Waiting for Godot on the Yellow Brick Road

I attended a webinar the other night sponsored by the International Association for College Admission Counseling. Its topic was the Coalition for Access, Blah, Blah, Blah’s new application and locker system that will supposedly create a Yellow Brick Road straight to the Emerald City of college admission for all the Dorothys, Scarecrows, Tin Men, and Cowardly Lions out there. iuUnfortunately, it did nothing to ease my conviction that behind the Great and Powerful Oz there’s nothing but a little man behind the curtain frantically pulling levers while a tiny dog nips at his heels. Instead of a golden path we have a Beckettian landscape where no one really seems to know what the hell is going on and where Godot refuses to appear even though we keep hoping.

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Audrey Smith, Dean of Admission at Smith College, was the night’s Wizardly representative. I’ve known Audrey for quite a while, since my days as an associate dean of admission at Amherst. She’s a no-nonsense person with a sly sense of humor and a comprehensive view of college admission. Ayaska Fernando, a pleasant tech-savvy young man from Yale was also on hand to Coalitionsplain the wonderful shiny techno-objects of the locker. There was lots of admiration for them on the Coalition side but less from those on the other side of the curtain, apparently.

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Constructing a shiny object.

Frankly, Audrey had a thankless job–she tried to put the application system in a good light, but I’m not sure she even believed what she was saying. A forced smile, admissions that it’s in “Version 1.0” (although it’s really in beta) and that there are things they just don’t know or have control of, along with reliance on talking points, did nothing to justify the existence of this misbegotten thing to me. Worse, it feels disrespectful to blithely tout the wonderfulness of something so significant without engaging in a real discussion about it. I felt as though I were being treated like a child slightly slow on the uptake. (We only had an hour, but still…Has anyone heard anything substantial from any of the Coalition’s leaders, say, Jim Nondorf at the University of Chicago? If so, I’d love to hear about it.)

Someone needs to answer these questions, and soon:

  1. Why did this group of colleges decide to put this system together? If the reason is “access,” please explain what you mean by that. If it’s “Because the Common Application screwed up,” please let us know why it was better to create something from scratch than to ensure a current system was improved. 
  2. How does it improve access for any students, much less the underserved students the group claims to be so concerned about? Technology is a tool, not an answer.
  3. Why did you not spend some of your time working with counselors on the high school side before launching it? (I use the term “launching” tenuously, since that usually refers to a ship that’s been deemed seaworthy, which this one plainly is not.)

Aside from the contempt I have for the entity itself, my greater concern revolves around the arrogance of high status institutions (and their hangers-on) in foisting a half-assed application system on high school counselors and expecting us simply to accept it on their say-so. This represents a direct challenge to those of us who work with students of any background, I might even say a sea change of sorts, the implications of which we are only beginning to understand. (Coupled with that other misbegotten thing, the “Tide” report, we have a lot of work to do.)

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It’s always been a polite fiction that college counselors and college admission officers are colleagues, equals in the field of college admission. The Coalition’s display of power gives the lie to that assumption. Even if the Wizard is just hot air, great lighting, and bullshit, it is an attempt to arrogate to itself the levers of admission power (even more than already exists). College counselors, without significant leverage of their own, are left to complain among themselves, assuming they can only acquiesce to their betters. That’s not true, of course, but we need to discover our collective voice when we perceive something wrong. This thing is wrong. More on that soon.

One other comment stood out for me in the webinar. Audrey asserted that “competition” in the college application world is a good thing. Is the idea that competition among competing systems will improve them? Or is the Coalition banking on building a better system to drive competitors out of business?  Are the laws of economics being applied to college admission? I have to wonder if the competition here is between CollegeNet, which is behind the Coalition’s platform, and the Common Application’s own platform. That’s the only thing that seems to make sense in this context. She didn’t offer an explanation so I’d love to hear one. Why is competition in this field good? Who does it help? Does competition among application systems benefit students? How? As with the term “access,” “competition” appears to be a word meant to hypnotize its audience so they’ll pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

I will be attending the Illinois ACAC conference as a panelist talking about the application essay. I’d like to invite anyone from either side of the desk to sit down with me over drinks one afternoon to discuss the issues raised by the Coalition application. I will also be a panelist at NEACAC on the topic “Taking Back High School,” which will in part discuss ways for counselors to help students do just that. Finally, I will host a webinar discussion about these issues in the near future.  I extend a special invitation to the Coalition’s admission deans and directors to join in. Deatils to come.

See my colleague Hamilton Gregg’s comment on the webinar here.

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Try to follow the instructions…

Minor edits made 4/16/16…

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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.
This entry was posted in admission practices, college access, college counseling, The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, underserved students and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Waiting for Godot on the Yellow Brick Road

  1. trebor1960@comcast.net says:

    And the rich get richer. My contention has been that founders of this application maintain that this new system is to give access to the underserved and underrepresented – yet there is no one out there to tell them about it or assist them. Instead districts like mine, that have college counselors, and all the families that can afford private counselors will be the ones to access/use this platform as yet another way to get some sort of edge in the system. And the rich get richer.

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  2. larry610 says:

    “Don’t sugarcoat it kid, tell it to her straight.”
    Butch Cassidy

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  3. larry610 says:

    From the private side, I completely agree with trebor1960. First inquiry I got about the Coalition was from a family of great wealth and influence.
    And to Will:
    “Don’t sugarcoat it Kid, tell it to her straight”
    Butch Cassidy

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