Friday, December 20, 2013

College Counseling Without a Net

In my previous post I asked if a college counselor should ever try to coerce a student to change his or her college choice.  Do counselors or schools have a responsibility to keep a student from making a bad choice? 

The case in question concerned a school administrator who had stated his belief that the school had a responsibility to convince a new student to renege on a verbal commitment to play lacrosse at a Division One institution because she could do better academically.  I argued that the student’s commitment should be taken seriously and that it is wrong to talk her out of it, especially if the underlying concern is the school’s college list.

The post generated some interesting responses and conversation.  I stand by my analysis and my conclusion in that particular case, but due to the fact that I was more verbose than usual, I’m not sure that I did a good job of discussing the complexities associated with the broader issues. 

I didn’t mean to imply that a college counselor should never express an opinion, as might be inferred from Phil’s comment to the blog itself.  My position is that we must be very careful not to abuse our power and authority as professionals to influence a choice that is the student’s to make.  Not only should the student make the decision because he or she will live with the consequences, but allowing a student to make a choice different than we might choose is a sign of respect and empowerment for the student as a moral agent.

I think Phil is right on target in two respects.  Students need information and advice from a variety of sources, and a counselor is a source that provides not only objective advice but also expertise and perspective.  It is also clear that the term “verbal commitment” from either party in an athletic recruiting context may not have the same meaning that commitment normally does.

A couple of other correspondents raised interesting questions.  Does our advice and approach differ depending on where a student is in the process?  Should we advise a student differently during the list-building process than when they are making a final decision?  Early in the process it’s easy to suggest other options, but the final choice is, well, final.  Are there certain kinds of issues where a counselor’s input is particularly needed?  The issue I find myself addressing more than any other is the issue of size.  My friend Carl Ahlgren argues that boys are drawn to what he calls the “ESPN schools,” universities with big-time athletic programs and strong Greek systems.  That is what they envision when they think about the college experience, and as a result I feel the need to have them consider the experience and value of attending a small liberal-arts college.

Within a couple of days of publishing the last post, I was reminded several times that college counseling is a tightrope walk without a safety net, with every step delicate and perilous.  On the one hand it is our job to support our students in pursuing their dreams, and yet it is also our job to be the voice of reality.  That is complicated in theory and even more complicated in practice.

I returned from Thanksgiving break to learn that one of my students had neglected to tell one of his parents of his decision to apply Early Decision, and the result was predictable.  I had to go into family therapist mode and spent the week trying to get both sides to understand the other and find common ground. When I had finished I was ready for a less stressful assignment, something like negotiating peace in the Middle East.

I also heard from a colleague at another school who had been ordered by the school’s head not to quash students’ dreams by using words like “reach” when discussing college options.  My first boss when I started college counseling believed that a counselor should never tell a student or parent that they might not get in somewhere, because if they in fact didn’t get in it may appear that the counselor wanted that to happen.  The problem with that approach is that it turns us from counselors into cheerleaders.  I see my job as helping students deal with the realities of college admission, and I decided long ago that I believe in reality therapy, that students deserve my best advice and estimate on their chances of admission, making it clear that I’d be glad to be proven wrong when I am not optimistic enough.  It doesn’t happen that often. 

I believe that the college search and application processes are important developmental milestones that mark a student’s growth from adolescence to adulthood.  Talking about college choice as an adult decision implies several things.  One is that there probably won’t be a single, clear, “right” choice.  Each option will have pros and cons, making the decision a complex calculus.  It is also an adult decision in that a student can do everything right and not get what they want, or even, as my children used to say, “really” want (as if “really” wanting something carries additional moral imperative).  To return to an earlier theme, part of respecting a student as an adult is having confidence in them to deal with disappointment and plan as well as dream.

Sunday, December 1, 2013


Should a college counselor ever try to coerce a student to change his or her college choice?  I dealt with that question several years ago with one of my seniors, an athlete who was getting football interest from the Ivy Leagues.  He had already received likely letters from both Harvard and Princeton when a nationally-ranked Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly known as Division 1-A) school began showing interest.

That development raised a minor uproar on campus when it appeared he was leaning to the better football program.  How could he turn down Harvard or Princeton?  A number of self-proclaimed experts doubted that he was tough enough to play Ivy League football, much less for a nationally-prominent program.  Had any of the coaches seen him play?

An assistant coach for the nationally-ranked program told our coach that to play offensive tackle at that level a player needed to be at least 6’6” with quick feet.  “If you’re 6’3” and the toughest guy alive, you can’t play offensive tackle for us.  We have to find guys with the size and athletic ability and it’s our job to make them tough.”

I sat down with the boy to talk through the decision.  Because he was getting a football scholarship, he could get his education for free rather than paying $50,000 a year.  Because he would be red-shirted and spend five years, he would be able to get both a bachelor’s and master’s.  And because of the prominence of the football program in the state, he felt playing there would give him lots of contacts after he graduated.  I was impressed with his thinking.  He was making a thoughtful choice, if not the choice I might have made for him.  And it worked out.  He ended up starting 20 games during his career, played in several bowl games, and got both degrees.

I thought back to that situation after talking with a college counseling friend on my first night in Toronto for the NACAC conference.  He told me that a new student at his school arrived having already committed to play women’s lacrosse at a national-caliber Division 1 school.  Her academic credentials are superb, and an administrator at the school had stated at a faculty meeting that he thought the school had an obligation to convince her to de-commit and look at other, more academic (translation: Ivy League) institutions.  When some at the meeting objected, the administrator claimed he was joking, except that no one thought it was funny (a situation I encounter often after my own attempts at wit).

