Taking Back High School

For the last six months I and some like-minded colleagues have been discussing the ways we think the college admission process has overgrown the lives of our students in high school. We believe it has made privileged students more and more anxious and subject to extreme pressures that distort their lives and normal development. Underserved students, in contrast, are overwhelmed by what they don’t know. Either way, it has made too many inroads into their lives.

I recently spoke at the Michigan Association for College Admission Counseling on this topic. I critiqued the Coalition and the “Tide” document as examples of both that intrusion and the way colleges put all the pressure to “relax” and “ease up” on students instead of looking at their own policies and expectations, which cause the anxiety and pressure in the first place. In an earlier post I called this condition “Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder” which ends up haunting students well before college admission time comes around. (Here is a link to an excellent analysis of the Coalition by Ted O’Neill, former Dean of Admission at the University of Chicago.)

Additionally, I believe that by acting in concert without any real consultation with the counseling community, the Coalition has violated basic principles of collegiality and transparency at the heart of NACAC values. They have insulted college counselors by presuming to know what’s best for our students. The Coalition should be called to account through an investigation of its dealings. The “Tide” report contains merely simplistic recommendations that let colleges off the hook for creating frenzy. But both demonstrate a fundamental lack of understanding or concern about how students develop in high school; worse, they put recruitment ahead of education.

The assumption that high schools and high school/college counselors should just accommodate themselves to these further intrusions indicates the arrogance of the high status colleges and universities that have developed them. It is a significant challenge to high schools, in effect saying that these powerful institutions can do whatever they want and we’ll just have to go along. As my mother used to say about broccoli when I complained, “You’ll eat it and like it!”

To protect our students so they can focus on their present needs instead of always worrying about college, counselors need to speak forcefully for their charges and be more strongly integrated in the lives of their schools. At MACAC I proposed several ways college counselors can push back against efforts to make students’ lives merely preludes to college instead of lives in their own right. In the end, only good educations and careful guidance can prepare students for college; this calls for more collegiality and transparency between high schools and colleges, not unilateral actions or decrees.iur

Because school counselors tend to work in isolation, it’s hard to act together as colleges can by meeting and developing something on their own. But through social media, NACAC, and regional ACACs, college counselors can make their voices heard. Many college counselors feel that, even though they oppose these intrusions, they don’t know enough to speak up. But just having questions is important and speaking out to defend our students is critical.

Here I list some ways end_users_liefor college counselors to approach these issues raised by the Coalition and “Tide.” The basic principle behind these ideas is that colleges, particularly high status colleges, should stop thinking of themselves simply as “end users,” just enjoying the results of others’  work, but instead consider themselves part of a continuous K-16 educational process. (Although I encourage all colleges to think this way, I know there are many institutions that welcome students without having them go through a Hunger Games-like process to get there. I consider many of them to be “undervalued” and worth more attention from students and counselors.)

College Counselors to Colleges

A. Make your objections known though social media and direct contact with admission offices. When the Coalition was first announced, letters from the private school association and the Jesuit high schools went out to them. Only a letter parroting talking points came from the Coalition. We need to support efforts to get answers that go beyond a Stepford Wives repetition of talking points.

B. Insist that colleges spend more time at your high school than a recruitment period. Representatives should take half a day to meet the principal, teachers, other students and sit in on a class. Maybe high schools (public and private) in a region should have tours for college admission people the way colleges do for counselors, so they can gain a little more insight into the region.

C. A group of institutions acting in concert to exert control over a product or service is a cartel in my book, not a more benignly-named “Coalition.” We should demand that the Coalition’s leaders defend its existence and demonstrate how it improves “access.” Simple assertions that is does are not sufficient. Counselors have every right to make these demands in defense of their students, who would have to bear the brunt of its requirements.

D. College admission deans, even those at the most high status institutions, report to the president and the board of trustees and carry out their wishes. College counselors should insist that college presidents understand our objections and relay them to deans. To that end, college and high school leadership should meet to discuss the problems facing students on the path to college.

E. We have a NACAC textbook on how the college admission system works and what to do designed for new admission people. I recommend that college counselors develop a similar textbook along with seminars and workshops for college admission representatives to sensitize them to the conditions students face at various schools and in different neighborhoods. What does it mean for a school to have 90% of its student body on free or reduced lunch? What is the economic situation affecting families? How should a college approach these factors and what do we need most from you? All admission officers should get this training.

F. Tell colleges to limit their marketing to students who have a realistic chance at eventually being accepted, and don’t start until junior year. In a related issue, re-examine their need to be “world class” or international when it comes at the expense of your traditional audience. Over the years, despite extensive marketing efforts, most students seem to end up at a college within a 250-mile radius of their homes. (Brutal economics plays a part, of course, but what’s the tradeoff on spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on communications that most often goes into a box under the bed?)

