Ten Questions for Annie Reznik

As we begin a new school year with a new way to apply to college, several questions remain about the rationales that led to the formation of the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success. Some of the mechanics of applying through the Coalition’s Common Application-like format have been covered here, but larger and more philosophical questions still hang in the air. When a coalition of high-powered institutions and others aspiring to similar heights imposes itself on the college admission world, very clear reasoning should be part of its introduction.


It’s that time again…

Unfortunately, that has yet to happen. The Coalition’s website states that it was formed “to improve the college application process for all students as they search for and apply to their perfect college.” But how that actually happens remains obscure and the Coalition’s chaotic rollout continues to resonate negatively among many high school counselors.

Annie Reznik, the Coalition’s Executive Director, appears eager to connect with the counseling community. Hopefully she will provide a clear voice for the group that articulates what the Coalition is attempting to accomplish. With that said, I’d like to ask her the following questions:

  1. The rationale provided for the formation of the Coalition remains obscure. Although the primary reason was to provide “access” to underserved students, other reasons given by member institutions have focused more on fear of another glitch in the Common Application, great marketing opportunities and the advantage of competition among application processes. Why was the Coalition formed, and what is the definition of “access” it uses?
  2. How do the Coalition’s application methodologies provide the increased access to college for underserved students it claims to? What data was used to support this claim?
  3. Most Coalition members are also members of the Common Application and the forms are essentially the same. Why should applicants use the Coalition’s application form over the CA’s?
  4. Many Coalition members already do a good job attracting applicants and creating classes from diverse backgrounds. Why was there a need for a coalition of colleges already successful in this area?
  5. How will the Coalition address the issue of access to technology that affects poorer students’ ability to learn about and apply to college?
  6. How has the counselors’ advisory board been used to inform Coalition members about issues surrounding access? How substantial has that consultation been and what have been the results?
  7. The rollout of the Coalition was rocky, to say the least. What is your strategy for addressing the residual problems associated with that, particularly regarding relationships between the Coalition and counselors?
  8. How will the Coalition track the success of its application and other elements and how will it report back to its constituents? What data will be collected and how will it be used?
  9. How will any data collected benefit students, high schools, or colleges and universities?
  10. Aside from providing this new application and the “locker,” how will Coalition members actively work to support access and success in college for underserved students?

iu-3The issue of access to a college education deserves energetic and constructive approaches from every side. I look forward to Annie’s responses to these questions.


Posted in Annie Reznik, Coalition for Access Affordability and Success, college counseling, Common Application, first generation-college students | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Needy Students Need Action, Not Reports, to Increase College Attainment

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, “the largest scholarship foundation in the United States,” with an endowment of $700M, has recently published two documents relevant to college admission. The first is titled True Merit: Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges and Universities. The second is Opening College Doors To Equal Educational Opportunity: Removing Barriers That Keep Most High-Achieving Students From Low-Income Families Out of Top Colleges and Universities. Although the titles hint at new perspectives or even new ways of dealing with the issue of college access for underserved students, their contents are mostly very old wine in new bottles. Supporting the recruitment and enrollment of bright but often-overlooked students is a noble enterprise, but new ideas and substantial financial support are what’s needed. Surely, such a well-endowed foundation can do better than produce reports years, if not decades, behind the times.


iu-2The True Merit report reviews research by Caroline Hoxby and others, listing conditions that face underserved students in college admission as if the Foundation has just discovered them but which have been of concern to colleges and universities for some time. After citing well-known research about the low proportion of poor students in competitive colleges, the report states:

Underrepresentation of high-achieving, low-income students at the nation’s selective colleges stems from two factors: 1) low- income students are less likely to apply to selective schools, and 2) low-income students who do apply receive inadequate consideration in the admissions and financial aid process.