Whether joking or not, is he right? His comment and this dilemma both raise interesting and important questions about the essence of college counseling.  Is our job to advise our students or guide and direct and even influence their choices?  Does a school or college counselor have a responsibility to keep a student from making a bad choice?

It’s not clear in this case that the student is making a bad decision.  She has verbally committed to a top-notch athletic program, and for an athlete the opportunity to play at a high-level program may be more important than using her athletic ability to gain admission to a highly-selective academic institution with a lower athletic pedigree.  The university in question may not be an Ivy League or comparably-prestigious institution, but it’s a highly-regarded flagship public university where she will be able to get a first-rate education.

It’s also not clear that the administrator is motivated by the student’s best interests rather than what might be the school’s best interests. In an environment where acceptance rates at highly-selective institutions are in the single digits yet constituencies ranging from alumni to prospective parents judge a school by the number of students attending prestigious colleges and universities, it is easy to fall into the unconscious trap of seeing students in terms of their contribution to the school’s college list rather than as individuals with the right to make decisions about their own futures. Recently one of my students decided to apply Early Decision at a national liberal-arts college where I’ve never had a student enroll.  I think it’s a great fit, but I was also careful to admit to him that my enthusiasm for the choice was also selfish.

 Many top students already believe that their hard work is for naught if it doesn’t result in a certain kind of college acceptance, or that they will let their school down by not shooting high in the admissions process.  We need to make sure we don’t subconsciously send the same message.

The administrator has bought into two flawed assumptions, one psychological and the other philosophical.  The psychological assumption is what might be called the “rational person” fallacy.  That is the view that any/every rational/normal person would make the same choice as we would. It’s a powerful myth.  After thirty years of marriage, I’m still trying to convince my wife that there might be more than one right answer for lots of decisions.

The philosophical assumption is one I have addressed in several previous posts.  It is the myth of prestige, the world view that what is important about a college education is the name on the diploma.  According to that world view, no one should turn Harvard down, because it’s Harvard.  The alternative world view states that what is important about a college education is the experience one has in college.  For a student interested in playing a sport in college, the athletic experience, whether level of competition or ability to get playing time, might make one institution a better fit than a more “prestigious” institution.

That clash of world views extends to college counseling.  Is college counseling success measured by results or by process?  I have always come down on the side of process, believing that the results will take care of themselves if the decision process is sound.  I see my job as asking good questions and providing information and insight into the admissions process, not trying to influence the student’s choice.   

The ultimate ethical consideration surrounding the lacrosse player is that she has already made a verbal commitment to a coach and a university.  Many philosophers (most prominently Immanuel Kant) have argued that keeping a promise is the ultimate ethical obligation. While athletic verbal commitments are not binding (and may even employ a different understanding of “commitment”), encouraging a student to break a commitment sends the wrong message on numerous levels.

Monday, November 18, 2013


“These are the times that try men’s souls.”  Thomas Paine wrote those words, using the pseudonym Common Sense, in the winter of 1776 during a particularly bleak time in the American struggle for independence, but the quote (with the coeducational addition of “and women’s”) could very easily have come from a college admissions dean or college counselor in the fall of 2013 using the pseudonym Common App.

It’s been an interesting fall in the college admissions world, thanks to the Common Application’s rollout of CA4.  The myriad of technological issues associated with the new CA version has created headaches and increased stress for colleges, counselors, and students.  At the NACAC conference in Toronto I left the session where I had presented to encounter a line running the length of the Convention Center waiting to get into an adjacent room for the next session.  For a moment I was jealous that another session would be more of a draw than mine until I realized that the line was for a session devoted to Common App issues.  

There are a couple of occupational hazards associated with writing about ethics.  There is a fine line between being a moralist, someone concerned only about the behavior of others, and an ethicist, someone concerned about the ethical implications of his or her own behavior.  In addition, it is easy to see the glass as always half empty, to focus only on what is missing or what is flawed.  I am aware that I am prone to both, which is why both as an ethicist and as a college counselor I strive to be an asker of questions rather than a provider of answers.

That being said, I have to admit that I have been generally proud of the way our profession has handled the CA4 fiasco (I don’t think that’s too strong a word) this fall.  If it is true that the measure of an individual’s character is how one deals with adversity, it is also true for corporate entities such as professions.  We show our true colors in tough times, and this fall we have largely kept our exasperation to ourselves, kept the sniping and finger-pointing to a minimum, and kept our focus on how to make the best of a bad situation.  That’s stoic at worst, and heroic at best.

If we need any excuse to pat ourselves on the back, all we need to do is look at the parallel universe inhabited by the rollout of the Affordable Care Act.  The similarities between CA4 and have been striking, with both being hyped, “new and improved” product launches that have demonstrated the limitations and even dangers of reliance on technology.  I can’t be the only one who has joked about both being designed by the same IT people. 

