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.


  1. Jim -- an EXCELLENT perspective! Frank Leana once said, "going to college coincides with a period of self-development". It is not a matter of "getting" a student in, but of the student understanding his strengths so that he can present the best application. In other words -- "counseling" the student. The key word is "self", a college counselor or parent can't "do" it for a student, he must go through the process "himself".

  2. Jim - Thank you for the care and effort you put into making this distinction.

  3. Jim: You make us proud to be fellow college counselors! Thanks much for this well-written piece.

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