“Access” in Wonderland

Crabby explores the fatuousness of self-satisfaction…

iu-2The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, a group of 80 or so “elite” colleges and universities, has announced a new application system that has, to say the least, raised some hackles among those of us who may have to adjust to them. Without much advance notice, thorough study, testing, or consultation with those who must deal with reality, these institutions have created what they believe to be a brilliant addition to the college admission process, one that those of us on the high school side should welcome with hosannas and ululations.

I beg to disagree, as do two organizations (so far), the Jesuit High School College Counselors Association (JHSCCA) and The Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools (ACCIS). Both have sent polite letters signed by their constituents requesting that the Coalition delay, at least, imposing these new commandments upon the land. Comments on the College Admission Counselors Facebook page have been overwhelmingly negative.

The politely self-effacing tone of these letters belies the immense gulf between what the colleges would require and what high schools and high school students are able to do. The  ACCIS letter, for example, pitifully acknowledges that,” While the new platform, as it is currently conceived, is likely to increase workload, most of our members will happily endure theiur change if they believe that access for the most needy students will improve.” The feudal tone here sets the stage–serfs compelled to work harder for their lords so the serfs’ children might continue to benefit from the lords’ largesse.

I have critiqued some of the specifics of the Coalition’s proposal in other entries and on the College Admission Counselors’ Facebook page. My primary position today is that with the many changes in social, cultural, educational, technological, and economic conditions affecting American education, a group of post-secondary institutions, no matter how much of a “gold standard” they represent, should not be able to arbitrarily adopt and promulgate an admission system that seems to disregard the day-to-day experiences of students, teachers, counselors, and secondary schools.

My second proposition is that these colleges and universities mistakenly seem to think that the college research and application process is some kind of central educational experience, up there with learning English, algebra, history, or Chinese. For example, the now  infamous online “locker” concept is justified as a way to get students interested in college and at the same time creating a portfolio for later evaluation by colleges.

But the way to get students from any background interested in college, or rather, and more important, education, is to provide them with good educational experiences in high school. Strong teachers, compelling classrooms, up-to-date resources, and respect for them as students and human beings, are needed; the Coalition seems to think that the lockers’ existence will somehow create these things. But that has it all backwards.

The Coalition has focused exclusively on its own needs and its desire to promote “access” for underserved students at their institutions over figuring out a way to deal with the issue of “access” as it affects the entire spectrum of secondary school students. Much of this self-satisfied attitude can be seen in some of the “fundamental values and beliefs” the Coalition has posted on its website (with little other information available.) Below, I comment on them. The bolded statements are taken directly from the Coalition’s website.

We believe that students come first and that the platform we are developing will provide a supportive college exploration and application process that encourages reflection and self-discovery;

After a completely anodyne comment about how “students come first,” we are told how the college process will somehow now be “supportive” and encourage “reflection and self-discovery.” But this refers not to the educations these students are supposedly involved in during their classes, but to the application process–making it a central aspect of high school when it should rightly be ancillary. Coalition colleges want to inject themselves very deeply into students’ personal and academic lives, which undermines their ability to be authentic students. We know from experience as well, that the college process produces “reflection and self-discovery” only under duress; those qualities truly emerge only in well-run classrooms and related arenas.iu-1

We believe that early engagement supports under-resourced students during the college preparation process;

“Early engagement” with what? The answer should be “with substantive, meaningful academic and extracurricular opportunities,” but the meaning here is that somehow early engagement with the college process will somehow benefit these students. While it undeniably helps these students (and parents) to have clear information about college options and the process as early as is appropriate, students at any level are not served by continually being confronted with the specter of college as they try to learn American history. (I believe this is a misreading of research Caroline Hoxby has done regarding when students receive information about college.)

We believe that our individual efforts to promote access can be significantly enhanced through the efforts of the Coalition and this free tool to schools and community-based organizations;

Promoting access to Coalition institutions with minuscule acceptance rates that vie to get them lower each year seems like an oxymoron. What, exactly, is the meaning of “access” in this context? Do these institutions plan to significantly increase the number of beds to enable that access? Do they plan on opening satellite campuses? I would comment on the second part of this statement but it is grammatically obscure. I assume the intent is to promote the “locker.” Just because it’s free, doesn’t mean the doors of academe will suddenly swing open.

We believe that the college admission process needs ongoing innovation and improvement and that competition is a positive force for change;

This is a strange statement coming from institutions that have banded together as a Coalition. Competition in what context? Competition among whom? Is this a nod to capitalist precepts, and how do they apply to college admission? Competition from whose perspective? And what change is being contemplated here? Whom will it benefit? What kinds of “innovation and improvement” are needed in the admission process? High school counselors could tell you, but I don’t think you asked.

We believe that we can leverage technology to level the playing field in college preparation.