But whereas the incompetent rollout of Obamacare has been made worse by those who have done their best to sabotage implementation by filibustering, defunding, and making political hay out of the problems,  most of us have bitten our tongues, trusted that the folks running Common App were trying their best to make it work, and focused on helping students navigate the new system.  A number of colleges extended early deadlines (which they should have, following the ethical principle that you shouldn’t punish someone for something they can’t control).  To my knowledge, no one in our profession has called for closing down the college admissions process because of concerns about CA4.  Of course, being more functional and professional than Congress is a low bar to clear and not much to be proud about.

What are the bigger lessons to learn from CA4?  One is that “new and improved” technology may be new, but it’s not necessarily improved.  Technology makes our lives easier—except when it doesn’t.  We take the benefits of technology for granted, but the launch of both CA4 and show the importance of having an infrastructure in place that has been fully tested and vetted.

On a related note, this fall has been a psychological boost for those of us who are slow to adopt the latest technology.  My office went into the fall intending to move to electronic submission of school documents, but decided we weren’t ready to pull the trigger until some internal issues were resolved.  Within a couple of weeks our decision to submit using paper had moved us from “behind the times” to “cutting edge.”

The larger question is whether power over the college admissions process is being concentrated in the hands of the few.  Common App, the College Board, and Naviance are an oligarchy with enormous control over the college application process.  Is that desirable?  None of them are evil--well, maybe the College Board (A JOKE!)—but does having power in the hands of a few vendors and corporations/membership organizations serve the public?  Eric Hoover has a fascinating article on the growth of the Common App to over 500 members in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education.

The problems with the Common App this fall also should lead us to revisit the question that should always be on our mind when we design the application process.  What are we trying to accomplish?  Are changes in deadlines and requirements driven by convenience for us or because they make the process better for students?  Does the college admissions calendar and process encourage students to make thoughtful decisions about their futures?  The Common Application was originally designed to make it easier for students to apply to multiple colleges, but have we made it too easy?  Does Common App lead students to apply to more schools?  Has Common App become a brand, a means for colleges to increase application numbers, rather than a tool to benefit students?  Is applying to college a Goldilocks process, neither too easy nor too hard?


P.S.  In my previous post I made a reference to “games played in the name of enrollment management.”  Shortly after I published it, I received an e-mail from Jon Boeckenstedt at DePaul objecting to my generalizing about enrollment management as if must be associated with questionable practices.  It is a point that Jon (whom I respect greatly) has made in his own writing, and he’s right.  Enrollment management is a neutral concept, a positive force for colleges and universities, and the kinds of games I was objecting to are products of forces independent from enrollment management. I thank Jon for calling me out privately and gracefully, and apologize for the broad-brush portrayal.  My larger point was that all of us are hurt whenever any of us engage in practices that damage public trust in what we do, and my generalization might prove that point.    


Friday, November 1, 2013


Ethical College Admissions makes the big time!  Last Friday Washington Post reporter Valerie Strauss republished last week’s ECA post on George Washington University’s announcement that it is need-aware, not need-blind in the Post’s “The Answer Sheet” blog .  Here’s the link.

A couple of hours later I received a call from the reporter who originally broke the story about the “changed” policy for The Hatchet, the GW student newspaper.  He wanted to interview me for a follow-up story he was writing.  I felt my defense mechanisms kicking in.   My interactions with reporters have been positive, but I had been told that someone associated with GW felt they had been misquoted, and my inner PR consultant voice was sending me a continuous loop of warnings and questions: “Be careful”; “What is the reporter’s angle?”; “Stay on message”; “Danger, Will Robinson!” (for those of you too young to remember, that’s a catchphrase from the 1960’s TV show, “Lost in Space”); and above all “Will I sound stupid?”  I had nothing to worry about.  When the article appeared on Monday it was well-written and captured my observations accurately.

What was interesting about the interview was that it morphed from dealing with GW’s need-aware policy alone to talking more about selective admission issues.  I argued that the problem was not GW’s being need-aware, which as far as I can tell falls in the mainstream of accepted practice, but in claiming to be need-blind when it was not.

At one point the reporter mentioned that the need-aware revelations had led several high school friends to conclude that financial need must have been why they were Wait Listed at GW.  He then asked if there were other reasons that a student might be Wait Listed, and it became clear to me that the bigger underlying issue is that there is a disconnect between the public’s understanding of how college admissions works and the realities of selective, holistic admissions as practiced by colleges.

At the same time that the GW story came out, I found another example of that disconnect.  A couple of weeks ago the online publication Baltimore Fishbowl ran a story with the title, “Is the Ivy League Out of Reach for Most Baltimore Students?”  Those of us who work in college admissions and college counseling understand that a similar article could be written for any city in the country with a simple answer—Yes.

The article was listed as a “Sponsored Post,” which I interpret as a euphemism for “infomercial” (I think the correct print journalism term is “advertorial.”)  The gist of the article was that Baltimore lags behind other parts of the country, including D.C., in Ivy League acceptances due to a dearth of “excellent SAT tutors, subject tutors, and private admissions consultants.”  The article further argued that test scores make up two-thirds of a student’s academic profile at the Ivies and that the best test prep consultants achieve an average “300-350 point increase on the SAT.”  It was also clear in the article that the target audience for the article was parents who send their children to independent schools where they already receive first-rate college counseling.

It was no surprise to see that the author of the article was someone who is in the “high-end standardized test prep” and tutoring business.  What was surprising were several comments from readers expressing gratitude to have such deep insight into the inner workings of the admissions process.  And when the college counselor at one of Baltimore’s leading schools (who happens to be a friend) responded with a comment pointing out the flaws in the article, he was attacked, perhaps even trolled.

