Whatever one may think of the new admission program/system/fantasia recently presented by the so-called “Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success,” it has exposed a jagged, deep fault line existing between college admission offices and high school counselors. This line has always been present, papered over by extreme politeness, congeniality, and unspoken agreements. It is the embodiment of a power imbalance understood but rarely acknowledged: No matter how connected the two sides appear, colleges and universities, especially those at the upper end of the status scale, can do what they want when it comes to recruiting and admitting students. High school counselors, especially those who are highly experienced and well-positioned, may have the power of moral suasion (especially when it comes to advocating for their own students), but they have virtually no leverage to effect change when they see unfairness or injustice in the college admission process.
At conferences, high school counselors mingle with admission officers and colleges sponsor events where counselors can meet admission staffs, have a few drinks, and maybe even lobby for a few students. Deans and directors from high status institutions are usually mobbed in hallways, at sessions where they are presenting, and during college fairs; their pronouncements are taken as holy writ; and counselors lucky enough to get a private word with one can return to their schools surrounded by an aura of insider-ness that lends credibility to their counseling.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this arrangement. Underneath it all, however, are two facts that can be hidden but not eradicated: The power dynamic between college admission officers and college counselors is almost entirely skewed to the institutions of higher education. And within those institutions, the power rests most significantly in the hands of the highest-status colleges and universities.
The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), to which the majority of college/university admission officers and college counselors belong, has developed over the years a Statement of Principles of Good Practice (SPGP). It delineates the ethical and systemic responsibilities incumbent on both sides of the desk regarding the advising, recruitment, and enrollment of students. It is a fairly comprehensive document that works well in most cases because all members agree to abide by it.
As such, its success depends on mutual confidence and respect among the two parties. When disagreements occur, members can request investigations that can lead to sanctions. But this rarely happens. On the NACAC listserv and the College Counselor Facebook page, outrage over collegiate admission misdeeds rarely goes beyond, well, outrage against un-named institutions that have “enticed” students to abrogate their Early Decision commitments with massive bribes, er, scholarships, or colleges that manipulate their marketing efforts to insure more applicants to reject, leading to a lower admit rate which can lead to a higher ranking. Most counselors fear the repercussions of naming misbehaving colleges directly and frankly, if the institution involved is a high status one, little is likely to happen.
So the counselor/admission office connection is more delicate than one assumes, like the apartment building in the Monty Python sketch that only stays up if everyone who lives in it believes it will. If belief and trust are challenged, things start to wobble.
When the Coalition announced last fall it was going to introduce not only a new application covering its members but also a new scheme involving having students begin assembling online portfolios as early as ninth grade, it caught counselors off guard. Evidently planned and discussed by high-status institutions (including Harvard, Yale, and Amherst, plus some hangers-on like the University of Florida) with little input from counselors, it was presented as a fait accompli, not as a proposition among equals to be debated.
Counselors were astonished at what they were seeing: A complex, technology-heavy, new system that seemed not only redundant given the existence of the Common Application, but also inattentive to the needs and conditions of the underserved students the Coalition claimed to be serving. The Coalition assumed, among other things, that having the option to create an online portfolio would somehow create “access” to college for students with sporadic access to computers or the wherewithal to populate them, not thinking to work with the people who know students best. Contenting itself with platitudes about “access,” the Coalition simply did what it wanted, dumping its system on counselors with a “You’ll use it and like it” attitude. Significantly, Coalition members expressed surprise at the depth of opposition they experienced, further demonstrating their lack of connection to the counseling world.
Throughout the last few months, the Coalition has acted more like a cartel than a collection of civic-minded institutions, maintaining an imperial hauteur. Collective outrage from the college counseling community has done little to change the course of its plans except to delay the online portfolios for a few months. In this situation, the breach of trust seems clear: A group of heavy-hitting post-secondary institutions decided on its own to redefine how it would conduct college admission, regardless of its impact on high schools, students, and counselors. In doing so, the Coalition has put college counselors in their place and asserted collective domination of the application process.
The fault line has been revealed, and appears to be very deep, perhaps even signifying a new era of college/high school relations. Counselors will have to decide whether to accept this new awareness of the power differential or to resist it in the name of true access for their students. Colleges will have to decide if they are willing to risk alienating counselors, or if they care.