The field of college admission attracts sociable, talented, bright, mission-oriented people who care about students and their success. At conferences, during phone calls, and over emails, we emphasize “getting to yes” and being collegial. Over the thirty years I’ve been involved in college admission and college counseling, I’ve made many friends and interesting acquaintances, with varying viewpoints on the system of college admission. We affect students’ lives and feel connection to the larger stream of American culture.
Despite my generally positive experience, I’ve always acutely felt the underlying gap between high school counselors and admission officers. While individual friendships and mutual respect can be very real and powerful, underneath is the reality that one side is essentially a supplicant and the other is the supplicated. At conferences and college fairs I’ve seen deans from high-status schools mobbed by petitioners while those from low-status schools feel only the soft rush of convention hall air conditioners around their tables at the counselor fair. I’ve seen high-status deans and high-status high school counselors dine together at Chez Elite, sharing the latest news, while those from lesser institutions hang out at Applebee’s eventually singing karaoke. And when someone moves from high to low, the mobs tend to move, too.
Socializing and connecting professionally are the grease that keeps the gears of the college admission machine running smoothly, but we should realize that we can be lulled into a stupor as the machine hums silently in the background. We end up seeing the college admission process as a closed system instead of one with huge social, cultural, and economic implications. This shortsightedness leads to a peculiar Disney-fied fairytale that papers over reality and ultimately is harmful to the larger aims of both high school and college education.
A recent post on the IACAC website has prompted me to think more about the relationship between high school counselors and college admission officers. The author writes
I have been a counselor for over 13 years and I have always felt that whether you worked for a specific high school or college, we were all part of the same team. We all had the same goal; to help young people further their education at their best fit institution. This was the first year that I felt high school counselors and admission counselors were somehow on different sides of a desk, and were attempting to achieve different goals
Up to a point, “we” are all indeed on the same team, helping students achieve their goals. But that’s where the metaphor falls apart, for while high school counselors are trying to help students find, apply to, be accepted by, and attend college, admission officers are trying to serve their institutions by recruiting, admitting, and enrolling the right mix of applicants. That is an entirely different calculus based more on business models than humanitarian impulses. The team metaphor is only accurate if we acknowledge that there are two different teams.
This is not to say that high school counselors are compassionate supporters of their students and college admission officers are hard-nosed social engineers insensitive to the feelings and aspirations of their applicants. As individuals, they can become as invested in applicants as counselors are. But the fact is, admission offices serve the institution for which they work, not the students they accept, and that means they must put the institution first. So we are indeed on different sides of the desk (now mixing the metaphor). Pretending that’s not the case only muddles the issues affecting college admission as a system.
The imperative to “fill the beds” is neither new nor improper. From their earliest days, most colleges have struggled to stay open; the lucky few with massive endowments can do what they want, but the vast majority of post-secondary institutions, however good they may be (and there are many, many good institutions who don’t get media attention) need to keep moving forever to ensure they have the students and the money to stay open.
Nor is this an indictment of the many smart, terrific, and compassionate people comprising college admission offices across the nation. As individuals, they feel the pain of students they must turn away and wish things could be different, but they are tied not only to the basic imperative of institutional survival, but also to the other demands for more full-payers, more high scorers, more diversity, and so on. They lie awake at night worried that they won’t hit their enrollment goals, not that Jane Laxer won’t get in or enroll if she did.
The IACAC writer also refers to recent spirited discussions among counselors and admission officers online:
I attended our National Conference, read the IACAC and NACAC list serves, and actively follow the College Admission Counselors Facebook page. Based on these emails, postings, and articles, I feel that we may have let our passions get the best of us and hurt each other in the process.
She confuses genuine and significant differences of opinion expressed forcefully in the name of discussion with “hurting each other” (shades of The Carpenters!), implying that we should “all just get along.” “Passion” in this worldview is often characterized as being “whiny” or “negative” or “abrasive,” and usually applied to high school counselors as ways of dismissing real disagreement. But that is what gets us to these points in the first place–a reluctance to express our passions and a refusal to address the problems that afflict the college admission process in the name of not rocking the boat.
Encouraging the fantasy of kumbaya actually enables those with the power–colleges and universities–to act as they see fit. The recent behavior of 80 colleges and universities acting in unison without any real consultation with counselors is a case in point. Genuine collegiality (“team spirit,” if you will) would have required they announce their intention to form a new application process and get reactions to it before they decided to go ahead and do it on their own. Imposing it says more about the institutions’ power relationship with the counseling community than it does about “access.” Some conversations with the whole counseling community would have made the metaphor more significant, and they might have learned something.
High school counselors and college admission officers are not really teammates. We are friendly antagonists with students as our playing field or perhaps our chess board. The myth of collegiality does more harm than good when it comes down to the very real and significant ways we usher students of all backgrounds into their post-secondary lives. Seeing the admission world this way, with a good dose of passion, might help all of us do better for our students.