Tuesday, September 29, 2015

College Counseling or College Placement

Last week I was part of a four-person team (two college admissions deans, two independent school counselors) invited to evaluate the College Advising office at a good Mid-Atlantic boarding school. I have participated in this sort of thing or been part of accreditation teams a handful of times, and there are three constants. It is always educational and eye-opening to be on another campus, the visitors get more from the experience than the institution being evaluated, and it is amazing how much you learn about the culture of a place in a short period of time.

A couple of things during the visit inspired this post.  First, the person who at most schools would have the title of Director of Admissions is instead the Director of Enrollment Management.  Enrollment Management has become common enough in higher education that I have suggested (only half in jest) that NACAC might rebrand itself as NACACEM, but it is the first time I have seen a secondary school use that term.

I have no problem with that.  Enrollment Management is a controversial, misunderstood, and hot button term for many in the college admissions world.  It is easy to label many of the unsavory practices in college admissions under the umbrella of Enrollment Management (and I was correctly called out by Jon Boeckenstedt for being guilty of that in a post a couple of years ago), but Enrollment Management is a neutral concept, and on my own campus I have said that our admissions office should be thinking strategically about Enrollment Management rather than just filling spaces.

I’m not nearly as accepting of the other hot button term I encountered during the visit. While the office we were evaluating is the College Advising office, we learned that the Board committee overseeing that area of the school is the Admissions and College Placement committee (why it isn’t the Enrollment Management and College Placement committee I’m not sure).

The term “College Placement” produces a visceral response deep within my being, at least when used as a verb rather than a noun.  It also brings back memories.  Twenty-five years ago, soon after starting my job at St. Christopher’s, the school went through a strategic planning process.  I argued passionately that my job is college counseling rather than college placement, but my argument fell on deaf ears among the Board members overseeing the plan.  I lost the battle but ultimately won the war, but I am not foolish enough to believe that everyone in the school community believes in the gospel of college counseling.

College placement is the secondary school version of the view that college admissions is about sales rather than counseling.  It is particularly present in independent schools, whose customers may believe (and may be promised) that the investment in time and tuition will pay off with a prestigious college sticker on the BMW.

One of the most destructive suburban legends about the college admissions process is the metaphor of the college counselor as Hollywood agent.  This view sees college counselors as negotiators, cutting deals for students.  That is grounded in the assumption that college admission is about who you know more than what you know, that an independent school college counselor can pick up the phone and call his buddy in the admissions office at Brown or Pomona and call in a favor.  The psychologist Michael Thompson refers to it as "The 'Special Relationship' Delusion" in an excellent article entitled "Fenced In By Delusions."

If I have that power (which would actually be a superpower) I’m not aware of it.  I have the ability to serve as an advocate and get a close or even a second look for a student, but that is grounded not in relationships but in credibility and professionalism.  It is worth noting, however, that when I surveyed counselors for a NACAC pre-conference workshop several years ago, several commented that they suspected or feared the existence of a college counseling secret society with powers they weren’t privy to.

The emphasis on college placement rather than college counseling is misguided, seeing the destination as more important than the journey.  It is also unfair to students.  When I was young I wanted my students to get in to college because of my efforts, but as I have matured I have realized how foolish that was.  Our job is not to get students in, but rather to help them get in.  We are trail guides, providing knowledge, wisdom, and support during a process that can be mysterious and stressful.

The general public may believe that college placement (the noun, as exemplified by the college “list”) is a metric of school quality, of value added, and schools don’t go out of their way to disabuse them of that notion.  But good college counseling is the real gift, the real added value that a school can provide its students and parents.  The college search process should be transformational just as college is transformational, and college counseling that understands the developmental importance of the college process, helps the student look within to understand his or her true self, and provides guidance and wisdom to help a family navigate the complex and often-confusing admissions and financial aid processes is worth its weight in gold, or at least tuition dollars.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


This summer those of us who qualify as “college admissions geeks” had the opportunity to experience our very own “FAFSA-fest,” as the U.S. Department of Education made two major announcements regarding changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.   The addition of a third FAFSA-related announcement from the White House earlier this week turned it into a “FAFSA-palooza.”


