Monday, December 22, 2014

Happy Holidays

I toyed with writing a quick post about Friday’s release of the federal Department of Education’s “framework” for college ratings based on access, affordability, and outcomes, but decided that no one will have time or interest in reading this close to Christmas.  I’ll work on it for publication next year.

That leaves one item of business and holiday greetings.

The business (or, more accurately, shameless self-promotion):  the previous post regarding the Wainstein report about the academic fraud scandal at UNC-Chapel Hill was one of two selections last Monday in the “Around the Web” section of, the third time ECA has been mentioned on that website.

The greetings:  ECA wishes “Happy holidays” to all of our readers, whether you celebrate Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa, Festivus or just time away from writing college recommendations and reading college applications.  

In the last school chapel service before Christmas break, our chaplain did a sermon about the theological lessons found in classic cartoon Christmas specials like “Frosty the Snowman,”  “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “A Charley Brown Christmas.”  I was hurt that she left out my all-time favorite, “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.” In the spirit of that show and the immortal words of Tiny Tim (the Dickens character, not the ukulele-playing 1960s singer), “God bless us, every one.”

Friday, December 12, 2014

Carolina Blue(s)

I have read that airplane crashes rarely have a simple cause, but are usually the product of a series of malfunctions and/or errors.  For example, in the case of Air France 447, which crashed into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009 on a flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris, ice crystals apparently produced a faulty airspeed reading. That caused the autopilot to disconnect, and the flight crew, all of whom had gotten little to no sleep the previous night, proceeded to make a series of bad decisions, leading to a stall that resulted in the plane plunging into the Atlantic.

I was reminded of that story when I read the recently released Wainstein report into the academic fraud at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  The report, officially titled “Investigation of Irregular Classes in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,” is the most recent and thorough investigation into the scandal where over an 18-year period more than 3000 students, nearly half of them athletes, took “paper” classes that never met, required only a paper, and were supervised and graded by a department secretary.  Compared with a previous investigation headed by former North Carolina Governor James Martin, the independent team led by former federal prosecutor Kenneth Wainstein had access to more than one million e-mails and cooperation from both the secretary and department chair at the center of the fraud.

Just like airplane crashes, the scandal did not have a simple cause.  Debby Crowder, the secretary in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies who set up and oversaw the phony classes, was a UNC graduate who is described in the report as a caring, compassionate advocate for struggling students.  That compassion, combined with a love for Carolina athletics, led her to cut corners to help struggling student-athletes make grades that would keep them eligible and allow them to earn degrees.  That was enabled by the hands-off leadership of department chair Julius Nyang’oro. 

Beyond the department, a combination of factors allowed the fraud to occur unchecked.  The tradition of academic autonomy within higher education meant that professors from other departments would not question or criticize practices within a different department. Academic administrators ignored evidence of the fraud, such as the fact that Professor Nyang’oro was supposedly teaching 300 independent study courses at one time.  And the biggest factor was an abiding but na├»ve faith throughout the university community that an academic scandal of such proportions simply couldn’t happen at a place as good as UNC-Chapel Hill.

Of course the elephant in the report is the role that big-time intercollegiate athletics plays at places like UNC-Chapel Hill.  There is at best a tension, and more commonly a chasm, between the educational purpose of a university and the reality of Division One athletic programs. The Wainstein report makes clear that the primary purpose of the paper courses at UNC was not to help athletes make progress toward a degree or receive any semblance of an education, but rather to keep them eligible to play.

That disconnect between education and athletics is not new, but has existed since the earliest days of colleges entering the sports entertainment business.  I recently read Dave Revsine’s book, The Opening Kickoff, about the early years of college football, and it is clear that there was never a time when college sports and higher education weren’t at odds.  From the very beginning college football was the “Wild West,” with abuses far beyond anything found today.  One of the biggest culprits in the early part of the twentieth century was the University of Chicago and its legendary coach, Amos Alonzo Stagg.

Given that the purview of this blog is college admissions rather than college athletics, I read the Wainstein report to see if and how admissions issues were mentioned within the report.  Steve Farmer, the Vice Provost for Enrollment and Undergraduate Admissions at UNC-Chapel Hill (who is both a friend and someone I respect greatly) is listed as one of those interviewed as part of the investigation, and there is a short discussion on pages 46-47 of the report related to admission of athletes.

“Academically elite universities like Chapel Hill often feel a tension between their high academic standards and the effort to build a strong athletic program.  One symptom of this tension is that academically selective schools often feel it necessary to admit academically under-prepared athletes in order to field competitive teams…This is a perfectly legitimate and laudable approach to admissions, and it has resulted in countless success stories where such student-athletes have excelled both on the field and in the classroom.  At the same time, the admission of under-prepared student-athletes presents universities with difficult challenges, as many require intensive academic support and remedial instruction.”

The report states that assessing the viability of admissions standards for athletes at UNC is beyond the scope of the investigation.  It also points out that UNC’s practices with regard to admission of under-prepared athletes fall within the mainstream, but clearly a contributing factor to the scandal was admission of students not capable of doing the work at UNC.  Former UNC academic advisor Mary Willingham has reported that she was aware of athletes at UNC who were reading at an elementary school level.

