  He didn’t elaborate on that assertion, but the rest of the e-mail made the point that his institution still had room for a handful of qualified applicants who hadn’t yet made decisions.

The “June 1 is the new May 1” claim was obviously designed to get my attention, and it worked.  Is that true, or becoming true?

I hope not, if the statement is insinuating that May 1 is no longer relevant. I believe that the May 1 Candidates’ Reply Date is the most important convention maintaining sanity and order and ethics in the college admissions process, and any attempt to subvert it would be a tragic mistake, leading us down a path to unprofessionalism and chaos.

The statement “June 1 is the new May 1” does recognize that the coming of May 1 does not end the admissions process for many institutions and many students.

I have previously written about how Wait Lists have become a regular part of the admissions process, with up to 20% of my seniors ending up at their final destination after getting off a Wait List, and shortly after May 1 the dominoes started falling.  Some of that is by design, as colleges use Wait Lists as “ED-3” to sculpt the class and reward demonstrated interest. Some of it is related to the fact that predicting yield is an exercise in inductive reasoning, with future projections based on past experience.  I recently had a conversation with the Dean of Admissions at a leading national university who observed that models for acceptance and yield are no longer reliable, that every year is a new experience.

There are clearly institutions where the admissions process routinely continues after May 1.  There are also certainly students out there who aren’t aware of the significance of May 1 and operate on their own time frame.  During that same summer when I spent my afternoons working on the crossword puzzle, I took a phone call one morning from a girl who had just graduated from high school. She hadn’t bothered to apply to college and was inquiring about the following year. I quickly determined that she was a good applicant, someone we would have admitted in the top half of our class, and despite the fact that we had a record freshman class, we were in a position to admit one more.  She ended up coming and becoming one of my wife’s closest friends.

So what are the rules of engagement for institutions that find themselves past May 1 and significantly short of their enrollment goal?  That question was raised in an article last week in  That article raised concerns that some colleges may attempt to “poach” (in the hunting sense, not the cooking sense) students who have already deposited elsewhere by offering them more financial aid dollars.  Similar concerns were raised last summer when several institutions experienced major enrollment shortfalls.

I am not someone who sees most ethical issues as black and white, but this one seems clear.  It is certainly permissible for an institution short on enrollment to contact students who have not responded to an offer of admission, as we know that many students do not inform colleges that they will not be coming, but it is unethical to contact a student who has already made a commitment to another institution or declined your offer of admission.  What is questionable is sweetening a financial aid offer to a student who has not explicitly told you that finances are preventing him or her from coming.  That suggests that you believe that college selection is only about price and not about value.  We are na├»ve if we think economic considerations are not substantial parts of the college decision, but do we want students choosing for economic reasons alone?

The other troubling piece from last week’s article was a quote from a Dean of Admissions whom I know and have written about.  The quote stated that you can be “more straightforward in doing the right thing” when you’re in a strong enrollment position.  I hope the Dean was misquoted.  The article provided two examples—the college not matching an aid offer from another college and advising a student to enroll elsewhere rather than assume significant debt—and I agree that both are not the wrong thing to do, but the suggestion that doing the right thing is dependent on the strength of the college’s enrollment position is not in my opinion what our profession should stand for.   

Wednesday, May 21, 2014


An interesting recent discussion on the eList for ACCIS (Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools) had to do with Board reports, a topic that those of us in independent schools have to think about at this time of year while juggling everything else.  How much information, at what depth of detail, should we share with our Boards about the college admissions year, and how do we educate them about the larger trends and challenges facing our students—and us?

A close friend claims to be a convert to “Zen” presentations, with pictures taking the place of words and minimal text (something you’re unlikely ever to see in this blog).  A year ago his Board report was organized around three sets of iuitials—ED (Early Decision), DI (Demonstrated Interest), and FP (Full Pay).  His argument was that those three concepts explained most of the things taking place in the college admissions world affecting his students.  If he had only been a little less Zen and a little more attuned to acronyms, he could have reorganized into the memorable DI/FP/ED, or “difped.”

