NACAC Notes, Columbus OH, 2016

Some thoughts on the latest annual conference of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. I attended several sessions, including Juan Sanchez’s talk. As usual, I saw many colleagues and had a chance to catch up, even if only on the fly. I took some notes and share them here. Some of my thoughts and comments are bolded.

NACAC’s SPGP Session (A10): The SPGP hasn’t been modified in many years so it’s time to see how it fits with the changing landscape of college admission. The biggest issue seems to be what kind of document the SPGP should be: Is it a rule book or a broader statement of principles that all parties should use to govern their behavior? If it’s a rule book, how detailed should it be? If it’s a broadly based document, how useful can it be? Who does the policing and who administers punishments for violations? Is the document meant only for member or for the admission profession at large? For that matter, how enforceable would its provisions be if it came to that?

The discussion about the importance of the preamble emphasized its role in laying the groundwork here. (I don’t envy committee members this task.) A clear yet succinct introduction to the document will set the tone and guide its use. iu

I’d like to see the revised SPGP address the relationship between college admission officers and high school counselors, and vice versa. Currently, it deals with colleges’ relationships to students and high school counselors’ relationships to colleges. However, events over the last year have demonstrated that high school counselors are disadvantaged when post-secondary institutions band together to act in their own interests in ways that counselors perceive as damaging to students’ interests.

Colleges and universities should be more aware of how their policies (institutional or general) can have a severely negative effect on students. The SPGP could be a vehicle for acknowledging and establishing the need for better and more transparent communication between admission offices and high school counselors. (Since IEC’s aren’t attached to schools, their influence on curricula, etc. is limited, so I haven’t addressed that here.)

I’ve written elsewhere that high school counselors should have a greater voice in the college process since changes can affect the way high schools and students behave; I continue to think this. I hope the SPGP committee will consider adding a new section that governs this relationship and acknowledges the significant pressures on students we commonly lament but seldom act upon. 

National Focus on Highly Selective Schools (B11): This session was interesting but awkwardly titled, since the panelists were making the case for taking the focus off highly selective schools. The most highly selective colleges and universities enroll a tiny number of students each year relative to all the rest; the media focus on those to the exclusion of just about every other institution does families a disservice. The panic that results could be quieted somewhat if the focus were broader.

Panelists discussed why selectivity has become a measure of rigor and value. It was mentioned that the free market system is partly to blame, as media have found a way to “quantify quality.” A panelist suggested that one way to balance this out would be to measure the academic distance students travel from college entry to exit. Although no specifics about this measure were discussed at the session, making greater use of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) might be one way to achieve this goal.

Both colleges and high schools perpetuate this focus on status, however. Even when colleges lament the rankings, they often feature them in their publications; high schools see student acceptances to and enrolments at high-status colleges as validation of their work. One panelist made the very thought-provoking comment that the term “undermatching” (popularized by Caroline Hoxby’s research) is insulting to students and institutions. Initially widely praised and accepted as something that underserved students should avoid, it’s been criticized more recently for, among other things, not taking into account students’ own reasons for choosing a college. iu-1

We need a concerted effort to draw attention to the many colleges and universities that do an excellent job of educating their students but are not in the media spotlight. This would require a direct challenge to cultural notions of success and status, however, which is a very difficult windmill to tilt at. Regardless, we should take a wider view of what’s important in choosing a college. With luck, our schools, parents, and the media will at least adopt this view themselves instead of using glitzy but meaningless statistics as substitutes for more significant data.

Claudio Sanchez, Education Correspondent for NPR (C02): I’m a fan of Mr. Sanchez and NPR, so I looked forward to this session. Unfortunately, I found it bland and forgettable. He didn’t offer any insights into the college admission world, instead focusing on the story of a young woman struggling to get her education, which turned out to be the content of his next NPR broadcast. Of course it was a feel-good moment, but not much more than that. Perhaps that was what was expected.

Again, I’m a fan. However, I’d really like to see speakers with more of an edge, individuals who would challenge us to do more, address inequities more substantively, and offer some ideas that jolt us out of complacency. Too much of NACAC seems devoted to supporting a “go along, get along” mentality already. The college admission process has become too much of a cultural icon not to have its practitioners question and challenge our assumptions more. A little boat rocking would be useful. (Admission officers don’t make policy, but that doesn’t relieve us of the need to dig deeper.)

Barriers to Admission at Selective Institutions for Low-Income Students (D01): This session was a presentation of material from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation’s True Merit report, which I critiqued in a previous entry. As Dr. Johnson is reported to have said when reviewing a writer’s book, “Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.” The Foundation might want to spend its time and money getting past the obvious and offering some substantive solutions instead of tired observations and truisms. It certainly has the resources to do so.

College Admission: Inspiring Commitment to Others and the Common Good: Year Two Progress (F06): This session centered on the “Turning the Tide” report, which I also critiqued in a previous post. When it was first announced as a “reform” of college admission I was genuinely hopeful. It turned out, however, to be an exercise in naive assumptions about human nature as well as a misunderstanding of the college admission process.

We can all agree, I think, that students, especially (or particularly) ambitious middle and upper middle-class students, have become more concerned about their personal welfare and success than about “caring.” (This isn’t even a new trend, though; it’s been growing for at least 30 years.) We can also agree that we’d like our students to value happiness and caring over “achievement” or at least the drive to achieve at the expense of those things and others. We can also agree that what colleges ask for influences behavior, not only among students but high schools as well.

