College Awareness Efforts for Underserved Students Can Be More Form Than Substance

Several years ago the principal of an elementary charter school in a blighted Chicago neighborhood asked me to teach his staff about college admission. The school was decorated with college banners and posters; the teachers hung their alma mater’s insignia outside their doors and in their classrooms; there was a “sweatshirt day” where adults wore their schools’ clothing. Cadres of students took the names of colleges and universities to identify themselves.

The school was committed to making sure its students got to college, the principal told me. He was especially proud that they took their second graders on a trip to the Northwestern University campus. This last fact took me aback. Second graders? On a college trip? I couldn’t imagine what second graders of any background would gain from a campus visit except a day off of schools and an opportunity to gambol on Northwestern’s beautiful lakefront. I certainly couldn’t see them sitting still for the standard admission office presentation or for anything more than a brief hello from some students and lunch in Norris Center.


I challenged the principal: What was the idea behind the trip? He told me students from underserved backgrounds needed to see what they could have if they worked hard in school. I countered that second graders don’t really have the capacity to think and plan that far ahead about anything, much less college. It would be hard for them to understand or remember the connection. We need to show them what they could have, he repeated.

As I thought about my presentation to the school’s staff, I kept turning the trip over in my head. Although it would be a fun day for the kids (who wouldn’t want to spend time on NU’s campus?), it seemed developmentally inappropriate to expose them to college this way, expecting them to internalize it. I decided to bring the message closer to grade school level.

Luckily, I have a collection of stuffed mascots I’ve collected from various institutions over the years: several bears, a moose, a duck, and some mythical creatures as well. Normally, they huddle on a shelf in my house; the day of the presentation I piled them in a bag and brought them along.

Elementary school kids love stories and animals; they love to act; they love to pretend; their imaginations are at their unfiltered peak. I suggested that, instead of abstractly signifying about their alma maters, teachers”adopt” their mascots and have the kids write stories about them, take care of them, and learn about them. What’s a badger (Bucky Badger of the University of Wisconsin)? iur
What’s a wolverine (the University of Michigan’s mascot)? iuWhat’s a banana slug (UC–Santa Cruz’s symbol)? images-1Adopting these creatures would provide a connection to college as the school desired, and serve as sources for plenty of appropriate activities important to elementary school students’ development.


In the years since, I’ve heard about more and more grade schools in poor neighborhoods taking their students to visit college campuses hoping to inspire them to do well in school. I contend this is wasted effort based on a faulty premise. Schools should focus on making sure their students are academically prepared for high school and college, not conjuring up a distant Oz that counts on the glitter of college to somehow spark intellectual achievement.

The impulse for these early campus visits comes, I believe, from the desire to replicate upper middle-class behavior in underserved students, assuming it will rub off on them and make them amenable to attending college. Privileged children grow up surrounded by college, the thinking goes. From early days, they’re taken to their parents’ alumni events; see college sweatshirts, class rings, highball glasses, and diplomas in the house; and hear the conversations of highly educated adults. The child absorbs the qi of these things, assumes college is in his or her future, and works hard to attain it. By adopting the talismans of privilege, poor kids can be transformed into college-bound students.

But merely mapping upper middle-class behaviors and outlooks onto students, especially very young students from poor neighborhoods mistakes the map for the thing. It neglects meaning in favor of appearance, while also being developmentally inappropriate. The behavior of the privileged is coupled with good schools, enrichment opportunities, numerous activities, and cultivation of a child’s talents and abilities. Lacking that depth, underserved students exposed only to images of college see only the surface, not the substance that will be required of them to succeed. This is a tragedy for the very students these schools claim to serve.

The way to prepare students from any background for successful post-secondary careers whether they attend college or not is to educate them. Any other tactic is an empty promise. There’s no getting around this fact. It’s wrong to bring second graders to a college campus if they’re not being given the kinds of academic and imaginative experiences that will inspire them to keep learning. It’s wrong to spend massive amounts of time and effort on test prep at the expense of being well taught in the first place. It’s wrong to teach poor students that performing menial tasks, obeying instructions, filling in forms, and learning how to make eye contact are somehow “education” when in reality they are more about pacification and control.

