What About the Counselor?

I’m thinking now about the high school college counselor, who seems to be the Invisible Person in any hand-wringing articles about the difficulties and complexities of the college admission process these days. The HSCC, especially one in a tony private or well-heeled public school, has many masters but no real security. He or she is beholden to parents, students, administrators, college admission deans, and the process itself and if you’re an HSCC and you feel that something’s wrong or you’re asked to do something not quite right you’re in a real jam. And out you go.

I recall when my former school head was new. He made a great noise about how we were a “service” and as such we needed to give the customers what they wanted. I probably sealed my own fate about then when I replied that I might provide a service but I wasn’t a servant. There’s a big difference, in my mind, between being a counselor or a teacher and being someone who simply carries out the orders of others. While a college counselor has to carry out certain functions and is expected, rightly, to support his students and so on, there are also things that a counselor should NOT do, including running after students to apply to college (at least after those who should know better), reminding people more than a few times what they need to do, and so on. I was told more than once that I’d have to “keep an eye on” Johnny because he was too lazy to do things himself. Well, I have to figure that if Johnny needs that kind of scrutiny he’s not ready to go to college anyway. So I failed at that one.

My point is that the HSCC brings his/her knowledge, intelligence, and understanding of kids, families, and colleges to this process and should not be treated as a doorman. We have an understanding of the complexities of the process and frankly I got tired of having people continually second guess me when they knew so little about the whole picture. Yet there was no one to whom I could lean on, since my former school was dedicated strictly to getting its students into the schools they wanted to get into, no matter how mediocre they were in the big picture. So I probably gained a reputation for not being supportive enough, and not being sympathetic enough. But, hell, I just couldn’t sympathize with the mother who cried in my office because her kid had to go to Tufts instead of Brown, and seemed to expect that I should pick up the phone and make some kind of fuss. Nor could I work myself up to answer the phone on a Sunday night when a tearful parent called to say the world seemed to be crashing in because her son hadn’t gotten into Harvard (this after my cautions that that would probably be the case). It could wait, really.

So you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. And if you complain publicly about what you consider to be questionable practices of colleges (encouraging applications in junior year, for example), you can get hammered even if you’re within your rights as a NACAC member who reads the rules and has a legitimate issue. HSCCs seem to be cowed constantly by colleges, emailing me privately when I pointed out something on the listserv, supporting my position but telling me they dare not say anything publicly. That’s not right. People talk about collegiality but if one side can’t really protest something the other does, then the balance of power is unbalanced. Something needs to be done about that.

HSCCs should be able to speak up about issues as well as students, and they should be able to tell pain-in-the-ass parents where to get off without having to worry about their jobs. I’m not talking about just general annoyances; I’m talking about those whose expectations are far beyond reality and who are warping their children in the process. I’m talking about the colleges that continue to sneak deadlines earlier and earlier and try to exert more and more pressure on students to apply and enroll. HSCCs should have some kind of immunity from all the swirling BS that goes on when they are doing their jobs and really trying to stand up for their students in realistic ways and for the integrity of the process. We should be able to speak plainly when we have to.

I think there should be some kind of service like Consumer Reports or some way for HSCCs to report problems or injustices in a way that enables them to speak freely and openly without fear. Schools and colleges should sign on to that. I’ve thought about creating something like the website Stained Apron, where waiters and waitresses gripe about customers. It’s a letting-off-steam site and I’d want to try something that might get some positive results, but over the years I’ve heard enough that I think the position of the HSCC needs to be given a little more clout and safety. Sometimes, like teachers, we have to do things we’d rather not, like deliver bad news rather than stroking egos, and we shouldn’t be punished for that.

I’m just glad to be out of the ego-stroking world and in a world that can benefit more from what I have to offer. I’m glad to be working with counselors and students who need guidance and appreciate it when they get it. I’m happy not to hear the blubbering of parents who think Tufts is so inferior to Brown it’s worth blubbering over. I’m glad to be released from the straitjacketed, constipated community of self-serving egos who think they have a right to whatever they wish for. Boo hoo to you.

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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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