There is nothing inherently wrong with admitting students who are academic risks, as long as you have a program in place that will give them a chance to be successful.  Obviously giving grades for courses that never meet doesn’t meet that standard.

During my days as an independent school admissions director I was in a situation where I had to take some risks.  I learned from experience that half of them would work out and half not, but I couldn’t predict which ones would fall in which category.  (I also learned that kids I admitted with behavior concerns would invariably be hanging out with each other by the end of the first day of school.)  I learned that I was more likely to make mistakes with my heart rather than my head.  I admitted a young African-American male with a single mother and low test scores because I wanted him to be successful, and felt guilty when it predictably didn’t turn out.  Thankfully I ran into him a number of years later and learned that he is a successful graphic designer.

The UNC scandal is partly a mistake of the heart, because Debby Crowder’s fraud originated in compassion for struggling students, but the end doesn’t justify the means.  More troubling is the loss of vision, failure to see that while wins and national championships are nice and revenue-producing, the purpose of a university is first and foremost to provide young people with an education.  UNC is one of the finest public universities in America, but in this case deserves an F.     

Monday, November 24, 2014

All the News That Fits--Another View

On Friday I received a thoughtful e-mail from Jon Reider shortly after the publication of my post about media coverage of college admissions.  Jon is a regular reader of the blog and correspondent as well as someone whose opinion I value, and I asked him if he would consider adapting his e-mail as a guest post.  Here it is:


I have mused a lot over the years about the best way to speak to the media.  (I do get called from time to time, so my ego is OK.)   The best reporters like Eric Hoover and Janet Lorin can often quote at more length, perhaps because their space constraints are less severe than the daily press.  I too have winced at seeing a half hour chat turn into a half-sentence bite.  I sometimes try to say something like, "This is the key point."   But that wouldn't always work, and I doubt reporters want to be instructed in their trade, any more than you and I do.  So, yes, we have to live with it and hope that the important stuff gets through, as it does in the second half of the article.

 We can remember the adage that "Dog bites man" is not news, but the reverse is.   Occasionally, reporters call trolling for a story: what is new this year?  What trends are you seeing?  That sort of thing.   They are looking for the "Man bites dog" story.   The problem, as we know, is that the daily grind of advising, editing, writing, waiting, and then either celebrating or consoling is much the same year after year.   The real news is slow and cumulative: more early applications, more test optional schools, more demonstrated interest schools, more selectivity.    Fine for Jim Fallows and the Atlantic Monthly, or Andrew Delbanco writing a book, but not of much value for a daily newspaper.

 What amuses me is the phenomenon itself, that Ms. Kaminer's hyper-sophisticated editors consider this front-page Sunday stuff (below the fold, to be sure).   The early emphasis on the ridiculous excesses plays into that, of course, just as the tale of the Cadillac-driving welfare queen made good fodder for Ronald Reagan way back when.  The extremes drive the noise machine.  One of these days, I hope to address the broader question of why elite college admissions has become a fetishized commodity (in Marx's sense), which is presumed to have magical value, akin to a Mercedes or Rolex.  In addition to spawning all the parasitic industries like test prep, organized community service ventures, independent counselors, and maybe even our own livelihoods, it has infiltrated late bourgeois culture with an array of popular books, movies, TV shows, in addition to the regular coverage in the Times, WSJ, and elsewhere.  College admissions has become a "myth" in the anthropological sense of a motivating and framing narrative through which a culture makes sense of itself.   How and why this has happened is worth exploring.

Jon Reider

Director of College Counseling

San Francisco University High School

I am thankful to Jon for his willingness to contribute, and as we approach a much-needed Thanksgiving break, I am thankful to all of you who read the blog and share your thoughts.  It is good to know that there are many colleagues who share core values about college counseling and admissions.

Friday, November 21, 2014

News That's Fit to Print

On Sunday The New York Times ran a front page story about the increasing number of applications students around the country seem to be submitting.  I was one of a handful of counselors interviewed and quoted, something good for my school and not so good for my ego and humility.

Since the article appeared I talked with a friend who was also quoted in the article.  He was bemused (I think) because a good thirty-minute conversation with reporter Ariel Kaminer showed up in the article as a five-word quote.  That’s the reality when dealing with the press, I suppose.  No matter how eloquent you might be and how much depth you might provide, a reporter has an angle and a limited number of words, and chances are you’ll end up on the cutting floor.

I actually originally learned that lesson as a writer myself.  This past weekend was the annual football game between Randolph-Macon and Hampden-Sydney colleges in Virginia, the oldest small-college football rivalry in the South.  It’s a great example of Division 3 athletics at its best, unlike the headlines and scandals produced at athletic powerhouses like UNC-Chapel Hill (which I’ll deal with in my next post), and I have been told (but haven’t confirmed) that Southern Living recently declared the rivalry the South’s greatest, beating out Alabama-Auburn, among others.