The report lists some of the well-known problems underserved students face with college admission: Lack of advanced educational opportunities; inability to demonstrate interest by visiting campus due to financial strictures; merit aid to students who can pay full tuition; and not having a “hook” such as athletic ability or legacy status. (There are many more issues involved, but the report focuses on these.) If colleges were to eliminate these problems, the report says, talented low-income students would have more access to college and would in fact do as well or better than, for example, “mediocre but full-paying students.”

iu-3But not every full-pay student is “mediocre,” just as not every low-income student is an overlooked genius, so characterizing the issue as a zero-sum game doesn’t make sense, since it simply pits one class against another. And defining “true merit” is as difficult today as it’s ever been, especially in the larger context of American political and economic culture. Concluding this section, the report draws on the American myth of meritocracy in a paean to democratic ideals:

Why, in a country where we fought a war of independence to get away from inherited aristocracy, do so many of our leading universities employ preferences based on lineage? The very existence of the preference allows donors to buy their children’s way into selective schools. It is as though competitive academic placement applies only to the poor, while admissions among the wealthy is open to the highest bidder.

This rather embarrassing stab at oratorical flamboyance only makes the rest of the report look that much more impotent. It concludes, unjustifiably, that colleges and universities have not wrestled with these issues and don’t do so even now. The report refers to excellent studies documenting the problems, yet offers nothing original, new, insightful, or actionable about how to create a more equitable environment for students of every economic stratum.

True Merit‘s recommendations about what to do simply prove the point. They include

• removing preferences for the wealthy,

• broadening merit definitions and assessment processes to better identify high-achieving students from varied socioeconomic backgrounds,

• expanding outreach strategies, and

• increasing financial aid.

100_5362.jpgI can attest that as an admission officer at Amherst College in the 90s, we worked to have more students on financial aid each year. We constantly expanded our outreach, looked beyond the numbers for students of unusual backgrounds, and resisted, even turned down, legacy admits if there were no other compelling factors involved. I know that other institutions were doing the same thing, and I know they are doing them with even more energy and resources now. (Amherst just this year received a $1 million award from the Cooke Foundation for its work recruiting and enrolling underserved students, in fact.)

Opening College Doors, which the Foundation describes as a summary of the preliminary findings of a larger study it is currently conducting, does little to advance the ideas promoted in the earlier study. Like True Merit, it presents truisms and shopworn suggestions instead of original or genuinely challenging possibilities that might help institutions put these good ideas into practice.

This Cooke Foundation Issue Brief looks at some preliminary findings of our new study, and makes six recommendations to shrink the huge educational opportunity gap between the economic haves and have-nots. The full report, which will provide greater detail, will be issued later this year.

Our six recommendations to selective colleges and universities are:

  1. Make clear the true cost of college attendance after financial aid.
  2. Encourage more low-income students to apply.
  3. Make the college application process simpler.
  4. Practice need-blind admissions.
  5. Remove other poverty penalties in the admission process.
  6. Recognize the barriers low-income students have overcome.

Anyone who has spent any time at all in college admission on any side of the desk knows that these issues have been addressed, discussed, analyzed, and dissected hundreds, even thousands of times at conferences, regional meetings, and within institutions themselves. Even the term “need-blind admissions” is a misnomer for most admission professionals, existing more as an ideal than a reality.

Expanding on recommendation six, the Foundation suggests that college admission offices

Take note of a student’s background. Many things can provide clues as to whether a student grew up with limited means. These include the parents’ level of education, the parents’ occupations, whether they are racial or ethnic minorities, languages spoken at home, the number of siblings, the quality of the student’s high school, the high school’s catchment area and the student’s ZIP code.

Review applications holistically and use the above-mentioned information about a student’s background during the review. Research shows that having more complete information on a student’s background increases acceptance rates of low-income students.

I don’t know any institutions at any selectivity level that don’t do these things at some point in the admission process unless they’re huge state universities that simply can’t read each application. Even so, there are imperatives they try to fulfill. It’s hard to understand how the Foundation can think it’s contributing anything new to the conversation when it seems more like Rip van Winkle, suddenly awakening to a world that has passed them by.

iu-1There’s also a profound cognitive dissonance here that belies the reports’ democratizing rhetoric. Instead of spending its money helping many students, the Foundation helps only an exclusive number chosen through a very rigorous selection process, creating its own aristocracy. One might say it’s better to fully (and luxuriously) fund 125 talented but needy students than to partially fund 500 or 1,000 or even all 3,300 scholarship applicants each year. Perhaps you’d be right. But the Cooke Foundation’s earnings on its $700M endowment must surely be enough to take on more students. It might even make more sense to look for systemic approaches to the problems instead of focusing on the narrower and easier route of betting on a tiny group of sure winners.

