The College Counselor as Consumer Advocate

This entry is the text of a talk I gave yesterday (May 5, 2005) at IACAC in Arlington Heights IL. :

A New Paradigm for College Counseling:
Consumer Advocacy

First, a parable: One day an eagle spotted a cat crossing a field and dove to catch it in its talons, thinking it would make an excellent dinner. As the eagle flew upward with its prey, the cat dug its claws into the eagle’s breast, trying to keep from falling. The eagle, intent on dinner, refused to let go even though the cat was mortally injuring it. The cat, intent on staying alive, dug deeper into the eagle’s breast, even though doing so caused the eagle to fall, killing the cat.

We all know about “fit” and the best ways to achieve it. We struggle to get our families to believe in it. Unfortunately, they often come to us powered by anxieties and demands that seem organic but are really market driven. They approach us the same way patients approach doctors asking for pills they see advertised on TV. They suffer from brand name thinking, fear-of-failure-itis, nervous nellyism, rankings mania, status anxiety and a host of other induced ailments, and they expect us to write the prescription.

Many years ago, we could do it without much hesitation. But things are different now: we need to educate our families more forcefully and protect our students from market-powered thinking. We need to help our students and families wend their way through the often-bewildering maze of messages and come-ons that fills airwaves and mailboxes both virtual and real. Ultimately, we need to think about the long term and short term effects of these practices, because what we do year to year affects not only our students but also American education.

Some of the problems with college admission as a marketing phenomenon are clear and we fight them every day: unscrupulous financial aid web sites that offer to find college money for a fee; the “Who’s Who” books; so-called athletic “recruiters” who charge fees to compile bogus college lists for unsuspecting families. But I am talking about ideas, outlooks, and attitudes that are subtler and more destructive of studenthood. I am talking about marketing techniques and competitive behaviors that affect the relationships among students, high schools, and colleges. Ultimately, I am talking about the increasing disjuncture between colleges and universities and the students they recruit: students become commodities, colleges become brands, and educational environments become lifestyle choices…
I think we have important things to do as allies and friends whether we work on the high school or the college side of admission. But a full-out entry into the market has unleashed forces that seem nearly beyond our control, making it imperative that colleges and universities think more carefully about what they do as they make decisions about their admission policies. And high school counselors must speak up.

A year ago at this conference I attended a panel about how universities might use the new SAT with writing. Panelists from the University of Illinois spoke about submitting prototypes of the test to U of I English and rhetoric professors, who more or less gave it the OK. I asked them if they had ever discussed how requiring it might affect the teaching of writing in high schools, since we have seen how requiring various tests can change curricula, alter students’ ideas of education, and crowd out academic subjects. After a very long pause, one of the panelists asked, “Why would we do that?” Afterwards, I approached one of the U of I panelists to try to explain myself and get his thoughts; he walked away from me in midsentence. Aside from the rudeness itself, I was appalled that a major state university had not considered the effect its actions might have on high schools in Illinois and elsewhere. As far as I’m concerned, this is a sure sign that the institution has abandoned any real ties with educational mission in order to focus on pure recruitment. As a teacher and advocate for my students, I cannot be silent about this situation.

If we are to take the role of consumer advocates, we must challenge the idea that college admission criteria are somehow immutable or neutral in their effect. This is especially true for highly visible or wide-ranging institutions. If the U of California system had stuck to its guns about the SAT our lives would be much different now, for example. If a factory in Illinois sends poisonous gas downwind to Indiana, you can bet Illinois will hear about it. If Washington University in St. Louis encourages students to start applying in March of their junior year, those of us on the high school side should speak up because we already know the pressures on our students as they apply as seniors. What’s good for the university doesn’t always translate into what’s good for our students, and high school counselors must make sure colleges know that.

There are more obvious problems as well, including things like hard sell and scare tactics: The “get your housing deposit in now or you’ll lose your housing spot” and the “For the best shot at financial aid send in your refundable deposit now” come-ons. Yes, they’re “legal” but they are in the same league as the used car dealer who tells you that if you don’t buy now the guy who just came in will get your car. Methods designed to scare families into committing to one school should be opposed; even if the money sent in is refundable, the psychological effect is commitment, making it less likely the family will choose another school later on.