I’d like to think I had a little, very little, to do with that.  I know both schools well.  I graduated from and coached and taught at Randolph-Macon, and Hampden-Sydney Admissions Dean Anita Garland is my oldest and closest college admissions friend.  Nearly thirty years ago I wrote an article for Southern Living about the Randolph-Macon vs. Hampden-Sydney rivalry as exemplifying “The Game” which is more important than the rest of the season.  It was the first article I ever sold at a time when I thought I might pursue a free-lance writing career, and it was a big deal because Southern Living published one feature article a year in its “All-South Football Section” and that article was usually written by established writers such as Pat Conroy and Willie Morris.

My article nearly never saw the light of day.  The magazine accepted the article, sent a photographer, paid me, and my wife told everyone we knew, but on the day the issue hit the newsstands I rushed out, opened the magazine, and—no article.  I immediately understood how actors feel when their one scene in a movie is edited out.  Are you a published author when you’ve been paid but the article isn’t published?

I contacted my editor at Southern Living and learned that the magazine had lost advertising pages at the last minute, causing the article to be cut.  The good news was that they still planned to publish it twelve months later and wanted me to update it.  In particular they wanted me to get some quotes from the then-President of Hampden-Sydney, a colorful character.  When I called his office to set up a phone interview I was told that he was too busy because he was a finalist for another job and had to keep the phone lines open for the call from the search committee.  I completed the article sans quotes and it was ultimately published, and just after submitting the revised version I saw in the newspaper that the institution he was waiting on had announced its new President—not him.

The Times article illustrates the dilemma faced by those of us who have devoted our lives to counseling young people about a decision that is an important, even essential, developmental step in the transition from adolescence to adulthood.  On the one hand, it affirms the importance of our work when an article about college admissions is on the front page of The New York Times. At the same time, as a professional I find myself troubled by the messages (usually subtle, occasionally overt) sent to the public by media coverage of the college admissions process.

I talked twice with reporter Ariel Kaminer, who wrote the article and covers higher education for the Times, and she is clearly a pro who understands the issues.  She quoted me fairly and accurately, and I thank her for not making me look stupid, my biggest fear any time I talk to a reporter.  She chose not to quote what I thought was my most significant point.  I told her that I was not necessarily seeing the trend in my school, but that I emphasize to students that the increased competition at the top of the college food chain does not mean that they should apply to more colleges, but that they should apply more thoughtfully, knowing why each and every school is on their list.   

The second half of the article makes that point and that most college counselors think filing more than a reasonable number of applications (we can disagree about what that number is, but it is far lower than 30 or 56 or 86, all actual numbers from the article) is stupid and counterproductive.  The problem is the first half, which describes the alarming trend, and particularly the headline (which is written by someone other than the writer of the article).  A quick skim of the headline and article could very easily convince already crazed students and parents that applying to lots and lots of colleges is now the norm.

 It is easy to bemoan the fact that the media contribute to college admissions-related hype and anxiety, but I also don’t know that we should expect the media to promote our agenda.  What makes that harder is that I’m not sure our profession is agreed on what messages we should be sending to students and parents and the public.  Is college about fit or about prestige?  Is the admissions process a journey of self-discovery or a game?  Does the process reward substance or packaging?

There is too much mythology and too little accurate information about how college admission works.  If that bothers us (and it’s not clear that it does), it might be time for those of us on the front lines at colleges and on the other side of the desk to think about what the public needs to know and develop a vision statement for how and why the college search and admissions processes are essential in the growth of the student and in making our country better.  That kind of manifesto might just be what the New York Times considers “news that’s fit to print.”

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

If You Can't Say Something Nice

It was the first day of Christmas break, and I had stopped by the office for a couple of minutes on my way to do frantic, last-minute shopping.  As I was walking out the door, the phone rang.  Don’t answer, advised an internal voice to which I have since learned to pay heed.  But answer it I did.

On the other end of the line was the Director of Admissions at a large public university located outside Virginia.  He explained that on his desk was the application folder for one of my students.  I cringed when he named the student, whose record was, to put it politely, undistinguished (or perhaps distinguished by his lack of achievement).  On the student’s folder was a one-word note from the Associate Director—“Why?”  But, the Director continued, he had read my recommendation and there was something telling him he should give the student a chance.

I stayed silent, waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Finally he said, “I’m sorry, the best I can do is offer him summer school admission.”  As I was doing a celebratory dance (which you should be thankful you didn’t have to see), I responded that I thought that was fair.  As we said our goodbyes, he asked one final question, “Have you ever thought about becoming a creative writer?”

Describing the recommendation letter as creative writing does not mean that it is fiction, only that it is an art form. I’ve spent most of the past month thinking only about writing recommendations, but now that I seem to have survived November 1, I thought I would take a moment to reflect on the art of the recommendation.

We are about halfway through what my children used to call “recommendation” season, the time of year when I was grumpier than usual.  I am envious of colleagues who are able to get the bulk of their rec letters written during the summer.  I’ve never been able to do that, and might be too old to start now.  As a result, the rhythm of the fall is dictated by the next deadline and the number of letters that need to be written.  I wish I were as organized and disciplined in every part of my life as I am during recommendation season.

