Welcome to Tomorrowland!

Crabby wonders if colleges actually pay attention to the real world…

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The Disney-fication of American life continues apace with the brand spanking new soft focus cartoon that is the new college application procedure recently put forward by the PR-ready but apparently context-free Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success. This group is a collection (or “coalition,” if you will) of comfortably well-off colleges that would like to make applying to college easier by ignoring reality and, among other things, making it four years long. Their stated goal is to “to improve the college admission application process for all students…and  streamline the experience of applying to college,” but this is an Orwellian turn of phrase that tells me colleges are living in a Never-never Land, far from the lives of the students they would like to enroll.

The primary characteristics of this new process include an application that can be customized for each member school, and a “virtual college locker” where students can store their schoolwork (essays, videos, projects, etc.) starting in their freshman year of high school. The stated reason for constructing this online locker is to give students the opportunity to think more carefully about their educations and college goals and to give underserved students a better shot at both learning about college and demonstrating what they can do outside of testing. It would also give “others” (with the student’s permission) a way to comment on and encourage his or her college goals. Presumably, this structure will provide greater access to college for underserved students while somehow easing the college process.

My sense here is that all these very competitive and intelligent colleges neglected to look outside their own back yards or into human nature before coming up with this idea. My other sense is that they have confused the college application process with the education process. iu-2They listened to Jiminy Cricket instead and decided to make something that sounded cheery and all Kumbaya-ish without getting too involved in the swampy realities of American secondary education and its college process.

Let’s take on just three topics related to this fait accompli, which seems already to have been postponed due to massive criticism at its unveiling at the NACAC conference last weekend in San Diego:

  1. Has anyone from the Coalition’s membership looked at the sate of public secondary education lately? Misguided efforts like NCLB and Common Core Standards have wreaked havoc on an already unstable system. They make standardized testing, not essays, projects, or creativity primary, and they reward schools for obedience, not creativity. Well-funded high schools can still afford to treat their students like human beings with brains; most inner city schools have to make do with making sure their students show up to take the tests they spend most of their time preparing for in class. (Currently, the Chicago Public School system is operating with a phantom budget that has already cut out funds for special education, counseling, and other programs, while assuming it will receive nearly $500 million from state government, which has yet to pass its own budget.)                                                                                                                  These colleges, bless their hearts, seem to think that all schools are pretty good, providing extensive opportunities for students to create lovely projects and essays, and to engage in all manner of twinkly intellectual interchange with peers and attentive teachers who will be able to spend all kinds of time helping them when they’re not in class, and that providing a fancy techno “locker” will somehow make kids college-aware and -ready and then inspire them to pursue college, despite the preponderance of forces aligned against them. (This outlook is from the “build it and they will come” school of thought. But, you say, it was such a good movie!) Of course, some students stand out and apply, and some benefit from the good graces of organizations promoting college attendance, but simply offering this feature will not create things to fill it. And even if it did, chances are the quality would be either suspiciously terrific or sadly underdeveloped.
  2. As the Chronicle of Higher Education reports,

     A big idea behind the new application platform: Allowing high-school students to start profiles as early as ninth grade would help them plan for college, familiarizing themselves with the process, inviting a cast of helpful mentors, all within a time frame that would be, as Ms. Gill said, less “condensed.” At least that’s how the platform’s supporters envision it.

So the next idea seems to be to have the application process begin freshman year of high school, spreading the anxiety out over four years instead of concentrating it into one or so. From the empyrean heights the colleges inhabit, this may look lovely, with students humming merrily as they stock their online portfolios with evidence of their blossoming intellects, and a “cast” of blissed-out mentors from all walks of life (including, apparently, from the colleges themselves) gently but firmly helping them develop their awesome personal stories, but in what universe will this actually happen? This vision of reality is a cartoon where there’s always a goddam fairy ready to hold the heroine’s hair while she’s dressed by bluebirds.

I’m sure I don’t really have to tell you what will really happen: Bright, already motivated rich kids and their families will strategize and fret from Day One, not about how to be genuinely successful in school, but how to appear so in order to look good for the Empyrean League. You can expect the number of books on how-to-fill-your-locker-to-impress-colleges to swiftly match those currently on the market. Underserved kids? Well, they’ll have to figure it all out for themselves just like they do now, but it’s unlikely they’ll know or care about all this anyway, since they’ll be too busy trying to stay in school and keep themselves from being bored to death, among other things. And all those mentors? Good luck with that. iu-1

3. This new system is supposed to “expand college access,” especially for those without readily available guidance. But a system like this is only as good as the guidance available in the first place to show students how to use and maintain it. There’s an assumption that mentors, including individuals from the Coalition’s member colleges, will gather around and provide loving, caring, timely advice for each student. Everyone will have a Jack Sparrow to turn to when the going gets tough. But this approach is exactly backwards: The Coalition assumes that the presence of this system will create a pool of qualified applicants, but only qualified applicants who already have support will use it.

There’s something in there about how studies have shown that underserved students apply to more colleges if they have better information about college and financial aid early. That, in fact, seems to be the case, as Caroline Hoxby’s study a few years ago indicated. However, she actually sent packages of information to students to inform them about possibilities, which did make a difference; she didn’t set up a website and assume it would do all the work. There has to be an active component to all this; it’s not magic, despite the sparkliness that surrounds it.