I recently tutored a high school senior completing an online history course for graduation credit. I don’t know his background except that he is a soft spoken African American currently living away from his home. In the course of an hour we went through four screens, one each on Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, and the Andes. No reasons were offered for why they were in the same unit; no principle of historical analysis was given. Each screen had about three paragraphs of the most elementary information, provided no context and not a single thing of interest. (The brief sentences on the Phoenicians, for examples didn’t mention that they gave us our alphabet.) All he had to do was copy what was on the screen into a notebook and then complete a few simple quizzes that he could answer just by looking at what he’d copied.


Would you blame anyone in these circumstances for thinking that continuing his education would be a dreary waste of time? Or that what he was doing somehow was “being educated?” My “tutoring” consisted mainly of trying to enliven the deadness of the course with stories about the Egyptians, the Inca, and Phoenicians, which he enjoyed and found interesting, but which didn’t matter to his grade. He was never asked to engage with an idea or offer a hypothesis. I could tell many similar stories, as well.

However bright he may be, his mind is still a tabula rasa, no matter how many times he’s been exposed to college campuses or cheerleaders for a college education. Whether or not he has attending college in his mind, it’ll be a hollow achievement without having been properly educated in the first place. Imposing upper middle-class expectations onto underserved students, if that in itself is even desirable, requires also providing the substance that underlies those expectations. (The lack of education is the primary, although not the only, reason so many underserved students feel lost when they get to college.) That includes helping them develop the talents and capacities that will serve them throughout their lives, not just those that will “get them into college.” Celebrating form over substance leads to a dead end no matter what the eventual outcome.






Posted in college access, college counseling, education, underserved students | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Ranking College Rankings

Read Frank Bruni’s Oct. 30 column about the chaos of college rankings HERE. Not incidentally, I was very pleased to be featured. I’d be happy to hear reactions.


Posted in college counseling | 2 Comments

ASPIRE Bill in Senate an “Access” Wake-up Call for Colleges

Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) have introduced a bill in Congress that would “encourage” colleges to provide greater access for underserved (poor, first generation-college, minority) students. It should serve as a warning, especially to the wealthiest colleges, that they need to act systemically, not individually, to provide all qualified students access to post-secondary education.

In the past I’ve advocated that wealthy colleges and universities work together to help less well-endowed institutions fund poor students. The Coons-Isakson bill should prod them to take the high road before being made to do so. It would be a win-win for all parties involved.

I’ve made the case in my blog, which you can access HERE.



Posted in college counseling | 2 Comments

Student Engagement, Not Alumni Giving, Is a Quality Indicator

Over at I’ve written several entries about college rankings and the National Survey of Student Engagement. In existence for nearly 20 years, NSSE has developed an extensive survey of “student engagement” or what college students actually do on their campuses. It focuses on academics: How many hours per week do you study? How much writing do you do? and so on. NSSE administers the survey directly to freshmen and seniors at participating institutions, so it also provides a window into what happens over time at each school.


Here’s a selection from NSSE’s home page that defines its terms and function:

  • What is student engagement?
    Student engagement represents two critical features of collegiate quality. The first is the amount of time and effort students put into their studies and other educationally purposeful activities. The second is how the institution deploys its resources and organizes the curriculum and other learning opportunities to get students to participate in activities that decades of research studies show are linked to student learning.                                                                                                                                              What does NSSE do?
    Through its student survey, The College Student Report, NSSE annually collects information at hundreds of four-year colleges and universities about first-year and senior students’ participation in programs and activities that institutions provide for their learning and personal development. The results provide an estimate of how undergraduates spend their time and what they gain from attending college.

