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?