In the independent school world the value and impact of “the letter” may be overrated.  When I was first hired as a college counselor thirty years ago, it seemed that the ability to write was the only skill anyone was concerned about.  Today I suspect that rec letters from teachers have higher value, seen as more likely to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The counselor recommendation letter serves several purposes.  It is part legal brief, making the case for the student and laying out evidence.  It is part character study, bringing the application and transcript to life.  It can also serve the function that footnotes serve in big, scholarly non-fiction books.  If the transcript is the primary text, the rec letter provides the footnotes.

In his book, The Call of Stories, the psychiatrist Robert Coles says that each person has a unique story and that the purpose of psychiatry is to discern that story.  In a perfect world, the job of a college counselor in writing a recommendation is to tell the student’s story.  Of course, we don’t live in a perfect world.  Our public school colleagues who are faced with ridiculous counseling loads and myriad other duties that push college counseling onto the back burner would need super powers to tell their students’ stories in any more than a superficial way.

I think there are four types of stories (if I’m missing others, I’d love to know):

            --The story of accomplishment

            --The story of growth

            --The story of adversity overcome

            --The story of potential

Obviously some of these are easier to tell than others.

How long should a recommendation letter be?  The prevailing wisdom is one page, that admissions officers have neither the time nor the interest in reading more.  I get that, but it will be no surprise to regular readers of this blog that brevity is a challenge for me and my letters are usually longer.  My thinking is that I have one opportunity to say what I need to say on the student’s behalf. I have friends at other schools that have moved to a bullet-point format in their letters, but I’m not ready to move in that direction.  The change I made several years ago is to frontload my letters so that the opening paragraph makes the argument in brief for a reader who chooses not to read the entire letter.

I have always believed that recommendation letters are read negatively, that if you don’t say something it is assumed that you can’t.  If you highlight how diligent a student is, it may be read as evidence that the student lacks ability.  A rec letter is an opportunity to put a student’s record in context, to explain a grade or a class or a teacher or life circumstances that are relevant in understanding the student’s journey.

Recommendation writers are like politicians, always looking for the perfect euphemism, the sufficiently vague phrase that is open to interpretation, preferably faulty.  Many years ago, Robert Thornton, an economics professor at Lehigh, developed the Lexicon of Inconspicuously Ambiguous Recommendations, or LIAR.  His examples were oriented toward job recommendations, and were meaningful for what they didn’t say rather than what they did.  The phrase “You will be fortunate to get this person to work for you” could be high praise or might be missing the important information (no one else has been able to get them to work).  In a college recommendation, describing a student as “entrepreneurial” could mean they sell drugs to all their friends, while “he hopes to become an engineer” might be missing the all-important (but he better learn to drive a train).  And should the statement, “I would place him in a class by himself” be interpreted figuratively or literally?

The biggest ethical issue attached to recommendation writing is what information to include and what to leave out.  I see my job as being an advocate for the student, presenting the best case I can for them, without compromising my credibility.  I have therefore never written a recommendation intended to be negative.  I try to follow my grandmother’s advice—“If you can’t say something nice, say nothing at all.”

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

News and Updates

My posts this fall have all been pretty weighty (not to mention very preachy), and given that I’m drowning in a pile of college recommendations due November 1, this post will be a change of pace, providing news and updates on four issues I’ve addressed previously.

1)      In Indianapolis, the NACAC Assembly approved a number of changes to the Statement of Principles of Good Practice (SPGP), adding language having to do with the use of international agents, the fact that a high-school transcript should include all courses attempted (rather than being edited when a student retakes a course and earns a higher grade—a possible future topic for this blog), and how the May 1 Candidates’ Reply Date applies to institutionally-affiliated financial aid and scholarships.  I applaud the NACAC Admissions Practices committee under the leadership of Todd Rinehart for their work in updating the document.


One of the issues related to the May 1 deadline involves housing (for those of you who have memorized the SPGP chapter and verse, it can be found in section II.B.5.a).  Last spring I wrote about the practice of institutions requiring a housing deposit and making it non-refundable, and I have reason to believe that post may have helped move action on that issue.   


2)      Duke has become the first Common Application member to add a question on its application about sexual orientation/gender identity since the Common app’s 2011 decision not to include that topic among the questions asked as part of the application.  Duke’s question differs from other colleges such as Elmhurst College in Illinois and the University of Iowa that have previously asked similar application questions in that it invites students to write a short, optional essay rather than check a box.


I wrote about this issue back in December, 2012 after the University of Iowa announced that it was adding a question about sexual orientation/identity to its application.  At the time I applauded Iowa for being inclusive and welcoming to the LBGT community, but thought there were better ways to communicate that stance than through the application.  I continue to believe that the application should be used only to gather information that is relevant to making an admissions decision (which did not seem to be the case at Iowa), but by asking through an optional essay rather than an optional checkbox, Duke is giving students an opportunity to communicate something that is central to who they are and how they view the world, and that would seem relevant for admissions purposes.


The problem is that the prompt is vague enough that Duke is few students will know what the essay is designed to elicit.  Here is the prompt:  “Duke University seeks a talented, engaged student body that embodies the wide range of human experience; we believe that the diversity of our students makes our community stronger.  If you’d like to share a perspective you bring or experiences you’ve had to help us understand you better—perhaps related to a community you belong to, your sexual orientation or gender identity, or your family or cultural background—we encourage you to do so.  Real people are reading your application, and we want to do our best to understand and appreciate the real people applying to Duke.”