The theory is that by making “caring” a requirement for admission students will somehow become better people. And panelists suggested that having colleges talk more about it in their search, outreach, branding, and communications will somehow turn the tide of selfishness and narcissism. That’s easy to do. It also means colleges don’t really have to do anything but ask kids to be nicer.

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Making “caring” a requirement of college admission will actually achieve the opposite goal–it will inspire students and families to figure out how to perform “caring” in a way that appeals to admission offices. One book already explicitly instructs students exactly how to look like they care as they plot to be accepted to high status colleges. It’s the nastiest book of college admission advice I know of: Judith Wissner-Gross’s What Colleges Don’t Tell You (And Other Parents Don’t want You to Know). (She has another equally nasty book about high schools.) It recommends, for example, that a student learn the violin and then play at nursing homes to impress admission offices. It came out nearly ten years ago, and the Harold Washington Library here in Chicago, our main branch, carries at least eight copies on its shelves.

Who isn’t behind everyone’s being nicer to each other, more idealistic? But is just asking for yet another essay on the application, this one about niceness, really the way to do it? It will only encourage hypocrisy and dissembling. As long as the prize is so coveted, the attempt to inspire genuine niceness will fail. And as long as colleges continue to promote themselves as the keys to success instead of more fulfilling lives, efforts to promote better behavior in students will be futile. (I realize this discussion ignores the realities of our current economic lives, but so does “Tide.”)

If colleges are really serious about this effort, here’s what they need to do: Reward students who are genuinely “nice.” That would mean, for example, accepting a student with exceptional (and truly voluntary) community service but so-so grades and scores over the high scorer with just the basic volunteering on her transcript. It would mean accepting the student who truly took risks that were personally rewarding but damaging to her GPA. It would also mean eschewing participation in ranking schemes, foregrounding “nice” students in recruitment material instead of GPAs and scores, and ceasing to tell students that mediocre academic records are all right because a “holistic” review will see their niceness when in fact that’s usually not the case. Colleges have spent years positioning themselves as the gold ring for students with high grades, scores, and brutally crowded schedules, and students have responded accordingly. If they want to change that calculus, the path is clear, and it’s not going to come from producing more brochures.

One of the panelists read a description of an ideal student from a 1972 college viewbook. It championed the all-around student, the one who wasn’t a “grind,” but who reveled in learning and contributing. If students today are “grinds,” it’s not fair to blame them–it’s colleges themselves that have demanded it. (And let’s be fair–it’s the most competitive colleges that have set this standard; the vast majority are still happy to accept that good student–the one I used to call ‘merely wonderful’ as we rejected him or her when I worked at Amherst in the 90s–and good for them.) Colleges will have to look to themselves and ask whether they are simply collecting trophy students that will make them look good or looking for students who are “good” and offering to teach them something worthwhile.

There’s no question that, as one panelist put it, “Signals sent by colleges influence kids in troubling ways.” Another acknowledged that stress among students is a growing public health problem. But the solutions offered by “Tide” put most of the responsibility for change on students and high schools, not on the institutions that send out these signals. Ultimately, however, it’s not the signals that inspire change, it’s the rewards. Changing the viewbook isn’t enough; the rewards have to be commensurate with the requirements.

Final comments: 

A. I and others noticed the absence of the Coalition, either as presenter or vendor. I read on Facebook that Annie Reznik was at the conference and “available,” but only in the way any random attendee there was “available.” To me, this signals organizational cowardice, a lack of respect for high school counselors, and a continued refusal to be transparent about its structure and reason for being. There should have at least been a followup session to indicate whatever progress might have been made since last year’s mess. 

I’ve published a list of questions I’d like Ms. Reznik to answer on behalf of the Coalition and have sent an email to her at her Coalition address, with no response. This behavior is not acceptable in an organization and field that depend on clear communication and open dialogue. Chirpy monthly newsletters glossing over real concerns do not cut it. I hope we hear from her soon.

B. I’d like to see some roundtable sessions or discussions longer than 75 minutes of issues affecting high schools, students, and colleges. It always seems to me that the “go-along-get-along” spirit dominates the events; it would be great to hear some spirited debate about some of the major issues that surround college admission. There’s plenty to discuss.

C. Bravo to Columbus and the conference organizers. The Convention Center was accommodating and less brutally cavernous than some other venues. I was able to get from one spot to the other without feeling as though I’d just completed a marathon. I also returned to Chicago well-fed by several excellent Columbus restaurants (Barley’s, Double Comfort, DeNovo on the Park, even our hotel–the Sheraton). I was impressed that for the most part they used organic, locally sourced ingredients without charging a premium for the privilege. Waitstaff were also friendly and helpful everywhere. Well done, Columbus.

I look forward to next year in Boston and to the year in between. ambassadorwordcloud2

 

 

 

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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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3 Responses to NACAC Notes, Columbus OH, 2016

  1. George Fan says:

    Will, great post, thanks!

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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  2. Barbara Kuhl says:

    Thanks for posting the Coalition stuff….did not attend the conference this year, but am finding Coalition difficult to communicate with and not advising it unless all schools are on a given student’s list (not the case yet!) ….

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