Whatever else a college or university offers, these qualities should be primary. Especially important for anyone contemplating or evaluating colleges should be that last phrase, “what [students] gain from attending college,” what some might call “return on investment” or ROI. All the bells and whistles mean little if students leave college not having developed their reading, writing and thinking skills, their ability to approach problems and issues critically, and their facility with numbers and scientific ideas.

Since the survey queries students directly and there are no incentives that might color their answers, its results provide essential information that can help colleges do some self-searching and improve their programs where necessary. They can also see their own results in relation to their peers’. Participating in NSSE is part of the thoughtfulness that a good education itself provides, and institutions that participate are to be commended for taking the opportunity to do so.


Although the public can’t see specific results for institutions, it can generalize results over categories. NSSE also provides a very concise set of questions (English/Spanish) students and families can and should ask as they consider applying to college. They can be summed up as “How do you intend to educate me/my child?”

It would seem reasonable for institutions to participate in NSSE in order to perform the self-evaluation most businesses prize. Feedback from customers is crucial to maintaining and improving the quality of offerings. Yet as I went through the list of NSSE participants, I noticed something interesting: Many prominent, highly-ranked institutions don’t appear or haven’t participated for nearly ten years or more.

Many recognizable names have, such as Pitzer, Tulane, UNC, UMass/Amherst, Vassar, Grinnell, Carleton, Dickinson, and the University of Virginia. However, of the 529 names on the current list, many are of institutions toiling mightily in the shadow of rankings. Many have participated almost yearly. Some even feature a version of NSSE results on their webpages (although they are not permitted to cast them as any kind of ranking). Institutions like Albion, Albright, Berea, Ursinus, Florida State, Franklin, Illinois College, Marietta, Ripon, Susquehanna, the University of Iowa, and the University of Richmond have all been frequent participants in the survey.

The missing institutions are ones most people recognize instantly and which have reputations that precede them. The list of missing or lapsed institutions includes:


Trinity College (CT)

Northwestern University (last participated in 2000)

University of Chicago

Notre Dame

Amherst (2008)


Mt. Holyoke (2008)

Smith (2008)

Tufts (2009)

Wellesley (2008)

Williams (2008)




Washington University in St. Louis



Rice (2007)



Columbia University

Oberlin (2008)

Swarthmore (2008)

University of Pennsylvania




The fact that these well-known schools haven’t participated in NSSE or haven’t done so in a while says nothing in itself about the quality of student engagement at each campus. However, if one mark of a first-class educational is the ability to assess oneself, interpret evidence, and discover ways to improve or adapt to changing times, these non-participants should consider taking the plunge, regardless of their status. A willingness to probe what’s going on with students indicates a real concern for quality that’s about more than food or dorm space, but about why students are on campus in the first place.


Far more than rankings relying on dubious criteria that say little about academic quality (except by even more dubious inference), NSSE provides a genuine insider’s look at the academic experience from students themselves. With nearly 20 years of data and analysis behind it, NSSE has a weight and legitimacy that make it a valuable tool for colleges and universities, as well as for families searching for an institution that will provide a solid education for their tuition dollars.

Participating in NSSE isn’t hard, either. Colleges and universities spend hours (in theory) filling out ranking questionnaires sent them by U.S. News and other publications; NSSE does all the work for them. It provides each school with in-depth findings and analysis designed to be used, including how they look in relation to peer institutions. It provides general information to the public, so institutions can reveal results as they see fit (although again, not as a way to “rank” themselves). It’s inexpensive enough for even small schools to use from year to year. There’s also a Faculty Survey of Student Engagement (FSSE) that can provide even more useful information. (If NSSE is “Nessie,” is FSSE “Fessie?” “Fussie” might be closer…) Finally, it enables institutions of higher education to fully demonstrate their commitment to the educational enterprise.

Amid the hoopla of rankings fever, the National Survey of Student Engagement provides genuinely useful if unglamorous information for colleges and universities. Each school’s  participation indicates to families that the institution takes its educational responsibilities seriously. In our educational climate, unfortunately, reputation can count for a lot (see list above) but that’s not even part of the iceberg when it comes to investing your child and your money in a college. It should be standard practice for families to ask admission officers whether their institution has participated in NSSE and what they discovered, and if not, why not.