I’m not particularly interested in addressing the claims in the Baltimore Fishbowl article.  The author explained the claim about test scores being two-thirds of the academic profile by referring to the Academic Index used for athletic admissions at the Ivies, but that is misleading at best and wrong at worst when generalized to Ivy League admissions as a whole.  The claim of a 300-350 point increase is higher than any I have ever seen, and I’d love to see evidence that supports it.  The test-prep industry is one of the marketing success stories of our time, but the value of test prep is a prime example of what I refer to as admissions “Suburban Legends.”  Like urban legends, they sound plausible, and you’ve heard that someone’s sister’s co-worker’s child got into Harvard because of test prep (or some other strategy), but proof, either pro or con, is hard to pin down.

For me, the broader issue in both the examples referenced above is whether we are doing a good enough job of communicating how college admission works and what is and is not important.

Among the biggest changes during my 35 years in this profession is public interest in and attention to the college admissions process.  When I began working in college admissions in the late 1970s, none of my friend or relatives understood exactly what I did or even that such a job existed.  That is no longer the case.  Major publications regularly feature articles devoted to college admission, and the local Barnes and Noble devotes an entire shelf to college guides, a shelf almost as large as the True Crime section.  A couple of years ago the Chronicle of Higher Education described college admission as having “mystique.”

The increased attention given to the college admissions process is a dual-edged sword.  It is good to have the importance of what we do validated, but the public interest increases the hype and anxiety that are already too much of the process, and preying on the anxiety felt by parents and students has become a billion-dollar growth industry.

So are we comfortable with the veil that covers college admission?  It is easy to blame the media, but what the public needs to know is not the same thing as what the public wants to know.  The bigger question is whether colleges really want the public to understand how much of a business higher education has become, the games played in the name of enrollment management, or how subjective holistic admission is?  Are we confident and secure enough in what we do to “preach what we practice”?  Would we rather have “mystique,” or would we rather have public confidence and trust?       

Thursday, October 24, 2013

George Washington (the University, not the President)

Legend has it that George Washington (the President, not the University) could not tell a lie.  That legend dates back to his reputedly owning up to chopping down a cherry tree with a hatchet. 

I learned at an early age not to question that “truth.”  In elementary school I wrote a poem, intended to be humorous, about George Washington (the President, not the University) and the aforementioned cherry tree.  I wrote it from the point of view of a boyhood chum of George Washington (the President, not the University) who was an eyewitness to the demise of the cherry tree.  In the final stanza of the poem the future President is asked about chopping down the tree and responds by pointing at the narrator, “He did it.”

The poem was selected for the school literary magazine, perhaps my first ever published piece.  When the magazine came out, I was shocked to see that the final line of the poem now read, “I did it,” which not only removed any hint of whimsy and irony, but changed the entire meaning of the poem.  Upon further investigation, it turned out that I was a victim of censorship.  In typing the copy for the literary magazine, the school secretary took it upon herself to change the line so as not to sully the reputation of the father of our country.  For all I know I may have an FBI file based on having written that poem.

On Monday we learned that George Washington (the University, not the President) doesn’t have that much in common with George Washington (the President, not the University).  GW (the University) is not only capable of telling a lie, but has apparently been lying for years about being need-blind in admission.

That revelation came in a story in the ironically-named independent student newspaper The Hatchet.  In the article, Laurie Koehler, the university’s new Senior Associate Provost for Enrollment Management, described the University’s policy as need-aware and acknowledged that was not a change in policy.  That raised eyebrows, because for years (and in fact up until Saturday night) GW had claimed to be need-blind.

There is an old saying in higher education that any publicity is good publicity.  George Washington (the university, not the President) may be about to find out how true that is. This is the second time in the past year that GW had gotten negative admissions-related publicity.  Last November, U.S. News and World Report moved GW into the “Unranked” category (in essence a class by itself) after learning that GW had misreported class rank data for entering students.  That story resulted in Koehler’s predecessor retiring last December.

I have written about the ethics of need-blind admission previously.  Nearly twenty years ago my first article for the Journal of College Admission was on that topic, and one of my first blog posts last year dealt with need-blind admission.  Here are a couple of quick thoughts about George Washington (the University, not the President) and about need-blind/need-aware.

The positive outcome of this story is that GW is now being transparent about its practices.  When the NACAC Assembly first debated the need-blind issue twenty years ago in Pittsburgh, I argued that transparency was the most important and relevant ethical principle, and I continue to believe that.  The cynical part of my being (which friends and colleagues would say is a pretty big part) says that it is easy to come clean when you can place the blame for misrepresentation on your predecessor, and I also wonder about the fact that until sometime this weekend the GW website apparently was still using language indicating that it was need-blind.  Be that as it may, what’s important is that GW is now accurately reflecting what it does.

It is important to stipulate that there is nothing inherently wrong with need-aware admission, especially when practiced at the margin.  Need-blind admission is an ideal that very few institutions can realistically achieve.  Good ethical principles and policies should balance ideals and reality, and the reality is that higher education is at some level a business (I hope it’s more than that), with revenue and expenses a concern.

That doesn’t mean that all need-aware admission practices are equally defensible.  Giving an opportunity to a student with low or no need is more defensible (assuming the student is reasonably capable of being successful) than denying opportunity to a student because they have financial need.      

