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.