No institution is perfect or possessed of eternal verities enabling it to glide from year to year without altering to meet new circumstances. To do so, it must continually question itself. Because education is such a complex and interactive phenomenon, all parties involved need to know how it functions in every aspect. A successful institution makes that interaction as valuable as possible so its students can, in the end, gain as much as possible.



Posted in admission mania, college counseling, NSSE | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

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.


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




Posted in admission practices, Annie Reznik, college, college admission, college counseling, NACAC | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Ten Questions for Annie Reznik

As we begin a new school year with a new way to apply to college, several questions remain about the rationales that led to the formation of the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success. Some of the mechanics of applying through the Coalition’s Common Application-like format have been covered here, but larger and more philosophical questions still hang in the air. When a coalition of high-powered institutions and others aspiring to similar heights imposes itself on the college admission world, very clear reasoning should be part of its introduction.


It’s that time again…

Unfortunately, that has yet to happen. The Coalition’s website states that it was formed “to improve the college application process for all students as they search for and apply to their perfect college.” But how that actually happens remains obscure and the Coalition’s chaotic rollout continues to resonate negatively among many high school counselors.

Annie Reznik, the Coalition’s Executive Director, appears eager to connect with the counseling community. Hopefully she will provide a clear voice for the group that articulates what the Coalition is attempting to accomplish. With that said, I’d like to ask her the following questions:

  1. The rationale provided for the formation of the Coalition remains obscure. Although the primary reason was to provide “access” to underserved students, other reasons given by member institutions have focused more on fear of another glitch in the Common Application, great marketing opportunities and the advantage of competition among application processes. Why was the Coalition formed, and what is the definition of “access” it uses?
  2. How do the Coalition’s application methodologies provide the increased access to college for underserved students it claims to? What data was used to support this claim?
  3. Most Coalition members are also members of the Common Application and the forms are essentially the same. Why should applicants use the Coalition’s application form over the CA’s?
  4. Many Coalition members already do a good job attracting applicants and creating classes from diverse backgrounds. Why was there a need for a coalition of colleges already successful in this area?
  5. How will the Coalition address the issue of access to technology that affects poorer students’ ability to learn about and apply to college?
  6. How has the counselors’ advisory board been used to inform Coalition members about issues surrounding access? How substantial has that consultation been and what have been the results?
  7. The rollout of the Coalition was rocky, to say the least. What is your strategy for addressing the residual problems associated with that, particularly regarding relationships between the Coalition and counselors?
  8. How will the Coalition track the success of its application and other elements and how will it report back to its constituents? What data will be collected and how will it be used?
  9. How will any data collected benefit students, high schools, or colleges and universities?
  10. Aside from providing this new application and the “locker,” how will Coalition members actively work to support access and success in college for underserved students?

iu-3The issue of access to a college education deserves energetic and constructive approaches from every side. I look forward to Annie’s responses to these questions.


Posted in Annie Reznik, Coalition for Access Affordability and Success, college counseling, Common Application, first generation-college students | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Needy Students Need Action, Not Reports, to Increase College Attainment

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, “the largest scholarship foundation in the United States,” with an endowment of $700M, has recently published two documents relevant to college admission. The first is titled True Merit: Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges and Universities. The second is Opening College Doors To Equal Educational Opportunity: Removing Barriers That Keep Most High-Achieving Students From Low-Income Families Out of Top Colleges and Universities. Although the titles hint at new perspectives or even new ways of dealing with the issue of college access for underserved students, their contents are mostly very old wine in new bottles. Supporting the recruitment and enrollment of bright but often-overlooked students is a noble enterprise, but new ideas and substantial financial support are what’s needed. Surely, such a well-endowed foundation can do better than produce reports years, if not decades, behind the times.


iu-2The True Merit report reviews research by Caroline Hoxby and others, listing conditions that face underserved students in college admission as if the Foundation has just discovered them but which have been of concern to colleges and universities for some time. After citing well-known research about the low proportion of poor students in competitive colleges, the report states:

Underrepresentation of high-achieving, low-income students at the nation’s selective colleges stems from two factors: 1) low- income students are less likely to apply to selective schools, and 2) low-income students who do apply receive inadequate consideration in the admissions and financial aid process.