The essay prompt is deliberately vague and open-ended, and my wonder-about is how many essays Duke will get from students other than the target group.  Just this morning, one of my students who is applying Early Decision to Duke was talking about possible answers to that question, none of which are what the question is designed to elicit.  How many Duke applicants will write about their upper class cultural background, or their suburban New Jersey community?  Will Duke welcome an essay from a straight male who writes about his gender identity or sexual orientation?


3)      Bennington College has joined Goucher in making a high school transcript optional for applicants.  Bennington has introduced the “Dimensional Application” (the term has its origins in a quote about Bennington students by poet e.e. cummings) that gives Bennington applicants the opportunity to “curate” their applications by deciding what relevant information to include—portfolios, research or experiments designed and conducted by the student, writing (reflective and/or analytical), letters of recommendation, and even transcripts.  As I wrote about several weeks ago, I’m not sold on the idea that a transcript should be optional in evaluating a student’s readiness for college, but I like the concept that a student should have some control over what their “self-portrait” looks like and what media best communicates their essence.


4)      U.S. News has announced that two colleges have submitted incorrect data for the 2015 rankings.  What is different from previous cases is that there is no intent to manipulate data for the institution’s benefit.  Rollins College underreported the number of acceptances by 550 students, changing its acceptance rate from 47.2% to 58.8%.  That change did not impact Rollins ranking.  Lindenwood College in Missouri has been moved to the “Unranked” category because it reported 12,411 alumni donors when the actual figure was 2411.  Because alumni giving rate counts 5% of the ranking, that clerical error inflated Lindenwood’s ranking.  U.S. News rankings guru Bob Morse reported both cases in his Morse Code blog, but in Lindenwood’s case doesn’t provide any insight into how much the error would have impacted its ranking (I’m sure the formula is considered proprietary or top secret, but it would be fascinating to see how a mistake like in one category changes the overall ranking—on second thought, U.S. News probably doesn’t want anyone to realize how fluid the rankings are).  I have previous posted suggesting that U.S. News would best serve the public by putting all colleges in the “Unranked” category. Two other questions, one pragmatic and one philosophical:  Didn’t U.S. News find it odd that the number of alumni donors was off by 10000, and does that suggest that there is very little analysis of the data it receives?  And who thinks that alumni giving rate shows alumni loyalty and satisfaction rather than a successful annual giving operation?


That’s all for this edition.  I’ll be back after November 1.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Admissions Gluttony

In my last post I commented on Eric Hoover’s Chronicle of Higher Education article about the pressures faced by enrollment professionals and the attrition within the profession resulting from those pressures.

That article contained several examples of respected admissions deans who have left their jobs and institutions after the arrival of a new president.  One of those was Terry Cowdrey, who left her position as Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Colby College in Maine back in July.  (I have met Terry and respect her, but don’t know her well enough to describe her as a friend.)  Terry told the Chronicle that she left voluntarily, declining further comment, but others told Eric that she and Colby’s new president had different views about the college’s admissions strategy.

The article provides a glimpse into that strategy.  The new president, most recently executive vice president at the University of Chicago, said before arriving in Maine that he wanted to double the number of applications Colby receives each year.  Colby currently receives just over 5000 applications, so doubling that would be 10,000, or 1000 more applications than any other liberal arts college in the country currently receives.

Is that realistic?  A former Colby admissions officer quoted in the article answers no, but I would argue that’s actually not the right question.  Is doubling applications for a place like Colby desirable?  Would 10000 applications make Colby a better place?  What assumptions underlie such a strategy, and what hidden messages does it send?  Is more better (apparently not the same thing as mo’better)?

The conventional wisdom within higher education (and within the pages of U.S. News) is that more must be better, that increased popularity must mean increased quality.  But where’s the evidence for that assumption?  Did the University of Chicago, Colby President David Greene’s former employer, become a better place because it tripled application numbers by using the Common Application rather than its own application with the quirky essay questions?  Its “brand” may be more recognizable (although one of my students who visited last week found its reputation as “The Place Where Fun Goes to Die” still apt), and it may have more appeal for students who are prestige conscious, but has the increased popularity made it a better academic institution?  I am not arguing that it hasn’t, only that increased application numbers are not evidence of increased quality.

Does Colby need more applications?  Only if it, like my children, defines “need” as a synonym for “want.”  Colby already receives more than ten applications for every spot in the freshman class, and has an admission rate of 28%, both metrics that many very good colleges would give anything (hopefully not including their soul) to have.  There are several words that describe the condition where you have more than enough but aren’t satisfied.  When the entity in question is money, the operative word is greed.  When it’s food, the word is gluttony.  And when the motivation is keeping up with your neighbors in the NESCAC and Ivies, the description is envy.  That’s three of the Seven Deadly Sins right there.