G. Insist that if colleges want better students, they should help educate them, not just tell them how to apply to college. If you want to introduce a program that depends on technology, you’ll need to pay for it and provide instructions and support. No “unfunded mandates.” Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education recently announced what sounds like a very promising effort in this regard called “By All Means: Redesigning Education to Restore Opportunity.”

H. Colleges should be forthcoming about relationships with companies building application platforms, including how student data will be handled and used. 

I. If colleges are really serious about alleviating the pressure on our students they need to do the following things:

1. Limit students to taking standardized tests only twice and penalize those who insist on taking them more than that. No superscoring, for example.

2. Eliminate standardized testing as a requirement altogether.

3. Create a national essay day where students have five hours (or some other appropriate time) to write their application essays to eliminate the excessive polishing by adults. Students would write based on a randomized selection of topics they would see the day of the test.

4. Penalize “padding” and overstuffing of an application while rewarding depth of commitment. Construct the application to reflect this commitment.

5. While performance in class remains important, develop policies that reward students who take risks in their course choices as well, as they are expected to do in college. Differentiate-Between-Purchaser-and-End-User-in-Usability-Testing

College counselors in their schools

The college counselor’s role and caseload vary according to the type of school, but for counselors to be able to push back against the pressures colleges impose, these elements should be present:

A. Be sure you have a voice as the expert on students’ transitioning from high school to colleges. Establish yourself visibly as the authority. Are you part of your school head’s senior council or principal’s cabinet? Are you consulted about curriculum changes? You should be.

B. Campaign to limit the number of AP/honors/IB courses your school permits students to take, as well as the number of extracurriculars. By doing so, your school can relieve students of the pressure to take more than they can reasonably handle. (Try to identify students who are capable of taking on a lot and enjoy it versus those who are just trying to get through it. Exceptions can always be made.)

C. Campaign for a reasonable homework and test/paper policy that ensures multiple large projects are not due at the same time. Mitigate pressure to “perform” and give students breathing room. Some schools have very clear calendars to organize these assignments.

D. Encourage students to do their best work from 9th grade on, but emphasize intrinsic value of learning instead of the “reward” of college admission. Who works hard even without getting an A? Who is willing to take risks to explore areas of weakness? Who works to get better at something he or she is weak in? Consider the “Mindset” approach : “You’re smart” vs. “You worked really hard.” The latter helps students see that being “smart” isn’t an either you have it or you don’t quality.

E. Work closely with your principal/school head and teachers to ensure they understand the college process, its mechanics, and its effects on students. The more everyone understands the college admission climate, the more you all can deal with it. An in-service day for teachers about the college process is as essential as one for parents. A faculty meeting presentation can be a good start. It’s remarkable what educators outside our field don’t know about it.

F. Work with your school’s social/emotional counselors, if you have them. What do they observe? How can their insights help you with students and with colleges? Can they provide data or case histories that can support your talks with college admission people, whether at conferences or at ACAC meetings? Are you able to contribute your knowledge of the college admission climate to discussions about student stress? If you are the social/emotional counselor, can you put together data that supports observations about how the college process affects students and use it to develop some stress-release recommendations?

G. Create a school profile clearly stating policies regarding academics and extracurriculars. This goes along with every college application and helps colleges understand your context. I’ve provided some guidance about profiles here.

H. “Choice” is the mantra, not “status.” Support students’ ability to have and make choices rather than any particular college choices. Communicate that being accepted to an appropriate institution is they key to doing well. Oppose status seeking behavior. Get administration support.

I. Consider yourself not just an advocate for students but also a critic of the process. College admission is a complex beast that needs to be tamed. Protect your students by considering the process as a whole. Speak out as needed. Let institutions know when you see disparities or images that seem to promote harmful behaviors and ask for change.

J. Be vocal: Ask questions of colleges and coalitions when necessary. If a policy changes, ask why. Say no when necessary. I encourage you to sign up with the Coalition and ask your own questions.

I tell my students to be applicants, not supplicants when they apply to colleges. They are to be proud of what they’ve done, comfortable with what they have to offer institutions, and present themselves with their heads held high, firm in the knowledge that they are fine the way they are, not dependent on the judgment of an institution.

The same is true with counselors. I think we tend to see ourselves as supplicants when colleges, especially high status institutions, create some new mechanism for admission. Even if we know it’s not right, we tend to acquiesce because, well, it’s Empyrean U., after all; they must know what they’re doing. Well, not necessarily. If collegiality means anything, it means equality and respect among all members of an organization, plus a willingness to engage over controversial issues. We should assert that basic principle as we try to give our students the unpressurized experience of education they deserve.

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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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