The report lists some of the well-known problems underserved students face with college admission: Lack of advanced educational opportunities; inability to demonstrate interest by visiting campus due to financial strictures; merit aid to students who can pay full tuition; and not having a “hook” such as athletic ability or legacy status. (There are many more issues involved, but the report focuses on these.) If colleges were to eliminate these problems, the report says, talented low-income students would have more access to college and would in fact do as well or better than, for example, “mediocre but full-paying students.”

iu-3But not every full-pay student is “mediocre,” just as not every low-income student is an overlooked genius, so characterizing the issue as a zero-sum game doesn’t make sense, since it simply pits one class against another. And defining “true merit” is as difficult today as it’s ever been, especially in the larger context of American political and economic culture. Concluding this section, the report draws on the American myth of meritocracy in a paean to democratic ideals:

Why, in a country where we fought a war of independence to get away from inherited aristocracy, do so many of our leading universities employ preferences based on lineage? The very existence of the preference allows donors to buy their children’s way into selective schools. It is as though competitive academic placement applies only to the poor, while admissions among the wealthy is open to the highest bidder.

This rather embarrassing stab at oratorical flamboyance only makes the rest of the report look that much more impotent. It concludes, unjustifiably, that colleges and universities have not wrestled with these issues and don’t do so even now. The report refers to excellent studies documenting the problems, yet offers nothing original, new, insightful, or actionable about how to create a more equitable environment for students of every economic stratum.

True Merit‘s recommendations about what to do simply prove the point. They include

• removing preferences for the wealthy,

• broadening merit definitions and assessment processes to better identify high-achieving students from varied socioeconomic backgrounds,

• expanding outreach strategies, and

• increasing financial aid.

100_5362.jpgI can attest that as an admission officer at Amherst College in the 90s, we worked to have more students on financial aid each year. We constantly expanded our outreach, looked beyond the numbers for students of unusual backgrounds, and resisted, even turned down, legacy admits if there were no other compelling factors involved. I know that other institutions were doing the same thing, and I know they are doing them with even more energy and resources now. (Amherst just this year received a $1 million award from the Cooke Foundation for its work recruiting and enrolling underserved students, in fact.)

Opening College Doors, which the Foundation describes as a summary of the preliminary findings of a larger study it is currently conducting, does little to advance the ideas promoted in the earlier study. Like True Merit, it presents truisms and shopworn suggestions instead of original or genuinely challenging possibilities that might help institutions put these good ideas into practice.

This Cooke Foundation Issue Brief looks at some preliminary findings of our new study, and makes six recommendations to shrink the huge educational opportunity gap between the economic haves and have-nots. The full report, which will provide greater detail, will be issued later this year.

Our six recommendations to selective colleges and universities are:

  1. Make clear the true cost of college attendance after financial aid.
  2. Encourage more low-income students to apply.
  3. Make the college application process simpler.
  4. Practice need-blind admissions.
  5. Remove other poverty penalties in the admission process.
  6. Recognize the barriers low-income students have overcome.

Anyone who has spent any time at all in college admission on any side of the desk knows that these issues have been addressed, discussed, analyzed, and dissected hundreds, even thousands of times at conferences, regional meetings, and within institutions themselves. Even the term “need-blind admissions” is a misnomer for most admission professionals, existing more as an ideal than a reality.

