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.

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