Twenty-five years ago need-blind admission was understood to incorporate two different principles.  One was that admission decisions should be made without regard to financial need.  The other was that institutions should meet the full need of every student.  I see an ethical difference between the two.  In ethics there is a distinction between acts that are obligatory/ethical duties and those that go beyond the call of duty.  I consider making admission decisions based on qualifications an ethical obligation, while providing funding morally praiseworthy but beyond the call of duty.  I appreciate the argument that says that providing opportunity without adequate financial resources is cruel, but denying opportunity altogether is worse.  One is unpleasant, the other unethical.  What is worse than either of those is denying opportunity to protect stats like admit rate and yield.

What is wrong in the GW case is not being need-aware, but pretending to be need-blind.  I can only guess that’s because need-blind is seen as being prestigious.  Doing things for prestige reasons is usually a bad idea.  I remember a college adding an essay to its application years ago and admitting that it had no intention of reading the essays, but thought that having an essay would make it appear more prestigious.  Just recounting that makes my blood all over again.  A good rule of thumb is that if you’re embarrassed or hesitant to “preach what you practice,” that might be telling you something.

Finally, the need-blind issue is a great example of the changing admissions landscape.  Usually the term “changing admissions landscape” implies an erosion of ethical standards, but I don’t think that’s the case here.  The financial realities of higher education require us to rethink what is important and why.  The enduring values here are honesty and transparency, and whenever any of us fail to live those values, it hurts all of us.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

First Monday in October

Last Monday was the first Monday in October, the day each fall that the United States Supreme Court begins its term.  Last year at this time there was great anticipation in the college admissions world as the Court had on its docket a major affirmative action case, Fisher v. Texas. 

This year the Court will hear another case related to affirmative action, Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action.  Unlike Fisher, though, that case doesn’t have to do with affirmative action itself, but rather the constitutionality of a state (in this case Michigan) amending its constitution to prohibit race- or sex-based discrimination or preferential treatment in public university admissions when other forms of preferential treatment (such as legacy status) aren’t prohibited.  The oral arguments for that case are today, and I’ll post later in the week if I see any interesting admissions issues arising from the discussion before the Court.      

In admissions parlance, the Supreme Court put affirmative action on a Wait List in the Fisher decision. The Court declined to rule on the merits of the affirmative action program employed by the University of Texas and remanded the case back to a lower court.  What does that mean for the future of affirmative action?  It depends on whom you ask.  As is so often the case these days in American politics, both sides claimed victory.

Several weeks ago, Jocelyn Samuels from the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and Catherine Lhamon from the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education sent a joint letter to college and university presidents.  The letter stated that the Fisher decision preserved the legal precedent that colleges have a compelling interest in a diverse student body and can advance that interest through their admissions programs.  The letter also affirmed that a 2011 Guidance on the Voluntary Use of Race to Achieve Diversity in Postsecondary Education statement from the two offices remains in effect, and included a list of Frequently Asked Questions about the Fisher case.

They may be alone in being that optimistic about the future of affirmative action in its present form.  Just yesterday I talked with the Dean of Admissions at a flagship public university who said that he is spending a lot of his time with university lawyers preparing a defense of the institution’s affirmative action program in anticipation that there will be new legal challenges in the wake of Fisher, and an article by Eric Hoover in yesterday’s Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that a number of colleges and universities are thinking about and preparing for a “race neutral” future.

With all due respect, I found the optimism in the letter unwarranted.  The Obama administration (I think it is fair to assume that the letter represents the administration view) is technically correct that the Fisher decision did not overturn affirmative action in its current form, but several justices made it clear in their opinions that they would have done so if asked.  In no way could Fisher have been interpreted as upholding the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision, as the letter seems to suggest.  As Richard Kahlenberg points out in an op-ed in the Chronicle of Higher Education, four justices (Kennedy, Scalia, Thomas, Ginsberg) voted on different sides of the two cases.

At the very least, the Fisher decision places the burden of proof on those who want to use race-conscious approaches to achieve diversity.  Fisher was remanded back to the lower court because it had failed to exercise strict scrutiny, taking at face value the University of Texas’s claim that diversity was a compelling interest and that its affirmative action program (which operated to supplement the diversity produced by the state’s top 10% program) was necessary. Fisher will put the onus on institutions to demonstrate that diversity is a compelling goal, that any affirmative action program is narrowly tailored to achieve the goal, and that no race-neutral solution would be effective.  That’s a subtle, but significant, change.

I also wonder if Fisher will lead to a much-needed conversation about diversity.  I am not suggesting that we need to back away from a commitment to diversity but rather to clarify how and why diversity is important.  Is all diversity equally valuable?  One of the odd arguments made by counsel for the University of Texas during Fisher was that it needed to admit more underachieving middle class and wealthy students of color for the sake of diversity.   

Diversity in higher education has been so worshipped as a virtue that it wouldn’t be surprising to see some university rebrand itself as a 21st century “Diversity”—think the Diversity of California or Brown Diversity.  But is diversity an intrinsic value, good for its own sake, or an instrumental value, good because it provides and supports a richer educational experience?  I would argue the latter. 

Fisher v. Texas  was the fourth major Supreme Court case dealing with affirmative action in college admissions, and odds are that it won’t be the last.  The issue defies easy solution because it brings into conflict two important fundamental principles. 