(During a job interview with Cooke many years ago, I asked about their scholarship policy. I wondered if they had any plans to widen the scope of their awards to encompass more students. “No,” was the answer. It would not have been a good fit for me.)

The Cooke Foundation has taken a “micro-” stance in its support of college access. That is, it chooses a select number of bright but underserved students to attend a select number of highly selective institutions. Perhaps, given its resources, it might have a greater impact by adopting a “macro-access” position instead, enabling it to support student access more systemically. Rather than producing reports that do little to advance the cause of needy students in gaining admission to college, perhaps the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation could put its money to better use by trying the following:

  1. Establish a national scholarship fund available to colleges lacking robust endowments to be used to recruit and support poorer students. Many colleges would enroll more high-need students if they could, but simply lack the financial wherewithal. They would be able to supplement their own FA funds with funds from Cooke (and perhaps other foundations).
  2. Finance the ongoing creation, distribution, and follow-through of Caroline Hoxby’s college information packet. She discovered that a simple set of communications costing around $6.00 per student significantly raised the likelihood of high school freshmen’s becoming interested in attending college.
  3. Consider expanding Cooke’s own scholarship granting process to encompass a larger number of  deserving students instead of just a few of the very luckiest. With 3,300 applicants per year, surely more than 125 can be accommodated. A luxury lifeboat is wonderful for those lucky enough to be saved, but that still leaves others in leaky skiffs or floating in the dark waters trying to grab onto wreckage. Who “merits” saving in this scenario?
  4. Fund, conduct, and produce truly original research about the college admission process, such as its effect on students and high schools; its role in status construction; its place in American culture and society; and its role as a bridge between secondary and post-secondary education. A great deal needs to be said about this phenomenon in ways that will help everyone involved in getting students to college. As an outside agency, Cooke might be just the organization to provide clear and actionable observations that would truly make college more accessible for all.
  5. Initiate and work with colleges and universities to develop a common financial aid document that would present financial aid information clearly and uniformly. This document is urgently needed and would fulfill one of the Foundation’s own recommendations. Institutions have spoken about it, but no one seems willing to take the first step. Perhaps only a disinterested outside agency can make it happen.

Unquestionably, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation has generously supported students and organizations concerned with college attainment since 2000. But its efforts have been narrowly instead of systemically focused. It would be spectacular to see it put some of its incredible resources to work truly addressing some of the issues that have long made American college admission a tangle of competing interests and a chokepoint working against the broader inclusion of talented individuals in the American economy.


Who gets into the club?

Posted in admission practices, American culture, college access, college counseling, first generation-college students, underserved students | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Over at Forbes.com

Majoring in an obscure language or esoteric subject doesn’t condemn a student to itinerant professorship or garrett living. See my latest post at Forbes.com:



Posted in admission mania, American culture, college, college counseling | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Over at Forbes.com…

My latest entry at Forbes.com:

About the agony of choosing a college and how to deal with it.



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Books and Movies About College

My two latest Forbes.com entries suggest some summer entertainment around the topic of teenagers, getting into college, being in college, and contemplating what to do after college. Take a look:

Books iu-4

Movies iu


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The College Process as Existential Crisis

When I counsel students and parents about college and the college process, I usually emphasize the importance of being able to choose one’s college. Taking a strong curriculum, doing well, and being active are important in order for the student to have many options when it comes time to apply and enroll. As juniors and seniors, students will be able to select from a large menu of colleges and universities available. This seems like an ideal way to approach the process.

Yet I’ve noticed over the years that some students (and parents) with the most options because of their excellent grades, test scores, and activities can sometimes freeze with anxiety and fear when the time for college comes around. Other students, for one reason or another, can go through the process more or less unscathed, accepting their condition and just getting on with things. And a very few of my students say, “I know I’ll be happy anywhere I go” and seem to mean it.

What distinguishes these students? Partly, I think, is their approach to the existential crisis that the college process provokes. In its short form, those who worry the most are discovering that they are, as Sartre put it, “condemned to freedom” as they consider the myriad of colleges and universities out there while trying to get a handle on who they are and then trying to make everything fit together.


