College Counselors as Advocates: A New Dynamic

Most of the time, college counselors are seen as ardent supporters of their students during the college process. Whether it’s helping create college lists, going over procedures, checking up on deadlines, or writing recommendations, we are in students’ corners as they pursue their post-secondary aspirations. At times, we even go to bat for them regarding admission decisions or when something goes awry in their applications. We can really be bulldogs, advocating in support of our students.

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Over the last twenty years or so, however, we have seen the college process overrun high school in ways that compel students to construct their lives to fit what they think colleges want (or really, what colleges tell them they want), rather than living their lives and experiencing them from moment to moment. They always seem to be analyzing at themselves and wondering if what they’re doing will look good for college. (Often college counselors are put in the uncomfortable position of recommending the latter when they know a different course of action would be better for the student.)

Privileged students are most self-conscious about their high school lives vis-a-vis eventual college choices, since they come from college-going backgrounds. Their less-privileged peers are freer to create their own paths, but at the same time don’t generally have the kind of guidance that would help them achieve the most positive post-secondary results. College counselors at schools and community based organizations try to equalize the disparities, with mixed success.

But another aspect of advocacy is more difficult for college counselors to achieve. As the machinery of marketing, data collection, and college admission itself has become more complex and intrusive, we recognize that our students need to be shielded in some way so they can go about their daily lives without constantly thinking about “what will this mean for college?” (This of course is quite separate from the normal adolescent self-consciousness of “Who am I?”) More and more we hear about students burning out in high school and arriving at college already exhausted. Our ability to mitigate this situation, however, is limited not only by our constant daily duties, but also by our separation from each other across schools and districts and from our peers at school.

In order to advocate for real change in the ways colleges approach our students as a whole, college counselors need to have a collective voice that carries some weight. Although our national organization, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), provides some outlets for discussion, emphasis generally is on minimizing controversy and conflict, and colleges and universities are able to wield far more power and influence over admission policies by virtue of the fact they control the portals through which our students hope to enter college. Counselors in high schools can tear their hair and rend their garments, but more often than not, very little changes.

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I’m not speaking here about individual institutions’ changing grade or testing requirements or adding an essay to their applications. Of course, each college or university has the right and responsibility to control its entry policies. I’m referring to situations where colleges band together to institute policies that counselors perceive to be harmful or unnecessarily disadvantageous to students. Aside from writing polite letters or complaining in our Facebook groups, few ways exist to challenge and turn back those policies from the high school side.

Many counselors will not complain individually or publicly, fearing (somewhat justifiably) reprisals from colleges; others simply believe they have no power or right to effect change even if a policy defies or distorts the educational aims of their schools. I’ve noticed that when counselors do raise objections, they often apologize for doing so, assuming they have no real right to speak up, even if they have had many years of experience dealing with students, professional training, and extensive knowledge of the field.

NACAC provides a “Confidential Complaint Form” where anyone can identify a problem to be investigated, but it is designed more for individual cases than for system-wide problems. The organization’s governing document, the Statement of Principles and Good Practice (SPGP), spells out how colleges and high schools should behave relative to their interactions with students, but there are no provisions (that I can tell) addressing how college admission officers and college counselors should behave toward each other in the course of conducting business having to do with the processes of admission absent any individual student’s issues.

It’s a lot easier for college admission deans to get together and plan big changes than it is for high school counselors. And even if a majority of counselors oppose some generalized policy instituted by college admission deans, what can they do except weep and wail? They have no leverage or voice to which college admission people are obliged to listen.

Let me make clear that I am not advocating an “us vs. them” outlook, nor do I assume evil intent on anyone’s part. We all are genuinely interested in students. However, I also believe perspective is often lost when looking at college admission too narrowly as simply a way to get students from high school to college. Much more frequent and more substantive conversations between the two parties need to be had to “turn the tide,” and I believe they could be extremely productive with strong backing from NACAC. I do not see a structure currently in place to make that happen.

I believe it is time to evaluate and re-balance this power differential in order to give college counselors a greater voice in how the college admission process connects to high school life. In effect, I believe we need to acknowledge that “college admission” encompasses a great deal more than it did twenty or thirty years ago, everything from social consciousness to parenting to the role of technology in teaching and the admission process. As a result, I propose the following:

  1. A new section of the SPGP addressing the needs of high schools and high school students to be free of undue pressure from colleges and universities. It would include guidelines about marketing, email contacts, the difference between general education about college requirements and promoting a particular institution, and similar issues.
  2. A new section of the SPGP governing admission officer/college counselor relations to address the power imbalance between high schools and colleges, including a provision enabling college counselors to debate and potentially veto any large systemic changes that could affect the lives of their students. This could include guideline about student counseling developed by the American School Counseling Association (ASCA).
  3. A similar section outlining specific professional relationships between college admission officers and college counselors, including one mandating responses and potential solutions to various common complaints, such as the “We don’t have all your information” messages.
  4. Sessions at national and regional conferences exclusively for college counselors to consider counselor-specific issues. These sessions could help identify problems common among counselors (whether or not they involve colleges specifically, but related in some way to college admission and high school life) and help identify ways to address them within the group or, as needed, in consultation with colleges.
  5. A permanent college admission/college counselor committee with rotating membership that would take up systemic proposals from either party and debate them before presenting them to the general membershi for discussion and a vote.
  6. A high-level committee that would establish connections with other school and college level organizations (NASSP, AACU, NAIS, etc.) to keep them informed of issues regarding college policies and high school effects and vice versa.

Recent controversies in the college admission field demonstrate that we need an enlarged vision of college admission not only to effectively manage its mechanics but also to enable high school counselors to effectively advocate for their students in a larger forum as equals to address the pressures and complexities affecting students.

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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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