One is equality of opportunity.  In August we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.  I have watched it multiple times, and I am always struck by two things.  One is how different the world was in 1963, from voting rights issues to segregated lodging facilities and even separate drinking fountains in the South.  The other is King’s genius in alerting the nation to the cognitive dissonance between the promises made in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution and the reality of racial discrimination.  We have made great strides, but do we have equality of opportunity today, and can we provide opportunity to higher education in a meaningful way without using racial preferences in admissions?

The other issue is fairness.  If giving preferences on account of race is wrong, isn’t it wrong even when done with noble intentions?  Does the end justify the means?  Is there any alternative?

I am much better at asking questions than I am at providing answers, but two things are clear to me.  It would be a mistake to keep affirmative action in its present form, and it would be a mistake to abolish affirmative action altogether.  By comparison, the current “discussion” between Republicans and Democrats over the debt ceiling and the government shutdown is a walk in the park (but not a National Park).

Friday, September 27, 2013

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

Several years ago, at the funeral for University of Virginia Dean of Admissions Jack Blackburn, I ran into Bill Hartog, the long-time Dean of Admissions at Washington and Lee University.  We shared our fond memories of Jack and his legacy for our profession, and commiserated about becoming elder statesmen, or just older.

I shared my experience of attending a meeting of independent school college counselors, including several who had just moved across the desk from the college side.  At the end of the meeting, one of them looked at me and stated how inspiring it was to see the old-timers present.  Thinking he wanted affirmation, I started to reply, “It sure is,” when it hit me that the old-timer he was referring to was me.

Bill observed that he was now 25 years older than the next oldest member of his staff.  He sensed that people in the office were asking, “Who is that old guy, what does he do here, and why is he always so grumpy?”

No one would begrudge Bill for being grumpy this week.  I returned from Toronto on Sunday night to learn that the Washington Post had published an article about colleges that count incomplete applications when computing application totals and admit rate.  The focal point in the article was W&L.  A day later Washington and Lee President Kenneth Ruscio called for an internal review of the school’s procedures for reporting admissions data.   

The original article correctly points out that W&L’s practice is not out-of-line with the accepted guidelines for reporting data to the federal government or as established by the Common Data Set, but there is also an implication that what W&L is doing is comparable to the misrepresentation of admissions stats that occurred at places like Emory and Claremont McKenna and Bucknell.  Based on what I have read and what I know, that is not the case.

I read the article not as an indictment of Washington and Lee but as a criticism of the current state of college admission.  There is a disconnect between the accepted practice within our profession and public understanding of how the admissions process works.  The implicit criticism of W&L was due to counting as completed applications more than 1100 applications that were incomplete, an inclusion that lowered the acceptance rate from 24% to 19%.  That’s common practice, and I don’t consider it unethical, but many of us are guilty of massaging statistics to make us look better.

I also think we have deliberately kept a veil of mystery over how admission works, at least partly because we don’t want the public to know how subjective and imprecise holistic admission can be.  That veil of mystery is a double-edged sword.  It increases public fascination with college admission, but it also leads to skepticism and distrust about our practices and our motives.  As colleges move to a culture driven by marketing, we also send a message that we are motivated by self-interest rather than the public interest.  It is also the case that every instance of misrepresentation at one institution harms all of us.

The larger issue is that we have allowed admissions metrics to become a proxy for institutional quality.  Because educational outcomes are so difficult to measure, we have turned to things that are easy to measure (and easy to manipulate) and assigned them value that is in no way justified.  The unchallenged assumption is that the more popular the institution—application numbers, admit rate, yield—the better it must be.  There are plenty of culprits for that way of thinking—Presidents, Provosts, and Boards; Bond-rating agencies; and of course, U.S. News and World Report, the poster child for measuring educational quality without considering the educational experience.  The logical conclusion of the “Popularity=Quality” mindset is that the ultimate gourmand experience will be found at McDonald’s.

Either Mark Twain or Benjamin Disraeli said that there are three kinds of lies—lies, damned lies, and statistics.  Colleges and universities know better than to spread lies or damned lies, but I think we can expect more scrutiny over our use of statistics. I suspect we will be challenged both by Gen X parents and by the federal government to find new ways to show the value of a college education and the value added by particular institutions.  The Obama administration’s proposal to rank colleges and allocate federal aid based on access, affordability, and outcomes may be the first salvo.  We need to be proactive and not reactive.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Postcard from Toronto

Today happens to be the first anniversary of the blog.  It’s been a good year, and as I have told several people at NACAC in Toronto, one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done.  I am particularly grateful to all of you who read and comment both privately and publicly.

I celebrated by doing a session this morning with Lee Coffin from Tufts and Chuck Lovelace from the Morehead-Cain Foundation at UNC-Chapel Hill.  Our topic was one that readers of the blog will find familiar.  Are we measuring the right things in the college admissions process?  We addressed (not the same as answering) that question in three different areas: non-cognitive predictors of success; 21st century skills; and measures of institutional quality.  It’s a discussion worth having, and Lee and Chuck have both done first-rate thinking in how to merge theory with practice.

Last week Eric Hoover at the Chronicle of Higher Education asked me to write a guest post for the Chronicle’s Head Count blog, and it appeared yesterday.  Here’s a link.

