Incentive Compensation

Several weeks ago I received a phone call from an admissions dean friend with an ethics question.  If this were a movie trailer rather than a blog devoted to the ethics of college admissions, I might describe the question as “ripped from today’s headlines.”

 

The dean works for one of the myriad of small liberal-arts colleges that are tuition driven, whose very existence is dependent on its admissions office achieving enrollment targets.  Enrolling the freshman class is never going to be easy, but the dean is a pro, an institutional icon, with a staff that does a remarkable job representing the college year-in and year-out, and as a result the college is holding its own as much as any small liberal-arts college these days.

 

The consequence of that success is that the college, for budgetary reasons, has set an ambitious freshman class goal, above anything the college has previously achieved.  As you might expect, the admissions staff has been under great pressure to bring in the freshman class, and the dean wants to support the staff and reward them for meeting goals.

 

The dean’s question was what kinds of rewards are appropriate and which are in conflict with the ban on incentive compensation in the NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice.  Can a college give a staff member a bonus for reaching an enrollment goal?  The word on the street was that competitor colleges are doing exactly that.  If such a bonus is impermissible, what about adding an amount to the following year’s salary, or paying off student loans?

 

The relevant section in the SPGP is I. A. 3. a., which states that:

 

            “Members will be compensated in the form of a fixed salary, rather than commissions or bonuses based on the number of students recruited.”

 

The idea that admissions professionals should be compensated by salary rather than on a commission basis is as old as the Statement of Principles of Good Practice itself, and is in fact the very first statement in the earliest version of the SPGP I’ve seen.  It reflects the principle that college admissions and college counseling are a profession rather than a business, that we are educators and not salesmen.

 

The prohibition on per capita compensation extends beyond the SPGP.  It is also part of U.S. Federal law.  A 1992 amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965 prohibited colleges and universities eligible for federal financial-aid funds from paying commissions, bonuses, or other incentives for recruiters based on the number of students they recruit.  In 2010 the Department of Education issued regulations for improving the integrity of federal student aid programs, regulations intended to respond to abuses in the for-profit college sector. Those regulations included the following statement on incentive compensation:

 

            “Institutions will not provide any commission, bonus, or other incentive payment based in any part, directly or indirectly, upon success in securing enrollments or the award of financial aid.”

 

Of course the incentive compensation issue was a major part of the discussion about the use of agents to help colleges recruit international students in certain parts of the world.  Per capita compensation is a common, and economical, way for American colleges to contract with agents, and NACAC’s decision to allow colleges to pay agents per head to recruit internationally, albeit with conditions intended to ensure “accountability, transparency, and integrity,” remains controversial.  I have talked before about the ethical tension between ideals and pragmatism, and allowing agents to be paid per head was a compromise recognizing the complex nature of international recruitment and the lack of an infrastructure for college counseling in many parts of the world.

 

Let’s return to the dean’s dilemma (“Dean’s Dilemma” would be a perfect title for a drab novel set in academia).  Which kinds of staff rewards are legitimate, and which are questionable?

 

My response to the dean was that it is perfectly legitimate to give a bonus to a staff member, as long as the bonus is not tied to meeting a particular enrollment goal or area target, but I also wanted to consult with two friends who are also supporters of this blog.  They also happen to be the current Chair of the NACAC Admission Practices Committee and his immediate predecessor, Lou Hirsh and Todd Rinehart.  In addition to the SPGP expertise, both have experience running an admissions office, Lou at the University of Delaware before his retirement and Todd currently at the University of Denver.

 

Both gave similar answers.  Part of being a good manager is motivating staff members to achieve goals and then validating and rewarding them when the office finds success.  Both commented that both salary adjustments and bonuses are legitimate forms of reward, although Lou added as an option “the catered gourmet meal with expensive wine pairings for the entire staff.”  That’s even better than the box of Cheez-It’s I would have gladly accepted in my admissions days (or daze).