The consensus among ACCIS members who replied was that Demonstrated Interest has been a bigger issue this year.  That has been true in cases where highly-qualified applicants end up Wait Listed at selective institutions, and also in some cases where students on the bubble were admitted due to the interest they had shown.  Several counselors reported that colleges seem to be paying closer attention to the “Why here?” essay as a sign that a student has done research and has depth of interest, and that forging a relationship with an admissions officer might pay off with an offer of admission, where failure to connect could result in being Wait Listed even when superbly qualified.

I have come to believe that all those issues (Early Decision, Demonstrated Interest, and the use of Wait Lists) are related.  I also think Demonstrated Interest is no longer the right term.  What we refer to as Demonstrated Interest has become Likelihood to Enroll.  Colleges and universities, especially selective private institutions, are so concerned with admit rate and yield that they are taking likelihood to enroll into consideration in making admissions decisions.

That explains the popularity of Early Decision, where there is in theory a 100% likelihood to enroll, and it also explains why many institutions are using Wait Lists as a kind of “Early Decision 3,” filling a certain percentage of the class (up to 10-15%) off the Wait List where interest becomes a much more important factor than in the regular process.

The change I’ve sensed this year is that the process of demonstrating interest is becoming more complex.  Whereas demonstrating interest used to be something a student only had to do once, whether by visiting the campus or by meeting with a college rep at school, now demonstrating interest is an on-going process.  As colleges attempt to predict who is likely to enroll rather than who is interested, many are looking for multiple contacts, tracking hits on the website or student portal.  I think that interest is an appropriate factor to consider in the admissions process; I just wish that colleges would be transparent to students about what counts as interest and how they measure it.


The changing landscape for Demonstrated Interest produces new headaches for counselors trying to advise students interested in coming off a Wait List.  I recently heard about a school where the counseling staff is divided over the issue of whether a student should promise a college she will enroll if admitted off the Wait List.  The student in question is genuinely interested in the college where she is Wait Listed, but is unsure now that May 1 has passed whether she would withdraw from the first college if offered off the Wait List by the second.

One staff member sees the student as breaking a promise if she doesn’t accept the Wait List, while the other argues that the vagaries of the Wait List, especially in a time when colleges are trying to calculate likelihood to enroll, make the student’s ethical obligations far from clear.

I am sympathetic to both positions.  The German philosopher Immanuel Kant describes keeping a promise as the paradigmatic ethical act, in that having made a promise imposes ethical obligations on an individual even if outweighed by competing ethical principles, and I have always advised students that commitments and promises are not to be taken lightly.  At the same time, I don’t see the Wait List case as comparable to reneging on an Early Decision commitment.

The NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice (Section 2.B.6) states that colleges are not allowed to ask Wait List students for a commitment to enroll prior to a written offer of admission.  I haven’t seen colleges ask directly, but have an increasing sense that they would like to have a pretty good idea that a student will accept before making the Wait List offer.  Colleges use Wait Lists to manage enrollment with precision, and they don’t want to make 30 offers to fill 10 spots if they can fill them with only 10 offers.

The other side of the issue is that savvy students, or those with savvy counselors, understand that interest/likelihood to enroll are key parts of the Wait List game, and may commit either implicitly or explicitly to enroll if admitted off the Wait List.  Is it wrong for them to do so if they’re not sure?  Should a counselor encourage or discourage them?

I have always taken the position that honesty and commitment are values to be taken seriously.  If a student tells a college they will enroll if admitted off the Wait List when they have no intention, when they are merely collecting an acceptance, that is wrong.  If, however, a student honestly believes they would likely enroll, communicates that they will come, then chooses to remain at the institution where they have already deposited, I see that as different, as not dishonest.  The college has no right to ask for that commitment, and by not admitting the student originally, in effect telling the student that the college doesn’t really want to admit her (that may be a harsh interpretation of what Wait List signifies), the college has given away its moral bargaining position.  When likelihood to enroll is part of the college’s equation, such that a student communicating that they are interested but not certain of enrolling may preclude an offer being made, any commitment must be considered conditional.