Used to a fairly well-ordered and regulated life in school and at home, they are now forced to make a huge decision that will shape their lives without any solid evidence or guarantee that that decision will be “successful” (however that is defined). In the short video below, Alain de Botton takes us through the basics of an “existential crisis,” one of the main characteristics of which is that we have “many choices but are denied the information we need to choose with ultimate wisdom or certainty.” We can’t predict the future and are afraid of making the wrong choice. In the face of enormous costs of time, money, and energy, the thought of making a mistake becomes overwhelming. We “plot our course in the dark without adequate reason or insight.” This sounds like the perfect description of the college research, application, and admission process on both sides of the equation (applicants and admission officers).

It’s possible to counter by saying that if students really think about what they want and do their research on colleges and universities thoroughly with solid support from parents and counselors, they can significantly lessen that stress. The more knowledge they have about each institution and their own selves, the better. We assume that rationality, the careful consideration of pros and cons, campus features, majors, and programs, will dominate the process. Make your list and stick to it! But this condition may only exacerbate the problem, since the more information students have the more it can lead to anxiety about making the “right” choice.

In The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Barry Schwartz puts this existential crisis in everyday terms.  Whether it’s shopping for a sweater or considering college, “Nobody has the time or cognitive resources to be completely thorough and accurate with every decision, and as more decisions are required and more options are available, the challenge of doing the decision making correctly becomes ever more difficult to meet.” (p.74) Additionally, “In a world of expanding, confusing, and conflicting options, we can see that this difficulty in targeting our goals accurately–step one on the path to a wise decision–sets us up for disappointment with the choices we actually make.” (p. 52) He notes (and I’m sure most readers will agree) that often, when confronted with forty brands and subtypes of a product we either stick to the one we know or decline to buy any of them. We’re defeated by the options.

Bombarded by information about colleges from all sides, students must confront the challenges of facing an ocean of unknowns. In this part of their existential crisis, students not only fear making the wrong decision but also being disappointed in the “right” one. Ironically, the more they know about each institution they consider, the more difficult it can be to choose one (or a few) and leave others behind. Coupled with the extensive self-examination required to make a “right” choice, this situation puts adolescents in a situation similar to the crisis many middle-aged adults have as they begin to evaluate and reassess their lives in light of the choices they have made.

In the video, de Botton summarizes the qualities of an existential crisis:

1. It’s a period when a lot that had previously seemed like common sense or normal reveals its contingent, chance, uncanny, and relative nature…. We are freer than we thought.

2. We recognize we’d been deluding ourselves about what had to be…. We come to a disturbing awareness that our ultimate responsibility is to ourselves, not the social world.

3. We develop a heightened awareness of death. Time is short and running out. We need to re-examine our lives, but the clock is ticking.

4. We have many choices, but are, by the nature of the human condition, denied the information we would need to choose with ultimate wisdom or certainty. We are forced to decide, but can never be assured that we’ve done so adequately. We are steering blind.

It’s unlikely that these conditions (particularly #3) will rise to the level of consciousness during the college admission process, but experienced counselors and parents will recognize the symptoms of crisis they can initiate: anxiety, depression, avoidance, perfectionism (trying to control every detail), uncertainty, loss of confidence, overconfidence, mood swings, panic attacks, regret, sorrow, grief, and even physical symptoms like loss of appetite, sweaty palms, nervous tics, and so on. Whether they know it or not, students are being asked to face the reality of existence, one that is “contingent, chance, uncanny, and relative,” without adequate information, “wisdom or certainty.”

In this respect, the emphasis on “choice” may actually be more intimidating for students than anyone would like to admit. The adults emphasizing the advantages of options or the need for particular results as if one could control outcomes have made their choices and are living with those outcomes. In retrospect, everything seems to have worked out well for them, so what’s the problem? For someone facing true freedom of choice at a major life stage for the first time (putting aside money issues and so on for now), this condition can be paralyzing, not liberating.

Anxiety mental health symbol isolated on white. Mental disorder icon design

The questions may not be asked aloud, but they undergird many students’ behaviors: Am I a worthwhile person? Have I done everything I need to do to get into college? Into a particular college? What if I make the wrong choice? What if I don’t like where I enroll? What if I disappoint my parents/ teachers? What if my friends don’t approve of where I go? What if I fail once I’m on campus? Will I fit in at any one of these colleges? What if…?