We need to educate our students about the ways they are treated as demographic fodder in the early stages of college exploration and research. Most of this is relatively harmless, although as colleges send out “information” earlier and earlier the frenzy increasingly creeps into middle schools and beyond. Students should be aware that colleges buy their names and data from lists supplied by the College Board and ACT. They should know that items arriving by the ton in their mailboxes can be targeted to them as members of one or more particular groups. They should understand that the images and copy that make up these mailings are carefully constructed to appeal to them; and that even supposedly “personalized” communications may be the product of my favorite oxymoron, “mass customization.”

Advertising is partially built on two things: creating a desire in order to fulfill it, and creating anxiety in order to relieve it. These days, college catalogues often seem very similar to those from Pottery Barn or Neiman Marcus. They show us a life we could have if only we could afford it, if only we could “make it.” They tell us that we could be better people if we would only buy what they’re selling. Viewbooks show dreamy greenswards, gorgeous facilities, happy students, and student housing many of us would envy. They have a “come hither” feel that appeals to our desire for comfort and our fear of being left out or left behind. This is not to say that these images are untrue, the whole picture, or even misleading, but they are designed to create a desire for a lifestyle, not education, and one of our jobs is to temper that desire with reality. (We should also consider the fact, of course, that more and more families treat college as a lifestyle choice and expect to have elegant student centers, climbing walls, single rooms, and so on. Colleges can say they’re just giving people what they want, but is that the issue? Perhaps we should be trying more to get people to understand what’s needed.)

Now, if a Nike shoe costs $250.00 and a virtually identical “Nokey” shoe costs $50.00, what persuades people to buy the Nike, even though both were probably made by the same child in Malaysia? Trust in the brand. Is the Nike shoe $200 better than the Nokey? People seem to be buying them, so they must think they’re qualtitatively better than Nokeys. But brand name thinking actually short circuits real thinking. “Branding” is the holy grail of advertising: People buy your stuff simply because it has your logo on it. We see this metaphorically when a kid tells us she wants to go to Harvard “because it’s Harvard.” We see it for real when we see colleges registering their names as trademarks. Is Harvard’s “brand” $100,000 better than the University of Illinois’s “brand”? We need to teach our students and families to ask that question. If there were a real Consumer Reports for colleges instead of just U.S. News and World Report, this might be somewhat easier, but until then, we have to do it.

We need to teach our students to be skeptical of and thoughtful about “brands” as they approach the research process because we have a responsibility both to short-term research and long-term understanding. We want students to question individual colleges, but we also want them to tackle a larger issue, namely: Does only one college have the ability to provide me with the life I want or can that happiness be found in any one of several places? Even assuming that a 17-year old knows what that life is, we know the answer to that question and we should challenge him or her accordingly.

For its own good, each college has a stake in the idea that only it can point the way to happiness and success. Most colleges would probably say they don’t cultivate this idea at all, but it’s there and students internalize it. We as teachers need to show them that the key to success is in themselves, not in externals. Colleges of any shape or size can provide the means, but cannot guarantee success. Not speaking out more against the myth of exclusivity perpetuates it, and we are left with the agony of watching students contort themselves to fit institutions instead of finding institutions that will fit them.

As counselors we know that colleges are under pressure from presidents, provosts, and trustees to bring in the numbers, whether that means more applicants or higher test scores and GPAs. This is a remarkable change from the situation 60 years ago, when colleges were just glad to have enough students to fill their beds, and no one was competing to be first in U.S. News. Bill Wilson, Amherst College’s dean of admission before there really was such a job, was able to write without irony, but with a nod at the coming mania, that “We have no pride in numbers. It seems to us that colleges which with some pride state they have taken 500 out of 4,000 applicants are guilty of poor pre-selection guidance. We shall continue to refuse applications from those who seem to have little chance of acceptance.” The numbers game is fundamentally antagonistic not just to individual students, but also to education, since it values non-educational elements, turns students into commodities, and forces the institution to put status, for example, ahead of education.