The poet W.H. Auden said that it is easy to promise that you will love someone forever and much harder to promise that you will love them next Tuesday. I tell students that making final decisions is hard because you are no longer talking about possibilities but making choices with real consequences. By choosing one you close the door on others.  A student who promises to enroll prior to being admitted off a Wait List is promising love forever. They can’t be expected to promise they will still feel the love next Tuesday when getting off the Wait List is a reality rather than a possibility.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

AP or Not AP--Another Perspective

Shortly after my post last week about whether students taking AP courses should be required to take AP exams, I received a thoughtful e-mail response (much more thoughtful than my post, in fact) from Susan Tree at Westtown School outside Philadelphia.  Susan is someone whose opinion I respect greatly, and I asked her if she would allow me to publish her response.  It is below, followed by a couple of closing thoughts.


Hi Jim,


I enjoy reading your blogs! Usually, I agree with your insights and feel your pain, but I have to express a contrary opinion on this one! I acknowledge up front that the value of AP courses and exams vary regionally.... in the greater Philadelphia area, the majority of independent schools have dropped the AP designation because it became clear that the value in the college admission process was negligible and it wasn't allowing our curriculum to evolve in this "new" century. And it certainly wasn't helping our high end students differentiate themselves in the applicant pools of selective colleges! Our faculty (after a lot of research including dialoging with professors of first year courses at colleges, from the Ivies to research universities to small liberal arts colleges) knew they could design courses that were more advanced, more 21st Century, and simply better than the AP curriculum.

Our college list is as strong as ever (actually stronger, from my perspective) as a result and we have been able to introduce some exciting, rigorous, advanced course work that takes our students to a higher level of college preparation. Colleges love it. Our kids stand out more in their applicant pools.


When we still had the AP designation on courses, we never required students to sit for the exam, believing that the value of taking a rigorous course is in taking the course, not taking the test. We didn't have trouble with kids slacking since these courses were well taught and kids were in it for the learning experience. Things haven't changed.


So I appreciate your perspective but it's simply not our experience that AP has gained in value in the college admissions process except at "the nation's weak and failing schools" (to quote George Bush and Gaston Caperton when the audit debuted) which truthfully, are the target audience for the whole AP program. Maybe AP is the gold standard... especially for schools that are under-resourced and whose teachers need a curriculum. I guess there are "platinum" standards too, especially for independent schools charging big bucks. We know that people in greater Philadelphia can go to good public schools and take all the AP courses they want - and many of those kids don't get in to the colleges our students get in to. Parents pay for the "value added", which is what we work hard to articulate, market, and deliver. Lots of student research, collaborative work, action based learning, interdisciplinary work, deep dives...

I think that colleges take each school at face value - and look for whatever it is that they value in an applicant (and what their professors want in their classrooms!). You and I know that applicants are judged in their own unique context. As the 21st Century continues to unfold, I think that AP will move out of well-resourced schools into schools that need to rachet up their teaching and curriculum. Expensive schools like ours will likely be looking at international curricula (and not just IB), research skill development, and interdisciplinary models... and other skills all the 21st Century research points to as critical for this generation. It's exciting.


This is ironic giving that I am proctoring the AP Comp Sci exam this morning! As long as we enroll international students, we will be giving AP exams... A few years ago at NACAC (ten, maybe!) I was on a panel called, "To AP or Not AP, That is the Question". Small world!


Best to you.




Susan K. Tree

Westtown School, PA


And a couple of thoughts:


1)       I appreciate Susan’s perspective and her willingness to share it.  My goal in blogging is to stimulate discussion about the ethical issues related to college admission, and I will be the first to admit that I am much better at asking questions than I am at providing answers (my philosophical background at work).

2)      As I was writing the post I had the uneasy sense that I was defending the College Board far more than I planned when I started writing, but while writing the post I somehow convinced myself that when you call a course an AP course, your default position should be that students will take the exam unless there are compelling reasons not to.  I am less certain about that than I once was, and Susan’s reflection on Westtown’s experience makes me even less so, but that’s still my default position.

3)      I hope I didn’t come across as arguing that the AP program is the “gold standard” when it comes to curriculum.  What I was trying to suggest is that the justification for the AP program has changed from college credit to curriculum rigor, and I expect that to increase under David Coleman as the College Board moves to position itself as the leader in assessing the Common Core.  I work in a traditional independent school where the faculty generally likes both AP courses and AP exams, and yet my own sympathies lie with those schools that have moved away from the AP brand in order to design courses that engage students and require them to think deeply.  I suspect Susan is right  that a number of good, wealthy school will become “post-AP” in their curricula to better provide the skills our graduates will need in the 21st century world.