I nominate “level the playing field” as one of the most overused and meaningless clichés currently in use in this field, second only to “leveraging” and by extension “leveraging technology.” This statement has all the solidity of the morning mist in a faraway valley where unicorns graze peacefully on cotton candy. While technology has become an important and indispensable tool making many of the mechanical processes of college admission so much easier, we should remember that technology (and I assume here we mean computer technology–pencils are a technology, too…) is a tool, not magic. It seems that for underserved students, providing more knowledgable human interaction might be a much more useful “technology” to “leverage.”

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And here are some equally important statements about what we do NOT believe:

We don’t believe we have a corner on access—many institutions do great work to provide access. Our work is grounded in research about the outcomes for students who can be financially supported throughout their college careers;

There’s some humblebragging going on here: Gosh, our wealth and power can’t do everything; even poorer schools let poor kids in and they’re pretty good, too, even though they may not be grounded in research. Again, an unusual statement from schools who make it their business to accept as few students as possible, and whose total enrollments represent just a tiny fraction of the number of students enrolled in college across the United States. I would comment on the second sentence, but it is gibberish.

We don’t believe we have all the answers, but we are committed to working together to improve the admission process. The visibility and impact of this group of institutions confers a responsibility to act ethically and do our best work to bring about positive change;

Again, humblebragging about how “great power confers great responsibility,” even though they don’t have all the answers (most of them, maybe); they are prepared to show the lesser lights how to do things properly. This statement reeks of noblesse oblige, clearly delineating the chasm Coalition schools see between themselves and those laboring in the trenches. The most odious of all these statements.

We don’t believe we will get it all right in the first iteration and are committed to a process of assessment and continuous improvement;

Fatuous and careless as they pursue a significant change to a major American cultural phenomenon without any real idea of what they’re doing or what will happen.

We don’t believe we can make change overnight. It will take time, significant effort, listening to counselors and students and more.

Too little, too late; too shallow, too self-satisfied. What exactly is being changed? Will the Coalition support increased funding for American public education in order that underserved students might finally be served? Will the Coalition be happy if they get more of what they want as the rest struggle, maybe, to follow their lead? When, exactly, does the Coalition expect to listen to counselors and students? And if the comments go along the lines of “We need more staff to handle all the requirements,” “We need more teachers to prepare students for college-level courses,” and “Our students need more money to help them afford college,” what will the Coalition’s answers be then? And what will the changes be? And how will changes in the college application process produce better-educated students?

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Colleges, especially the empyrean Coalition members, have the luxury of picking and choosing among the most capable students in the nation. They do not need to address the larger problems of American education because they do not need to see them. The college process is not an educational process, it is a functional process designed, for better or worse, to achieve a “great sorting” as students pass from secondary to post-secondary education.

If colleges and universities really want to address the issues the Coalition claims to address, there must be a wide-ranging and inclusive movement that encompasses much more than tarting up an already absurdly overwrought admission system. When that time comes, I’ll be the first to cheer and pick up a shovel.

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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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3 Responses to “Access” in Wonderland

  1. This is awful. Disguising the process of applying as educational is ridiculous. Students already lose much of their senior year in high school jumping through these hoops. Great piece.

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  2. TheCounselingGeek says:

    Very well written and completely agree. I don’t see how this can come to light in September and initially be ready to launch in the spring…but they are waiting until fall due to the uproar (4 more months will solve all the problems…). What kind of major overhaul can be ready for release (with what sounds like very little testing or user research) in 6-12 months? I will not be advising my students to use this tool as it stands right now. As for my students – Common App is the way to go.

    Some of the ideas behind the Coalition are on point – but the general approach is lacking as you mention. Ignoring the impact on schools and, more importantly, student well-being is scary. With mental health concerns increasing each year and more and more young people unable to cope or process their feelings and stress – how is this helpful? Let school counselors and secondary schools do our jobs – we seem to be the dumping ground of ever social welfare and post-secondary process with more falling to us each year. Schools and educators are raising a generation of kids – from feeding them, clothing them, training them in much more then the education system was intending, providing health and dental care, transportation, daycare, and being responsible for their mental well-being and safety. It is no wonder to me that our national rankings (which are not all that important in my eyes) and outcomes are slipping each year. But I digress….that is another issue, yet connects. I don’t know that the world of college admissions realizes this heavy responsibility placed on public educators and “the system”. Putting yet another application system in place will not make anything easier, more accessible or streamlined. Throwing more systems into the mix only adds to the confusion, more time spent by educators not addressing the real issues because they are having to learn and train others on this new tool that does the same thing the others do, and less time dedicated to students.

    Thanks for the write up and I hope some of the increasingly vocal concerns don’t fall on deaf ears.

    Jeff Ream

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  3. Pingback: What The Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success Really Means - Do It Yourself College Rankings

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