Adults can answer these questions at the surface level (“You can always transfer.”) but they indicate much deeper anxieties that adolescents often have difficulty expressing. They’re anxieties that even adults have, but at least adults have experience dealing with them. Unfortunately, adults often forget that what looks like smart moves from today’s perspective could not have been guaranteed so at the time they were made, which is where students are. Those of us whose plans have worked out perfectly are both rare and lucky.

The existentialist outlook may seem negative and depressing, but in fact there is a fifth element that can redeem us and our students. As de Botton puts it,

5. This [condition in #4] means that anxiety is a “basic feature” of all human existence.

Although we may feel isolated and alone with our knowledge of life’s uncertainty, we are all tied together by it. Everyone is in the same leaky boat. In a way, the student who has adopted the stance of “I know I’ll be happy anywhere I go,” has mastered, or at least steeled him- or herself against this existential crisis. He or she has implicitly acknowledged the conditional nature of life. When students and parents attempt to control the future through various schemes and plans, they are denying reality. They are adopting “the modern sentimental notion that perfection is within reach,” which the existentialists refute. In trying to avoid “bad” choices, they forget that “The regret-free life exists only in movies and songs.”

exist 1As de Botton demonstrates in the video, “That you suffer from the agony of choice isn’t some anomaly, it’s one of the most predictable and poignant things about being alive.” For students and parents in the college process, understanding and accepting this condition may be a crucial, not only to getting through it in one piece but also for doing well in college and beyond. We can never be certain that our choices will be “correct,” so constantly worrying about that is fruitless, leading only to regret. Instead, we must try to celebrate our ability to make decisions in the face of incomplete information.

Learning to accept that not all of our choices will work out and that we’ll regret some (perhaps many) of them can liberate us from the tyranny of having to choose and anticipating that we may regret our choices. “The way to diminish our anxiety and panic [in the face of choice] is to alleviate the sense that one had the opportunity to choose correctly, but failed,” says de Botton. “What helps with regret is the knowledge that in fact every life is burdened by it in some shape or form.”

One of the disadvantages of “strategizing” to be accepted by specific colleges, whether that means enrolling students in certain preschools or having them take on multiple internships and summer projects, is that it gives students a false sense that they control the narrative of their lives and can avoid regret. The romantic ideal that just by our own efforts we can achieve desired results without regret “exists only in movies and songs,” according to the Botton, not in real life. When that ideal is shown to be false, as it inevitably will be, that illusion of control is shattered, with nothing to replace it.

Is it any wonder, perhaps, that a recent report finds that rates of anxiety and depression on college campuses are leading to long waiting times to see a counselor? Whether or not they’re on the campus they most desired, students may still feel regret, failure, and loss over their decision or sense that they themselves are lost. Having assumed that their choice was rational and controllable, they are confronted with an inchoate sense that all that planning and strategizing didn’t really give them the certainty it should have. Without the experience of facing uncertainties bravely and clearly, they aren’t able to cope with the demands placed on them.

(That’s not to say all anxiety or depression is caused by an existential crisis; it’s just to point out a possible underlying contributor. Perhaps adults should take more time to contemplate this situation, however, as we push students onward.)

As students and families approach the college process, the twin burdens of freedom and choice become all too real. Our attempts to control outcomes at this moment are really attempts to swim against the current; we would be better off embracing the uncertainties and considering the possibilities for discovery in them. This doesn’t mean to give up or give in–quite the contrary. It means that the “dignity and grandeur” of our shared human existence come from our ability to see these conditions and proceed in spite of or even because of them. Understanding this crisis with the help of caring adults can be a critical moment for adolescents, whether they are going to college or not. They  may be happier as a result.

(This video is from a terrific website called Open Culture. It has a huge selection of free content from classic silent films to MOOCs to language lessons, lectures by Nobel Prize winners, ebooks, and much more.)

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Webcast on “Taking Back High School”

A few weeks ago I conducted a webcast through CollegeWeek Live about how high school counselors can try helping high school students be students as the college admission process looms in the distance. It’s about an hour long and has a set of slides with it. At the end I have listed resources for further exploration.

This was my first extended venture into the medium, so I apologize in advance for the lighting or anything else that seems amiss. I’d be happy to hear your comments and suggestions regarding how we can protect our students from the pressures of college application.

The session is viewable with Chrome and Firefox. It doesn’t seem to work with Safari or Explorer. Click here to view Taking Back High School.


Posted in admission mania, college admission, college counseling, high school | Tagged ,