We know that many of our colleagues on the other side of the desk are just as frustrated as we are. But until we speak as a group in favor of students and against the pursuit of numbers, we are not doing our jobs. Colleges need to speak clearly about who they will and will not admit; abandon the numbers game in favor of better counseling; and give up the ranking race in favor of doing what’s best for their applicants and the schools they come from. Imagine a college representative telling a student that “You might be better off applying to another school” and you’ll see what I mean.

In his book What Does it Mean to be Well Educated?, Alfie Kohn quotes psychologist David McClelland’s lecture at the Educational Testing Service about thirty years ago. Kohn writes that “Rather than asking what criteria best predict success in higher education, [McClelland] asked whether colleges should even be looking for the most-qualified students. ‘One would think that the purpose of education is precisely to improve the performance of those who are not doing very well…If the colleges were interested in proving that they could educate people, high scoring students might be poor bets because they would be less likely to show improvement in performance.” A mania for the already successful actually makes colleges trophy hunters and students prizes to be won instead of young men and women to be educated. It also is a force behind the exhaustion of those of our students who drive themselves to distraction loading up on AP courses and extracurriculars in order to get to brand name schools. Even more frustrating, colleges end up encouraging students to “enjoy” themselves and follow their interests then punishing them for doing so when they apply. I would argue also that this mania infects the so-called “elite” and wanna-be elite schools more than others. One could say that in “value added” terms, non-elite schools probably do far more than others in bringing their students along into the ranks of the educated. Ultimately, however, no one wins, because as colleges look for better and better students and students try to look better and better, the spiral just keeps going up and up.

If we adopt the paradigm of college counselor as consumer advocate, which to me means being a “teacher” not just a go-between, we can take steps to make students truly applicants and not just supplicants, help colleges and universities stay stick to their ideals and in the process help American education. I see ten possibilities:

1. Educating our students in the marketing practices being used on them. Disabuse them of the notion that they are truly desired by the institutions that send them mail. Show them how they are initially “demographic fodder” and teach them what to look for in a way that gives them a psychological advantage. In my class I show students how viewbooks can convey a certain image and how mailing lists are built using the College Board’s search service. Although this knowledge is often disheartening in the short term, it helps inure them to the results later.

2. Talking to students more about their own strengths. We need to give them the resources to look inside themselves and realize that they carry with them the ability to make choices and succeed no matter where they are. Just as buying a Nike shoe doesn’t make you Michael Jordan, neither does going to a brand name school make you a genius. Our college counseling should focus more on who students are and what they want and need instead of on how they can contort themselves to fit an idealized goal. I use exercises from the wonderful job-hunting book What Color Is Your Parachute? To get students to think about these issues.

3. Helping parents get beyond the marketing messages, too. Dissect statistics with them and let them know it’s OK to challenge a college’s presentation. Help them be informed consumers, not just dreamy, cheerful status shoppers. Encourage them to talk with financial aid people to find out about how it’s distributed; with career services people to see where graduates go and how happy they are, which companies come to campus to recruit, and what the success rate with graduate schools is; with academic departments and athletic coaches to see what the realities of classes and sports teams are. Teach them to ask questions about six-year graduation rates, freshman retention, actual (versus average) class size, and actual (versus ideal) student/faculty ratio, who is teaching classes, and what is actually expected of students as students, not just as lifestyle consumers. If I were contemplating plunking down $160,000 for my child’s education, I wouldn’t be happy to hear about three-day weekends.
4. Questioning and challenging institutional use of standardized testing. Even if the SAT were the most perfect test ever designed, it has only one stated purpose, which is to predict performance freshman year. Any other use, such as to compare high schools, is a misuse. Ask how testing is used in relation to other factors. Ask who on the admission staff has been trained in the uses of standardized testing beyond “High scores good, low scores bad.” We wouldn’t allow this kind of lazy evaluation in any other business, why here? Ask why colleges rely on it when it’s been demonstrated that it really brings very little to the table as evaluations are being made. Research and promote schools that honor their students’ true achievement. Challenge colleges’ use of the new SAT: it’s based not on their own experience with it but on the College Board’s say so. At its marketing convention last year I attended a session on the wonderfulness of the new SAT and asked if any independent agency had verified the Board’s positive field test results. After much hemming and hawing, the presenter said, “No.” This is like a drug company selling a new pill based solely on its own research. With hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, would the company say anything but how wonderful the drug is? As good consumer advocates, we must be more skeptical of this kind of advertising, not to mention the use of our students as guinea pigs.