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It’s as impossible to be against college access, affordability, and success as it is to be against mom, apple pie, or cats tormenting dogs on You Tube. But this particular approach seems especially divorced from reality. We must face several facts that I think have been amply demonstrated over the years in the field of college admission:

  1. Empyrean Colleges and Universities in total enroll only a tiny fraction of traditional-aged college students, yet most people will continue to see them as the primary access points for future success. (For some perspective, see this piece by Jon Boeckenstedt in the Washington Post.) We have to unshackle ourselves from this concept in order to see that there are other institutions out there who can and do provide all those good things listed by the Coalition. The self-congratulatory and I’d almost say narcissistic sensibility of these colleges is one of the things I’d suggest has led to this Disney fantasy of a plan in the first place.
  2. No matter how colleges and universities generally try to make the college admission process tougher to game or, alternatively, fairer, people with means will always try to game it or bend it to their will. If you’ve spent any time at all in college admission or college counseling, you know this to be true. Ironically, the most refreshing thing about working with underserved students is that they generally do not have the game mentality; they are far more authentic and ready to play by the college admission rules than are their more privileged peers. Providing more opportunity to fill a file is providing an opportunity to stuff it.
  3. Technology, no matter how glittery and magical, cannot create results by itself. Admission officers seem to think otherwise, however:

    “We believe that we can leverage technology to help level the playing field in college admissions,” said Audrey Smith, vice president for enrollment at Smith College. The platform, she told the audience, represented innovation, something that doesn’t come easily to the admissions field.

    Buzzwords fly like pixies spreading the pixie dust of contentment. We will “leverage technology” to “level the playing field.” To make the spell work, “innovation” is incanted. Voila! Our problems are solved! People solve problems, though; technology is only a tool. College admission is itself only a method, not a solution to anything.

  4. The college admission world, like the world of standardized testing, has unfortunately gone from being an ancillary part of secondary education to being an overwhelming and central presence that, like a black hole or the movie “Tron,” distorts everything around it. When students say, “I didn’t do my homework because I had so much to do for my college applications,” we should sit up and say, “Whoa! That’s not right!” When students ask to miss a week of classes to go on a college tour, shouldn’t we realize their priorities are backwards? The last thing students, especially underserved students, need is yet another way to apply to college, much less one that will require them to continually look over their shoulders while in high school, where they should be focused on their coursework and activities.

iu-3We need to do more than try to spin gold out of straw if the goals of access, affordability, and success are to be achieved. A new college admission process, no matter how innovative and technology jazzy, will not address the problems that face students coming out of public schools today. For that, we really need to address the problems themselves. I have a few suggestions:

  1. The empyrean colleges should lead the charge to improve educational opportunities for underserved students. An improved application process does not help educate students, but clear direction coming from colleges and universities instead of billionaires and the Department of Education might help. I don’t recall seeing any college or university objecting, loudly and forthrightly, to the overtesting of high school students, the loss of reading and writing as central aspects of education, or the evisceration of non-core courses, all of which greatly affect students’ ability to be ready for college, both as learners and as students. Doing so, of course, would require institutions to speak with voices outside their admission offices–presidents, faculty members, and others need to address these issues.
  2. Instead of focusing on their own wonderfulness, wealthy colleges should form a coalition to help less-wealthy colleges enroll and support underserved students. I’ve suggested this before. If colleges exist to be “in the nation’s service” or “to bring light to the world,” they should think more broadly about how to do that. It’s not enough for each college to trumpet its own percentages of first-gen, low-income students; there has to be a national effort, which can only really happen if colleges and universities take more active roles in K-16 education. It’s all very well to benefit from the educational prowess of a lucky few; a broader effort is needed to provide a true national movement toward access, affordability, and success.
  3. Before colleges and universities present efforts like these, it might be helpful to consult with the people who will have to help students use them. I understand that the Coalition has belatedly asked some high school counselors to be on an evaluation committee, but it’s too little, too late. It’s simple arrogance to assume that your idea is so amazing that you don’t need at least to run it by your users first (the “beta testing” of technology). Even better, what about asking those whom you expect to use it? Get your heads out of the clouds, my friends!

Issues of access, affordability, and success will not truly be addressed by another college application process. It is a conduit for what exists, essentially inert; it has no transformative power. It does not educate; it simply moves students through the “great sorting” process. That’s the part that needs work. Until we give up our theme park way of looking at college admission we’ll be stuck in Tomorrowland.

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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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4 Responses to Welcome to Tomorrowland!

  1. dodgejohnson says:

    Will, I think you mean Neverland rather than Tomorrowland. Barrie’s Lost Boys “fall out of their prams when the nurse is looking the other way and if they are not claimed in seven days, they are sent far away to the Never Land” where Peter Pan is their captain” – except – oops – I don’t think, given the state of guidance in many schools, that there is in fact a Peter Pan waiting in the wings for most of them..

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  2. As ever, Will, right to the heart of it. And even a reminder of the silence of the Empyreans on over-testing, leaving writing and critical thinking in their own lockers, and the “evisceration” of non-core courses. But those liberal arts virtues, I guess, are the preserves of the the Empyreans themselves, perhaps not suitable for those whose lives are more hardscrabble. Plus ca change…

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