I also wonder if there might be unanticipated consequences from setting a goal to double applications.  Increasing applications probably means also decreasing yield, because those extra applications would come mostly from students who would be adding Colby to a list including more selective/prestigious schools that they would likely choose first.  What messages does that goal send to the campus community?  In addition to implying to the admissions staff that they’ve failed by only generating ten applications for every spot in the class, it might also send a message to the current student body that the administration is embarrassed to have to admit students like them.

There are some broader issues here that apply not just to Colby, but to all highly selective institutions.  If one accepts the adage that one’s strengths can also be weaknesses, then just as being highly selective has advantages, it also has limitations.

One of those limitations is a distorted view of reality, the same distortion that political leaders who don’t ever have to buy bread or milk and see only places that have been carefully prepared to look their best.  Back in the 1980’s President Ronald Reagan visited my wife’s employer, Reynolds Metals.  Not only did the state and city create a massive traffic jam by closing major arteries so that the Presidential motorcade had smooth sailing from the airport into Richmond, but Reynolds did five years worth of painting and planned maintenance in the month leading up to Reagan’s visit.  Best of all, there was a plan to paint the grass green for the President.  It revealed a lot about how Presidents lose touch with the common man.

Something similar happens to colleges and universities with far more applicants than spots in the freshman class.  Recently I attended a breakfast meeting with representatives from five highly-selective institutions, all of which have admit rates below 20%.  They agreed that probably 90% of applicants are qualified, but that very few are “interesting.”  I understand where they’re coming from, and quite frankly would probably use the same kind of language if I were in their shoes, but I also think that the “interesting” test is regrettable.  Isn’t that what a college education should do, help make a young person “interesting” in a way they may not be in high school due to maturity or background? Shouldn’t the college experience be transformative for a young person?

Seeking to double applications is clearly aspirational, and perhaps setting goals that are seemingly unachievable is necessary for an institution to improve, but I’d like to see colleges be less driven by metrics and more driven by mission.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

War of Attrition

This past summer I had the opportunity to spend five weeks in Europe.  My wife and I rented an apartment in the small Italian city of Lucca for a month, followed by a week of travel to Paris and London.  It was an amazing experience (here’s a link to the blog I wrote during the trip), but once I returned home all it took to suck out all the inner peace and good will I brought back from Italy was one two-hour meeting at school.

I thought about that last Monday upon returning to the office after being in Indianapolis at NACAC.  I knew I would pay for being away, but didn’t anticipate how fast the pile of “stuff” (a more polite vocabulary word than I started to use) awaiting me would make NACAC seem like a distant memory.

I view the NACAC Conference as the end of “preseason” each fall.  September is about getting back into the rhythm of the school year, and as soon as I return home I know that I will be consumed by deadlines and rec letters to be written, so NACAC is a chance to renew friendships, commiserate, and recharge.  The best part about NACAC this year was the number of people who stopped me to say that they read and even enjoy this blog. Thanks—your words mean more than you can know.

The hot topic during informal conversations at NACAC was Eric Hoover’s Chronicle of Higher Education article on the admissions dean’s chair as “the hottest seat on campus.”  The article highlights the pressures faced by those professionals responsible for enrollment on the college side and a level of turnover among Deans of Admission and VPs of Enrollment that is alarming.  It didn’t take long in any conversation to hear about another senior member of our profession who is retiring, in a new job, or simply out of work.  Lest anyone think that the grass is greener on the secondary side of the desk, at NACAC I talked with a close friend, someone I consider an icon of the college counseling profession, who is likely to leave his school at the end of the year because of Board and administrative pressure to increase the number of Ivy acceptances at the expense of fit.

It is human nature to add 2+2 and get 5, to interpret a few examples as evidence of a larger trend, but I sense of level of attrition within our profession that would constitute a crisis if it occurred in a student body. If I was the melodramatic type and wanted to draw a tenuous connection to world events, I might even suggest that we are locked in an undeclared war for the soul of college admissions, a conflict of cultures between those of us who believe that admissions is about a student’s journey of self-discovery and those who believe that higher education is first and foremost a business. 

If we’re in a war, it’s a war of attrition. Our adversaries have already seized “higher” ground (Boardrooms, Presidents’ offices), and we will have lost the war when there are no longer enough of us left. Reading Eric’s article brought to mind the Jimmy Buffett song, “A Pirate Looks at 40,” which includes the line “My occupational hazard is my occupation’s just not around.”  Our occupation isn’t endangered, but our profession might be.

So what can we do about it? We need to increase our efforts on two different fronts.  The first is giving more attention to attracting good people to the profession.  The recent NACAC survey report on “Career Paths for Young Professionals” suggested that many of us stumble into this profession, and that may no longer be good enough. The future of the profession is dependent on attracting young people who understand that helping young people make decisions about their future is a noble calling, who share a vision of admissions as more than filling the class and improving the profile, and who also happen to be just as committed/neurotic as most of us are.  Once in the field, we need to keep them. The enrollment management truism that it’s easier to retain an already enrolled student than recruit and enroll a new student holds true for us as well.

The second front is even more important but also more difficult.  We need to find ways to reach out and engage in dialogue with our bosses, the new generation of college presidents and provosts (and school heads) who don’t understand (and may not care about) the values that guide the college admissions profession.  If we don’t tell our story, who will?