5. Insisting that colleges make decisions that align with their educational mission or goals. Accepting an unqualified student to beef up statistics disadvantages that student; trolling for more applicants with the intent of rejecting or putting most of them on the waiting list creates a negative climate among students and at schools; rejecting top students because of fears they will go elsewhere turns college admission on its head; adopting practices that ignore a strong base while fishing for “better” students sells out students who apply to the institution in good faith and for whom it might be the perfect fit. In my short unhappy time working for a Chicago firm that did market research and consulting for colleges I was always amazed at schools that had a perfectly good student base but wanted to “improve” it. In other words, they thought their current crop was no good and wanted to get better kids, even if they did perfectly wonderful things with those they already had.
6. Naming names: Adopting marketing techniques and treating education as a commodity mean having to face the public consequences of actions that go against educational and college admission good practice. Colleges and universities that ignore NACAC’s Statement of Good Practice, adopt high-pressure scare tactics, shift deadlines to unreasonable dates, start recruiting as early as freshman year in high school, and insist on commitments when none required should face the music. This is no longer a gentleman’s game and we should no longer play it as such. This means that we should speak up publicly, loudly, and frequently when we see these practices. We must have the courage of our convictions and realize that we are playing hardball as we fight for our students and the long-term integrity of the American educational system.

7. Being teachers, not simply go-betweens. Although I see the high school counselor as being essentially “transparent” in the college process itself, we need to take steps to educate our students and families during a very complex transitional period. We cannot ignore the demands, pressures, confusion, and overall opacity of the process; we need to reveal as much of the “man behind the curtain” as possible to rationalize it and make it more manageable. We need to show them how the world of Coke and McDonald’s has migrated to the world of education in order for them to resist it constructively.

8. Thinking long term as well as short term. Many of us are fearful that if we challenge individual institutions when we have concerns about their practices we will harm our applicants. Yet we all know that the vast majority of our college colleagues in this enterprise are people of good will who care deeply about students and their institutions. We owe it to them not only to be open but also to help them fight the pressures to bring in the numbers or manipulate statistics with an eye to rankings. I believe that most colleges would prefer to spend money on students than on marketing, and that if we spoke up more frequently and forcefully we could help them do that, creating an environment that’s more friendly to students in the long run.

9. Adopting a more skeptical attitude toward the college process. We need to challenge the assumption that college admission criteria are somehow pre-ordained. We need to challenge the idea that only one school or group of schools can make someone happy; that a student’s life will be shattered if he or she doesn’t get into his first choice college; that our own schools should be measured by the number and frequency of acceptances to “top” colleges; and that we are subservient to college admission offices. We need to ask more questions, insist that we get straight answers, work with colleges to remedy errors, and go public if we suspect that something’s wrong.

Finally and in many ways most important:

10. Asking colleges to examine how their admission policies affect high school curricula and requirements. This will require going beyond admission offices and into provosts’, presidents’, and even trustees’ offices. Especially in the case of high profile or state institutions, it is imperative that high school counselors ask questions on behalf of our current and future students. If we believe that adopting a new and untried test without asking how it will affect high school teaching, for example, is not only irresponsible but also anti-educational, we need to speak out.

So, who is the cat and who is the eagle? Whichever way you see the parable, the truth is we are inextricably bound together. But we need to disentangle enough to achieve a happier ending for both. I think most colleges and universities would rather focus on their true missions than on their rankings; that they would rather spend money on teaching and learning instead of marketing; that they would be relieved not to have to continually worry about bettering last year’s numbers. By not being more vocal, we abandon colleges to the process, hurting our students, too. A more critical approach to the college application process can help colleges and our students out of this morass. We’re all in this together, and if we work that way we may be able to effect positive change sooner than we think.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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