The Counselor’s Dilemma

In early February I spoke to a group of low-income/first-generation college students about how to interpret their admission and financial aid letters. I began by asking if anyone had received an acceptance letter yet (assuming that few had). To my surprise, about a third to a half of the group raised their hands. After congratulating them I asked if anyone had any questions, and that’s when the whole thing started.

One student said she’d been given until March 1 to respond and several others said the same thing. I asked if she meant May 1, the universal reply date. She said, no, it was March 1. (Another student said she had to respond by the week after our meeting.) Others nodded emphatically. I asked if they were being asked to make a housing deposit and whether it was refundable (the conditions that allow colleges to ask for money before May 1.) Not everyone was sure, but some were certain they were being asked to make a commitment by March 1. In my mind, even asking a student without a sophisticated knowledge of the college admission world is asking too much, but that’s not the end of it.

After the initial flurry of questions, another student raised his hand and said that he’d been offered admission with a full, four-year scholarship but only if he committed to the institution by March 1. I wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t shown me the letter and the dayglo pink sheet full of legalese he was supposed to return by March 1 if he wanted the full scholarship. To put it bluntly, the institution was bribing him to commit to it. I call that unconscionable.

Now here’s the dilemma, which would be more of one if I were still counselor at a school, especially one that depends on ingratiating itself with top colleges: Reporting the school to NACAC is crucial, since there is a clear violation of the SPGP, on top of which the institution is browbeating a student the way a used car salesman would (“This deal is only good today!”). While anonymity is promised, that’s a risk. If a counselor’s name is revealed, he or she can be accused by cowardly administrators of “damaging the relationship” between school and college. Even if the violation is clear, colleges can often get away with outrageous tactics because schools often feel they have to play ball no matter what. No matter how egregious the violation may be, the high school counselor is under a great deal of pressure to let it go in the interests of getting students into college.

I happen to believe that the vast majority of colleges and universities neither flout the rules nor punish schools who report SPGP violations. Often, violations are minor and easily cleared up with a phone call or an email. But not always. Several years ago it was brought to my attention that a certain midwestern school was encouraging students to apply as juniors. I thought this was wrong and tried to discuss it with the school, where I got only vague answers and evasion. I persisted until I evidently annoyed the director of admission enough that she wrote to the school’s principal announcing that her school would no longer accept applications from my school’s students. And of course I was called on the carpet for having the audacity to challenge what I thought was a clear violation not only of NACAC policy but also good educational practice. The fatwa against my students was lifted, but not before damage had been done to my position, even though I was acting in the overall interests not only of my students but others’.(Although I won’t mention the name of the university, if I say “wait list” almost anyone on the high shcool side of the desk will know which one I’m talking about.)

This fight was not even mine, in that I had no students affected; it was brought to my attention by other counselors, for whom I was acting. Perhaps I should have kept my mouth shut. But to do so is to cut the legs out from under the SPGP. If no one reports violations, then what? We have lofty ethics, but is that only while anyone is looking or only as long as colleges agree to abide by them? What to say to the lowly high school counselor who sees something that needs correcting? And what to tell his or her principal, who cares more about the year’s scorecard than some wispy ethics? NACAC has no power to protect a counselor at school, so what’s he or she to do? These are questions that have yet to be confronted.

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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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