Some of that burden is on each of us, but there’s also a role for organizations like NACAC and the College Board to play.  When I served as President of NACAC I got irritated by those who expected NACAC to legislate every aspect of college admissions, so I fully expect that my good friends Jeff Fuller and Joyce Smith will cringe if and when they read this, but one of NACAC’s roles is representing and defending the profession, and the profession (and professionals) are under attack in ways we haven’t seen before.  Presidents and Boards have not historically been defined as stakeholders by NACAC, but they are powerful influences on our ability to do our jobs and serve students.  I would like to see NACAC think about ways to offer professional development programming about admissions and enrollment management issues for Boards and Presidents.  The College Board certainly has both the influence and the resources to aid in that effort.

Is it an uphill battle?  No question. 

Will it work? Maybe.

Can we afford not to stand up for what we believe? No.


There is one other item from Eric Hoover’s article that I want to address, but I’ll do it in my next (hopefully shorter) post.    

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Transcript-Optional Admission

I remember the phone call as if it were yesterday, because it was one of the few times in my life that I have been rendered speechless. 

It was the end of a long school day, and on the other end of the line was an exasperated mother.  Her son had been wait-listed at his first choice school, not unexpectedly, and she was calling either for reassurance and advice on strategy or just to vent. In any case, the call was fine until she asked a question for which I had no answer.  “Why do they have to look at his grades?”

Why indeed?  It is probably inaccurate to say that I was speechless, because it was all I could do to refrain from giving her a smart-ass answer that she clearly wouldn’t have appreciated.  Now, however, I think back to her question and realize that her son was born 25 years too soon. Today students who would prefer that colleges not look at their grades can apply to Goucher College.

Several weeks ago Goucher, a liberal-arts college located just outside Baltimore, announced a new application option whereby students can choose to submit a two-minute video instead of a transcript.  Applicants who submit a video in lieu of a transcript will also be expected to submit two pieces of high school work, but the video will be the primary factor influencing Goucher’s admissions decision.

I’ve always liked Goucher (probably mostly because years ago during my admissions days I had a crush on a female admissions staff member there), but my first response when I read the reports about the new option in the Chronicle of Higher Education and InsideHigherEd was to check my calendar to see if I had somehow turned into Rip Van Winkle and slept through seven months of the school year, such that it was already April Fools’ Day (in which case I would have been even farther behind in my rec writing). 

My reaction was not out of the mainstream.  When I told mentioned the Goucher announcement to my seniors and parents while talking about the trends in the admissions world, it was the biggest laugh line of the night.  Several colleagues have interpreted the move as a sign of desperation, and Macalester College President Brian Rosenberg broke the unwritten rule against criticizing other colleges when he wrote an opinion piece for the Chronicle awarding Goucher the prize for dumbest higher-education move.

Plenty of colleges have made submitting standardized test scores optional, but Goucher is the first selective school I’m aware of to make a transcript optional.  I’m sorry, but I don’t see transcript-optional admissions as an idea whose time has come.

That’s not to say that it may not be founded on good assumptions.  An admissions counselor at Goucher was quoted in the Chronicle as saying “Students are more than just numbers,” and I agree whole-heartedly.  I have asked the question, “Are we measuring the right things?” several times in this blog, reflecting that there are non-cognitive, non-academic predictors of success both in college and in life.  But recognizing that grades and scores may provide an incomplete picture of an individual does not mean that eliminating them gives a better picture.

Students are more than just numbers, but so are transcripts.  A transcript tells a student’s story for a discerning reader, from level of rigor to relative strengths and weaknesses (struggles in math, great history student) to upward trend both year-to-year and semester-to-semester.  Reading a transcript requires context, hopefully provided by a school profile and by the information in a letter of recommendation. 

It is one thing to recognize that students are works-in-progress and therefore give less weight to high school grades, and another thing altogether to not ask for a transcript.  There is a difference between making test scores optional and a transcript optional.  Test scores may either confirm or call into question a student’s high school performance, but test scores are supplemental information.  A transcript is essential information for a college.  How much they choose to weigh it is up to them, but there is no excuse for not requiring a transcript.  The one possible exception would be for a college that is itself abolishing grades for its students.  As President Rosenberg from Macalester asks, is Goucher prepared to have its graduates put together a video for employers and graduate schools that summarizes the value of their Goucher education in lieu of grades and transcripts?

Goucher President Jose Antonio Bowen is quoted as hoping that this innovation will increase yield, bringing in more students with “affinity” for Goucher rather than students applying to Goucher as one of many in a shotgun application approach.  He also says that the college application model is broken and maybe even “insane.” 

I think he’s right about that.  The quest for selectivity and prestige has led colleges to attempt to generate more applications, or, more accurately, more rejections.  That has resulted in a vicious circle that doesn’t serve anyone well.  Students panic when they perceive college admission getting harder and respond by applying to more schools.  That makes it harder for colleges to determine when an application is serious, leading to an increased focus on demonstrated interest and more students being placed on Wait Lists, which starts the cycle all over again.  There is an important but difficult conversation to be had about whether the college admissions process works well for students and for colleges and whether it is time for a radical revamping.

