Friday, November 1, 2013

Mystique


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?       

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