In late July the U.S. Department of Education announced that it will take over the web domain FAFSA.com as part of a negotiated settlement with its previous owner, Student Financial Aid Services, Inc.  Student Financial Aid Services, Inc. is a for-profit company providing services such as FAFSA form preparation for a fee, and the settlement with the Department of Education coincided with a separate complaint filed against Student Financial Aid Services by another Federal agency, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, for illegally billing more than 100,000 consumers.

I first encountered this issue during my tenure as President of NACAC.  A Board member had done a Google search for the FAFSA during one of our meetings, and all of us were disturbed to learn that the first search result was FAFSA.com rather than FAFSA.gov, the official site to access the FAFSA. On FAFSA.com families were offered help in completing the FAFSA but had to pay a fee to do so (if the form isn’t free, doesn’t that make it the “AFSA”?).  The services appeared legit, but I was troubled by the fact that families (and counselors) who were unsophisticated or just not paying close scrutiny could easily believe they were on the official FAFSA site and spend money unnecessarily.

I applaud the Department of Education for taking over the web domain.  Not only does the decision serve the public interest, but this issue provides a counterpoint for those who believe that there should be no Federal presence in education and that the Department should be abolished. 

Abolishing FAFSA Order

In August the Department of Education announced proposed changes to the 2016-17 FAFSA. The most substantive of those changes is that colleges receiving a student’s FAFSA will no longer see the list of other colleges to which the student is sending the FAFSA.  Currently a student may send the FAFSA to up to ten colleges, and those colleges know the other colleges on the list.

The proposed change is in response to concerns about how that information is being used.  The FAFSA form does not explicitly instruct students to list colleges in rank order, but in recognition that a number of states use FAFSA order to disburse state grants, the instructions state, “For state aid, you may wish to list your preferred college first.”

But how do colleges use the order listed by students on the FAFSA?  Both NACAC and InsideHighEd.com have reported that at least some admission offices and consultants on enrollment and financial aid are trolling the data to judge a student’s interest in a given institution, and may make admissions and financial aid decisions based on a student’s FAFSA order.   Several studies suggest that 55-70% of students enroll at the school listed first on the FAFSA, and examples of how FAFSA order is used include leveraging financial aid, offering less institutional aid to a student who lists a school as number one and is therefore presumably likely to enroll, or protecting yield by wait listing a student who is qualified for admission but lists the institution lower on the FAFSA.  The latter practice could be a violation of federal law, which prohibits the use of FAFSA information for any purpose other than awarding financial aid.

So what are the ethical issues involved here?  The NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice prohibits colleges from asking students to rank their order of interest.  That’s not the case here, but the only thing worse than asking is making assumptions about interest based on a student’s FAFSA order when the student isn’t aware it’s being used that way.  That would be less of an issue if a student provides the order voluntarily, with full awareness of how it may be used. 

There are also ethical issues related to the leveraging of financial aid.  Is it ethical to offer less financial aid to a student because he or she is more likely to enroll, or more financial aid to a student who is less likely to enroll?  Those practices may serve an institution’s interest, but they also have the potential to harm public trust in the college admissions process.

I have seen suggestions that colleges knowing FAFSA order may benefit students, but I am unclear what those benefits might be, and invite readers to weigh in on potential positives for students and or institutions.

When my children were little, they had a hard time understanding the difference between want and need.  My son used “need” as a synonym for “want,” whereas my daughter added a third category, “really want,” as if really wanting something imposed an enhanced obligation on me to provide it.  I get that colleges want, and maybe even really want, the information they get from a student’s FAFSA order, but I question whether they need it.

The Department of Education is soliciting comments from the public until October 13.

Earlier FAFSA Timeline

Late Breaking News:  On Monday the White House announced that as of October 1, 2016 students will be able to complete the FAFSA using previous year tax information rather than having to wait until the end of the tax year. 

On the surface, that seems like a good move, but it’s too early to know.  I believe in the Law of Unanticipated Consequences, and as Jon Boeckenstedt points out in article on the Chronicle of Higher Education website this morning, this change could have major reverberations for college admissions and higher education.  Stay tuned.