This was the first time in five years that I didn’t have official duties.  Several people asked me if I missed it, and I responded by asking if I looked like I had a sense of loss.  No one answered yes.  I enjoyed the opportunity to serve NACAC, and the experience has certainly benefitted me both personally and professionally, but I finished my term with a sense of satisfaction that I had done my best and that it was time to move on to other things.  Writing about the ethics of college admissions has helped make that transition easy.

This morning the NACAC Assembly amended the Statement of Principles of Good Practice to address the use of international agents.  The Assembly adopted amended language to the motion put forth by the Board of Directors and Admission Practices Committee based on the report of the Commission on International Student Recruitment.  The amendment to the SPGP’s Mandatory Practices allows member institutions to use incentive-based agents when working with international students but requires that the institution ensure “accountability, transparency and integrity.”

I think it was important for the Assembly to validate the thoughtful deliberative process employed by the Commission, but "accountability," "transparency," and "integrity" all leave plenty of room for definition and further discussion. I think no one believes this will resolve the agent issue once and for all.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Justice and Mercy

I used to give my mother-in-law a hard time because the first part of the newspaper she looked at every morning was the obituaries.  I haven’t adopted that habit, but now that I have reached the stage in life where being referred to as middle-aged is a compliment, it doesn’t seem quite as amusing.

Recently I saw that the father of a former student had passed away.  A classical guitarist who had immigrated to the United States to receive a kidney transplant, he seemed to be on death’s doorstep 20 years ago, so I was surprised that he had lived this long. 

Seeing his obituary made me recall my proudest counseling moment. His son was bright, strong-willed, and rebellious, and his junior year could have inspired a soap opera or reality show.  He chafed under rules and expectations that were minimal, scored high enough on the PSAT to be a National Merit Semifinalist but didn’t have grades to match, shaved his head for shock effect, and in late January disappeared for a week.  It turned out he was visiting a girl at a college in the Midwest.

During the last month of school he was convicted of back-to-back honor offenses.  Both could be categorized as stupid rather than deceitful, but at St. Christopher’s the Honor System is the foundation underpinning everything that happens at the School, the line you don’t cross, and an upperclassman with multiple offenses is in deep trouble.  Both the faculty and his peers were at the end of their ropes, and the Honor Council recommended expulsion.

The Headmaster consulted me before acting on the recommendation.  We agreed that the boy wasn’t a bad kid, just immature and stuck in a bad home situation.  At the same time, it wasn’t in his or the community’s best interest to remain.  We finally arrived at a creative solution—either expel him or get him into college early.

And that’s what happened.  A good liberal-arts college (the same one he had visited for a week in January) was willing to offer him admission without a high-school diploma.  We didn’t expel him, he was accepted to college early, and four years later he graduated with honors, after which he wrote me the kind of thank-you note I’ve received only rarely in my career.  It meant even more because of the back story.

A guiding principle in ethics is “Treat like cases alike.”  The challenge, of course, is that rarely are two cases alike.  Every ethical dilemma brings with it a unique combination of circumstances and considerations and requires its own calculus.  That calculus must balance the interests of the individual with those of the community, as well as balancing justice with mercy.  Rarely is it possible to find a solution that accomplishes both, which is what made the previous case so satisfying.  

I have been thinking about the interplay between justice and mercy recently thanks to one of last year’s seniors.  He was an excellent student and school citizen who early last fall came down with a mysterious malady that ended up taking away most of his senior year.  He couldn’t sleep or hold down food and quickly fell way behind academically.  He went to numerous doctors and received numerous diagnoses and treatments, but none made him better.

By the end of September it was clear that the best case scenario was a significant drop in grades, and he decided to apply Early Decision to college so that senior year grades would not come into play.  I was okay with that approach, given that he was a strong candidate for a school he wanted to attend, but I cautioned him and his family that the college would need to be made aware of his situation eventually.

The challenge of the school year, and especially the senior year, is that you can’t call time out and stop the clock.  Christmas break offers one of the only concentrated periods of time when a student might catch up after falling behind.  When January arrived, the student’s health issues remained serious and undiagnosed, it was clear that he would only be able to complete two of his first semester classes, and we knew that we had to, in the words of my GPS, “Recalculate.”  The good news was that he was in college.

As a school we were trying to be sensitive and supportive of the boy and his family, but the situation raised some difficult practical and philosophical questions.  What should we do about the courses he wasn’t physically able to complete?  Is earning a high school diploma about earning a minimal number of credits or about a certain quality of experience?  What was our duty to the student, and what was our responsibility to the college he wanted to attend?  If Woody Allen is correct that 90% of life is showing up, what happens when you can’t even do that on a regular basis?

I struggled to sort out my ethical obligations.  In any ethical dilemma, there are multiple duties involved.  The philosopher W.D. Ross argued that ethical duties arise from relationships, and that every relationship carries with it what he calls a prima facie (or first glance) duty.  In this case I had a duty to the student.  I also had a duty to my school, I had a duty to the college, I had a duty to the profession, and I had a duty to my core values as an individual.  Unfortunately Ross only tells you how to identify possible duties, not how to choose among them.

It wasn’t until March that doctors at the Mayo Clinic diagnosed the student as having postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS).  Having a diagnosis and knowing that it was treatable and not chronic was a relief for everyone, but finding the right combination and dosage levels of medications remained a challenge, and hopes for being able to come to school on a regular basis proved overly optimistic.   