Expanding on recommendation six, the Foundation suggests that college admission offices

Take note of a student’s background. Many things can provide clues as to whether a student grew up with limited means. These include the parents’ level of education, the parents’ occupations, whether they are racial or ethnic minorities, languages spoken at home, the number of siblings, the quality of the student’s high school, the high school’s catchment area and the student’s ZIP code.

Review applications holistically and use the above-mentioned information about a student’s background during the review. Research shows that having more complete information on a student’s background increases acceptance rates of low-income students.

I don’t know any institutions at any selectivity level that don’t do these things at some point in the admission process unless they’re huge state universities that simply can’t read each application. Even so, there are imperatives they try to fulfill. It’s hard to understand how the Foundation can think it’s contributing anything new to the conversation when it seems more like Rip van Winkle, suddenly awakening to a world that has passed them by.

iu-1There’s also a profound cognitive dissonance here that belies the reports’ democratizing rhetoric. Instead of spending its money helping many students, the Foundation helps only an exclusive number chosen through a very rigorous selection process, creating its own aristocracy. One might say it’s better to fully (and luxuriously) fund 125 talented but needy students than to partially fund 500 or 1,000 or even all 3,300 scholarship applicants each year. Perhaps you’d be right. But the Cooke Foundation’s earnings on its $700M endowment must surely be enough to take on more students. It might even make more sense to look for systemic approaches to the problems instead of focusing on the narrower and easier route of betting on a tiny group of sure winners.

(During a job interview with Cooke many years ago, I asked about their scholarship policy. I wondered if they had any plans to widen the scope of their awards to encompass more students. “No,” was the answer. It would not have been a good fit for me.)

The Cooke Foundation has taken a “micro-” stance in its support of college access. That is, it chooses a select number of bright but underserved students to attend a select number of highly selective institutions. Perhaps, given its resources, it might have a greater impact by adopting a “macro-access” position instead, enabling it to support student access more systemically. Rather than producing reports that do little to advance the cause of needy students in gaining admission to college, perhaps the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation could put its money to better use by trying the following:

  1. Establish a national scholarship fund available to colleges lacking robust endowments to be used to recruit and support poorer students. Many colleges would enroll more high-need students if they could, but simply lack the financial wherewithal. They would be able to supplement their own FA funds with funds from Cooke (and perhaps other foundations).
  2. Finance the ongoing creation, distribution, and follow-through of Caroline Hoxby’s college information packet. She discovered that a simple set of communications costing around $6.00 per student significantly raised the likelihood of high school freshmen’s becoming interested in attending college.
  3. Consider expanding Cooke’s own scholarship granting process to encompass a larger number of  deserving students instead of just a few of the very luckiest. With 3,300 applicants per year, surely more than 125 can be accommodated. A luxury lifeboat is wonderful for those lucky enough to be saved, but that still leaves others in leaky skiffs or floating in the dark waters trying to grab onto wreckage. Who “merits” saving in this scenario?
  4. Fund, conduct, and produce truly original research about the college admission process, such as its effect on students and high schools; its role in status construction; its place in American culture and society; and its role as a bridge between secondary and post-secondary education. A great deal needs to be said about this phenomenon in ways that will help everyone involved in getting students to college. As an outside agency, Cooke might be just the organization to provide clear and actionable observations that would truly make college more accessible for all.
  5. Initiate and work with colleges and universities to develop a common financial aid document that would present financial aid information clearly and uniformly. This document is urgently needed and would fulfill one of the Foundation’s own recommendations. Institutions have spoken about it, but no one seems willing to take the first step. Perhaps only a disinterested outside agency can make it happen.

Unquestionably, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation has generously supported students and organizations concerned with college attainment since 2000. But its efforts have been narrowly instead of systemically focused. It would be spectacular to see it put some of its incredible resources to work truly addressing some of the issues that have long made American college admission a tangle of competing interests and a chokepoint working against the broader inclusion of talented individuals in the American economy.


Who gets into the club?

Posted in admission practices, American culture, college access, college counseling, first generation-college students, underserved students | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments