I came early to the session and sat in the front row, determined to be a good boy and listen with an open mind to a clear justification and explanation of the Coalition from one of its leaders, Jim Nondorf, Dean of Admission at the University of Chicago, and two other panel members. What we got, however, was another “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain” display that did little to support the Coalition’s purported reason for being.
Jim Cotter of Michigan State led with a fervent encomium about the Coalition, saying it was “about the underserved” and “the right thing to do,” as if he were in the pulpit urging us to “go forth and do likewise.” I admired his conviction; unfortunately, as far as I could tell, it had nothing to do with “access” for underserved students. He was very clear that joining the Coalition was a “strategic decision” that would put MSU in the company of a whole group of high status institutions. As he said, “My marketing mind went into overdrive” at the thought of rubbing elbows with the Ivies and their kin.
According to Jim, MSU had 37,500 applications this past cycle, so I wondered what kind of bump they expect or need from the Coalition. As a public institution, they’re already dedicated to access. What’s the point of joining except to be in the cool kids’ club? Most interestingly, Jim mentioned that when MSU considered joining the Common Application they spoke to Michigan counselors around the state. Based on counselors’ negative responses (they liked MSU’s own application), they decided not to use the CA. Yet they jumped on the Coalition bandwagon with little consultation, partly, as Jim said, because it’s not a “random membership.” In other words, it’s exclusive in a way the CA is not.
Jim seemed fervent in his belief that the Coalition application and its locker are about “reaching out” to the “underserved” and providing “another option” for students. But I didn’t learn from him about how that would work. To add to my confusion, at a recent webinar, Audrey Smith, Dean of Admission at Smith College, characterized the Coalition application as necessary for “competition.” My question is, “Why?” How do competing systems benefit students? College admission would seem to be an inappropriate area for competition, creating confusion, suspicion (Which one is more likely to get me in?), and duplication of effort. Jim said, “As an institution of the people we needed to be part of the Coalition.” This statement seems oxymoronic. I interpreted it to mean, “As an institution open to all we need to be aligned with institutions that are open to very few.”
His finally pleaded, “We’ve got to try something, folks,” because “It’s the right thing to do,” as if the system was in imminent danger of collapsing, which it isn’t. And try what, exactly? Get all the high status colleges and wannabes together? Again, my ultimate question is, “Why?” Fervency in the service of empty rhetoric worries me.
Next, Jim Nondorf clearly stated that the Coalition was a result of the Common Application glitch a few years ago that resulted in the loss of approximately 11,000 applications for the University of Chicago. In other words, fear and self defense propelled the Coalition’s creation, not magnanimity. I wish I could comment more on Nondorf’s presentation, but he went though his powerpoint slides and spoke so fast it was impossible to keep up. He would start a sentence and before finishing it would say, “You can see it on the website.” He clearly was not interested in addressing any of the many questions that have arisen since the Coalition was announced, and he was finished almost before he started.
The highlight of the session was Veronica Hauad’s discussion of ways the University of Chicago has reached out to Chicago area schools, using U of C staff members and inventive methods to get young students interested in going to college. They visit schools, talk with students about college (not just U of C), have a curriculum, and have even created a coloring book for younger students illustrating some concepts about college. As I told her after the presentation, if that were what the Coalition was about, I’d be behind it 100%. Unfortunately, as far as I could tell, she was actually giving another session altogether; there’s nothing in the Coalition’s plan so far to have its members replicate the programs she’s helped develop at U of C. So there seemed to be a little bait and switch going on. Were we supposed to think that Veronica’s programs are related to the Coalition?
Although I didn’t talk to everyone, it seemed clear that the session’s 150 or so attendees were not satisfied with its content (Veronica excepted, I believe). Only two questions were allowed, which, even given an eight-minute delay in starting, was inadequate for the amount of controversy the Coalition has created. One of the two questioners who spoke critically of the new system was roundly applauded by others and comments after the session were similar to what I’ve written about here.
So we were left to contemplate a dubious system created in fear cloaked in the increasingly threadbare concept of “access.” As concerned as high school counselors are with the mechanics of the Coalition’s machine, we should also be concerned with the Coalition as a portent for more schism in NACAC between have and have-not institutions, college admission offices and counselors, and privileged versus non-privileged students. (At another session of deans and directors [as well as other interested parties]concerned with developments in college admission, one participant commented that the Coalition “represents a growing chasm between selective institutions and the rest of us.”)
I’ve made no secret of my opposition and even contempt for the Coalition because I believe its creation story and justification are disingenuous, motivated more by a desire to exert more control over their applications than by concern for the underserved. I have yet to be convinced otherwise. This session did nothing to address my concerns, and in fact (Veronica again excepted) only deepend my sense that those who created this creature are both out of touch with the realities of high schools outside their usual haunts and unconcerned with “access” outside their own narrow institutional interests.
Every high school counselor and even admission officer involved in the Coalition should carefully consider its implications before any further action. College and university presidents might also want to take a deeper look at how the controversy affects us all. Real concern for “access” to a college education will require a systemic effort by all institutions of higher education, not a small self-interested group of high status schools.
[It’s worth noting that around 23 Coalition schools are delaying application rollout of the Coalition application and that there has been great reluctance even to reveal which institutions those are. That’s a transparency problem right there.]
TAKE ACTION: If you’re a counselor, write to Coalition institutions’ presidents as well as deans and directors of admission. Make your position known.
Please check out my column about college admission for parents and students at forbes.com.