As a school we were trying to do the right thing, balancing mercy and justice.  The family didn’t want to consider a repeat senior year.  The college said they would allow him to come if I/we certified that he was ready.  How could I do that, when he wasn’t healthy enough to come to school more than a period a day and would finish his senior year with 1.5 credits?  At the same time, he hadn’t chosen to get sick, and an important moral principle is that you can’t judge or punish someone for things they haven’t chosen.

He finished the school year one-half credit shy of the minimum number required to graduate.  We allowed him to walk at graduation, and gave him two options for earning a diploma.  He could take an on-line course during the summer to get the final credit or we would give him a diploma at the end of his first semester in college.  Of course the family didn’t like either option, and asked us to give him academic credit for therapy he did at the Mayo Clinic during the month of July.

The student started college a week ago.  He seems healthy and ready, but he has also essentially missed a year of school.  I don’t know that we achieved either mercy or justice, and I don’t know that we came up with the “right” answer.  Sometimes an okay answer has to be good enough.    

Tuesday, August 6, 2013


Nearly a quarter century ago I took a three-year hiatus from my college counseling career to take a job as admissions director at an independent school.  I left college counseling reluctantly, because I loved the school and the kids I worked with, but I was commuting 160 miles round-trip daily and my wife told me I could consider any job I wanted as long as it was in Richmond.

I realized quickly that the school was struggling, far more than I had been told.  I attended a Board meeting before I started the job, and while casually reading the minutes of the previous meeting discovered that just a month before a motion had been made and defeated to fire the Headmaster, the person who had just hired me.  I began my first day on the job, a month before the opening of school, counting up all the returning and prospective students and discovered that the best possible scenario was 40 students shy of the minimum budget number.  The Headmaster had no clue.  Perhaps most telling was that when I went to the business office to get paper clips, they asked me how many I needed.  The school couldn’t afford to give me a whole box.

Less than two weeks before school started, I attended an emergency evening meeting with the Headmaster and the Executive Committee of the Board. They wanted me to make cold calls to try to recruit last minute enrollments.  I refused, telling them that if word got out on the street that we were desperate, the school would never recover.  The school might need that approach or that kind of admissions director, but I wasn’t willing to do that.  I stood there waiting to be fired, but one trustee spoke up and backed me, and the rest of the group backed down.

But what happens when you really are desperate? A recent New York Times article about falling college enrollments mentioned two institutions, Loyola University in New Orleans and St. Mary’s College of Maryland, that have fallen far short of their enrollment goals this spring, forcing them to cut their budgets by millions of dollars.

One paragraph in the article raised eyebrows among those of us in the profession.  Loyola was reported to have called students who had been accepted but not enrolled, including sweetening financial-aid offers.  The Times article stated that recipients of the calls included students who had already deposited elsewhere, a violation of the NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice.

Loyola officials responded both to the NACAC Exchange and to InsideHigherEd (which did a follow-up piece) that they had been misunderstood, that the school had made the calls and financial aid offers only to accepted students who hadn’t informed Loyola that they were going elsewhere.  I appreciate the clarification from Loyola, but am also glad to know that the NACAC Admission Practices Committee will apparently investigate based on complaints made by NACAC members after the Times article appeared.

I am more intrigued by the larger questions raised by the articles. 

The most obvious has to do with May 1.  What are the ethical imperatives implied by the May 1 National Candidates Reply date?  Is May 1 the “end” of the admissions process, such that it is improper for institutions to recruit after that date? Should institutions like St. Mary’s and Loyola get a “pass,” given that financial stewardship, saving employees’ jobs, and staying in business are all in some sense ethical objectives? Are we about to see new attempts to erode the May 1 deadline?

Let me answer the last question first.  I certainly hope the answer is no.  I consider May 1 the most important convention for preserving sanity and ethical practice in the college admissions world.  The May 1 date clearly provides protection for students to ensure they receive all decisions before making a final choice, but I would also argue that it provides protection for colleges, both as a benchmark for judging where enrollment stands and also as a guard against deterioration into a Wild West mentality.

It is also clear that the admissions cycle continues past May 1 for many institutions, including rolling admissions schools, those utilizing Wait Lists, and schools that have to deal with considerable summer melt.  There is nothing wrong with recruiting students after May 1, IF those students haven’t deposited at another institution.  It is appropriate to contact accepted students who have not deposited or informed you that they are going elsewhere, but conversations must stop once it is clear that a student has committed to another school, and financial exigency does not change that.

Are the shortfalls faced by Loyola and St. Mary’s anomalies, unique to those institutions, or canaries in the enrollment management coalmine? In the past week I have heard about two other institutions with freshman classes smaller than expected, although nowhere near the same degree as the two institutions named above.  At least one tried to cut back on its discount rate, only to find a corresponding drop in deposits. This spring I found that economic considerations seemed to drive college decisions for my students far more than I have ever seen before, choosing public over private and in-state over out-of-state.  I’m not sure if the decisions are driven by ability to pay or unwillingness to pay, but if it’s happening with my families, it has to be a wider phenomenon.  Will college admissions officers need to rethink fundamental assumptions? 

The ultimate question is whether college admissions can walk the fine line between being an industry and being a profession.  What distinguishes the two is the degree of commitment to the public interest as well as self-interest. Can we continue to agree on a set of principles that serve all of us well even when they might not always serve me well?  I hope so.  As Benjamin Franklin said about signing the Declaration of independence, “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”