If college admissions is broken, making a high school transcript optional is in no way a fix.  Goucher’s new program has generated plenty of attention, and I hope it doesn’t backfire for them, but I don’t see transcript-optional admission as either interesting or positive.


P.S.  My last post on conflict of interest generated several thoughtful comments and questions from readers with other examples of possible of conflict of interest.  As always, I appreciate the feedback, and will do another post reflecting some of those comments.

Two milestones:  Ethical College Admissions will celebrate its second anniversary later this week, while I am in Indianapolis attending NACAC.  It’s been a rewarding journey, maybe the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done professionally.  In addition, the blog just had its 15,000th hit, far beyond my expectations and dreams two years ago.  Thanks for your support—it means a lot.


Thursday, September 11, 2014

Conflict of Interest

One of the consequences of working in college admissions or college counseling is the tendency to view the world primarily through that lens.  It has been more than thirty years since my admissions days, and yet I still find myself giving directions using high schools as landmarks.

So several weeks ago when the national media reported on the ninth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans, I thought back to a very small part of that story.  In the days following Katrina, the admissions office at Tulane University relocated to my home town, Richmond, Virginia, operating out of the offices of enrollment marketing firm Royall and Company.  Tulane’s Dean of Admission and Vice President of Enrollment Management at the time, Dick Whiteside, now works for Royall.

Royall and Company received a mention in the Flagler College investigative report that was the topic of the last ECA post.  Royall had no connection to the data fraud perpetrated by Flagler’s former VP for Enrollment Management, but a second, collateral ethical issue identified in the report involves the former VP’s relationship with Royall.  In November, 2011 he doubled Flagler’s involvement with Royall without getting the required approval from either higher administrators or the Board.  What makes that problematic from an ethical perspective was that he did so at the same time he was being compensated by Royall as a consultant.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I know both Bill Royall and John Nester, the current President of Royall and Company, and consider both friends.  Bill helped establish a mentoring program for young professionals in Potomac and Chesapeake ACAC in memory of his cousin and my close friend Ann Powell, who died of cancer before being able to serve her term as PCACAC President, and her final request of me was that I oversee the development of that program.  John’s son was one of my advisees.  I know and share many of the concerns about the role played by vendors such as Royall and Company in college admissions.)

Is it ever acceptable for an admissions professional to receive compensation from a vendor with whom his or her office is doing business?  I think the answer is a clear “No.”  Even if the admissions person is providing legitimate consulting services, the potential for abuse, or even the perception of conflict of interest, is present and dangerous.

Conflict of interest is most clear and most unsavory when there is a financial arrangement involved.  One of the most troubling facets of the international agent landscape is how many agents represent multiple institutions, and even receive payment both from students and institutions.  How does a student or college employing the agent know that the agent is representing their interests, not giving advice and counsel based on what produces the most economic advantage for the agent?

The potential for conflict of interest is greatest when money is changing hands, but the reality is that all of us should be concerned about conflict of interest most of the time.  The philosopher W.D. Ross said that ethical duties arise out of relationships, and in most situations we are in multiple relationships with multiple roles and potentially multiple interests at stake.
As a college counselor, I serve my students, I serve their parents, I serve my school, and I also serve my own values as a professional and as an ethical individual.  Thankfully I am rarely placed in situations where there is a conflict in what those roles require.  When I am helping a student decide between institutions I need to be careful that I am hearing the student’s voice and not advising him based on what is best for my school’s college list.  When a parent asks me to advise the student to go to a less expensive public option, I have to navigate challenging territory.  My job is not to make the decision, but to advise and help the family come to consensus.  Serving the student’s interests and serving the parent’s interests can lead to conflict of interest when those interests don’t coincide.  It is worth stepping back in the midst of difficult situations to ask whose interests we are serving with a particular course of action.

Conflict of interest is especially dangerous because we have the amazing ability to rationalize our actions and behavior.  That became clear here in Virginia during the recent trial leading to the conviction of former Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife on federal corruption charges for accepting several hundred thousand dollars in gifts and loans from a businessman looking for their help and support with a dietary supplement his company was launching.  The trial can best be described as a soap opera, an embarrassment to the state that included a defense strategy that the couple could not be found guilty of conspiracy due to the fact that they didn’t talk to each other enough to conspire.

There is much about the case that is sad and bizarre and tragic.  I wasn’t a Bob McDonnell fan, but I don’t believe he is corrupt even if it is clear that he was guilty of the charges.  At some level he lost his conflict-of-interest compass, allowing his political ambitions (he was widely talked about as a possible running mate for Mitt Romney in 2012), his dysfunctional marriage (a huge problem for a politician who had run as a family values champion), and his personal financial woes to cloud his judgment and convince himself that he was serving the interest of his constituents by serving the interests of businessman Jonny Williams.

It is at times like these that I most appreciate the vow of poverty I unwittingly took years ago in choosing a non-profit career.  I don’t have to worry about people trying to buy me with golf outings and shopping trips, or paying me as a “consultant,” but that doesn’t mean I’m immune to conflict of interest.  It may be a footnote to the McDonnell and Flagler tragedies, but it’s an ethical issue all of us face.