4)      Susan may be right that the appeal of AP varies depending on geography.  Unlike Philadelphia, the independent schools in Richmond continue to be committed to AP, and yet I have joked with colleagues from other schools that the commitment is for marketing rather than philosophical or educational reasons.  Each school is hesitant to drop AP because of perceived marketing disadvantages, and it would probably require the independent school equivalent of the Camp David Accords to achieve AP disarmament.

5)      I apologize for inadvertently borrowing a title from an old NACAC conference session.  It proves once again that I am neither as clever nor as original as I would like to think.



I am doing a presentation this weekend on “Surviving the College Admissions Process—and Enjoying It” at the Community Conversation on Teen Stress: Fostering Wellness and Resiliency sponsored by the Superintendent of Schools in Fairfax County, Virginia.  If any of you have thoughts on that topics, feel free to share.


On a lighter note, ECA hit two milestones last week.  The blog received its 12000th view, something I would never have dreamed of when I started writing, and more significantly, received its first view from the last state we were missing, North Dakota.  According to ClustrMaps, we’ve had readers from 63 other countries, but I’m skeptical about how many of them were actually interested in the ethics of college admissions.  Thanks to everyone who reads and comments either publicly or privately on the blog.   


Tuesday, May 6, 2014

AP or Not AP? That is the Question

As we celebrate the annual College Board Festival of Advanced Placement Exams, let us pause for a minute to consider the question, Should students who take AP courses be required to take AP exams? That has never been a simple question, and it is even less so today.

For much of my career my answer would have been a clear “yes,” and in fact my school continues to expect students who take AP courses to take the AP exam (we will not get into the semantics of “expect” vs. “require”).  The classical definition of an AP course is that it is a course designed to prepare a student for the AP exam, which then provides the potential for earning college credit.

But is that definition of an AP course still valid?  Today AP courses have more value for admission to college than for college credit or placement.  AP has become the nation’s top curriculum brand, making the AP syllabus (or at least the AP designation on a transcript) more important than the AP exam.  With AP exams now costing $89 and less likelihood of receiving college credit than used to be the case, is it fair to require students in an AP class to take the exam?

That begs the question, “Fair to whom?”  It may not be fair to the student with financial hardship and little chance of earning credit, but it may be fair to teachers who need every carrot and every stick at their disposal to stave off senior slump at this time of year.  Exams of any type promote accountability, and there is an educational argument to be made that taking an exam has educational value in itself, helping a student to pull together information and make connections between ideas.  Most of my colleagues who teach AP courses are impressed with the quality of the exam, especially now that exams like Biology have moved away from regurgitation of information and toward critical thinking and problem-solving.  Several years ago a Chemistry teacher argued that the AP exam didn’t measure the right things.  I pointed out that you can make that argument when your scores are good, whereas it looks self-serving when your scores are modest.

The question, then, is how essential a component of the AP experience is the exam itself?  Is taking an AP course but not taking the exam the same experience as taking an AP course to prepare for the exam?  My gut tells me it’s not, but that’s not necessarily a reason to require a student to sit for the AP exam.

But what about a student who shows AP courses on his or her transcript but no evidence of having taken an exam? Does that concern or worry colleges?  It is less of an issue today when schools have to get approval to label courses as AP, but without the exam component what’s the difference between a course taught using the AP syllabus and an Honors course? 

Having an AP exam score provides information both about the student and potentially about the course as well.  There is a big difference between having an A in an AP course with a score of 5 on the exam and an A with a 2 on the exam.  Most of us would guess those aren’t equal courses. There are certainly students who don’t test well, but when an entire class scores poorly on the AP exam it may say something about the quality of the class.  When a student’s transcript show AP courses with no evidence of having taken the exam, do colleges assume that the exam wasn’t taken or that the scores weren’t very good?

I have never been described as an apologist for the College Board, which I have labeled “America’s Most Profitable Non-Profit Organization.”  I think the AP curriculum provides rigor and quality, although I also think it may restrict good teachers from delving into topics that are not on the exam.  I also have reservations about the “AP for average students” movement.  That having been said, I think that most students who take AP courses should also take the AP exam, with exceptions made for those for whom the cost of the exam causes financial hardship.