System of a Downer

Those of us in the admission profession tend to think about what we do fairly narrowly when we talk about issues like testing, essays, financial aid, and other aspects of the college process. We focus on how we perceive them as elements of what we do, how they are related to the Standards of Principles and Good Practice (SPGP) and how they affect our bottom lines, whatever those might be for a high school or a college.

We forget sometimes that the college admission process is not an isolated thing–it is part of a system, or rather several systems. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it’s not merely a neutral end result of twelve years of education. Among other things, it exists at the choke point between high school and post-secondary education, at a moment the late great MIT admission officer B. Alden Thresher called “the great sorting.” When requirements are changed they reverberate through the educational system before it and alter the makeup of student bodies following it; when iconic universities decide to do something, it affects what others do as well.

Ripples from college admission intersect with major themes and threads of American culture. Class and status affect (or distort) how families are able to think about post-secondary opportunities for their children; educational philosophies affect how high schools articulate with colleges; economics determines the relationships that exist among families, colleges, endowments, and so on; the economy itself determines how many graduates the workforce can handle, and so on and on. In this light, the seemingly one-to-one relationship of good acadedmic performance and college admission seems almost comically small, although it takes up most of the reporting about it and should really be the centerpiece of the whole process.

Examples of these interrelations can be seen almost every day: How will “Score Choice” affect how students report their testing to colleges? How do private counselors affect the “integrity” of students applications? Why do people who can afford it feel compelled to use them in the first place? What’s at stake? If a high school decides to use a unique grading system, how will that affect its students? When colleges change their admission requirements, how does that affect high schools? If financial aid becomes more restricted, how will families educate their children?

Some of these questions seem trivial, but if you listen to counselors and college people enough you’ll see they reverberate as the system tries to adjust to maintain its equilibrium. But outside forces are always impinging on it and we don’t always see that. What about those class and status issues? What about the growth of test prep as high schools decide scores are critical to college admission even as more and more colleges go test optional or treat scores with more latitude? Is the divide between low-income and upper-income students being addressed in regard to college access beyond now-traditional “multi-cultural recruitment” programs? Are those enough?

Not enough has been done to consider college admission and what surrounds it in the larger context of American culture. One problem is that it is such a vast and complex phenomenon it’s difficult to know where to begin. But more should be done to study it in that context so we can try to create a genuinely equitable system that will motivate, accept, and educate all students to the best of their abilities no matter what their backgrounds. Until we have a comprehensive view of college admission, we will be talking too much to ourselves.

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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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