 

Lou and Todd cited two tests for determining whether a staff reward is within the spirit of the SPGP.  The first is whether the basis for the reward is holistic, not tied to the number of students an individual staff member recruits.  Todd commented,

 

A staff member may have a goal to increase applications and/or deposits in a certain territory, but focus can also be paid to how many schools they visit, fairs covered, communications to students, applications reviewed, and other duties like campus visit programs/marketing materials/social media campaigns/tour guide programs/etc., (and if they completed these tasks within stated deadlines, and within our program budgets). Most counselors have responsibilities outside of territory management, and chances are if apps and deposits are increasing, so is their work in these other areas, which can be rewarded for having a successful year.

 

Todd documents and recognizes all of the areas of responsibility as part of the annual performance review.

 

The second test is whether a reward is tied to the success of an individual or the success of the team.  Lou commented,

 

That’s an important distinction. Staff members can contribute to their meeting their targets in all sorts of ways:
 

· The folks in processing responded more speedily to inquiries and other requests.

· Campus visit programs were better organized, and the tour guides were better trained.

· The counselors visited more high schools, attended more college fairs, and did a better job of following up with the students they met.

· The office valued teamwork. If a colleague was overwhelmed with an important office project, someone always volunteered to help out to ensure that the project was successful.

· Most important of all: none of the counselors was under pressure to recruit (and admit) each and every student they encountered. If the college wasn’t a good fit for a student, they could say so. The goal was never to recruit students at all costs. Rather, it was to help the office do a better job at presenting its case to prospective students and at counseling them through the admission and enrollment process.

One sure sign that a dean is violating the SPGP is if the bonus is available only to the staff who come indirect contact with students and parents and not to the support staff.

 

College admission is an on-going battle between its aspiration as a profession and the reality that higher education is an industry.  Each of us fights that battle in daily skirmishes, and the choices we make matter.  I’m glad my admission dean friend is sensitive to the care, validation, and well-being of staff members, and even more glad with the commitment to do it the right way.

 

 

      

Maintaining Ideals

How do we uphold our values while at the same time dealing with the demands of our work?  How do we maintain equilibrium between our ideals and our day-to-day realities?  How do we keep what we do from becoming who we are?

 

Those questions are existential, as old as the concept of work itself. Each of us answers them intentionally or by default on a daily basis.  But I have found myself thinking about them over the past couple of months as the result of an e-mail I received just before Christmas.

 

The correspondent was a school counselor who recently changed jobs, moving from an affluent independent school to a suburban public high school. She wrote that she struggles every day with a tension I wrote about back in November in the post, “College Admission as Resume Building.” 

 

Here is the part of the post that prompted her to write:

 

“As a college counselor, it’s my responsibility to provide my students with information about the realities of the college process, even if I find those realities repugnant.  At the same time, as a human being, should I enable a process that is in conflict with my values?”

 

Here is the rest of the e-mail, with minor edits:

 

“You mention that you don’t face that dilemma daily; unfortunately I do because I used to work for an independent school where many of my students were affluent, well-connected and heavily coached.  Recently I changed jobs and am now working for a public high school located in an affluent community that is home to multiple top-notch private secondary schools.  I know what my counterparts are doing and what I am not.  I like that in my current job I do not give my students as much hand-holding as I did previously.  Their words are more theirs and theirs alone.  I also appreciate that many of my current colleagues are not former admission officers because they still believe the best student gets in.  To me, this all seems more authentic and more the way it should be.  However, I am still upset.  The inequity bothers me greatly.  I am torn with knowing how the game is played versus how it should be played.  To this end, I put forth my questions to you:  What can I do that I haven’t done already to make this process fair (even when it never was to begin with), and how do I sustain my values even in the face of a changing world?”

 

The e-mail touched me, making me both feel guilty for the privilege I enjoy and also grateful and proud that there are colleagues on the front lines struggling with those questions.  I promised to devote a post to her questions, and it has taken me longer than hoped because I’m not sure I have good answers.

 

The philosophical debate about whether ideals or realities are more important goes back at least as far as Plato and Aristotle.  Ethics might be defined as the merger of the two.  Ethical principles are expressions of ideals, of what should be the case, and yet any ethical theory that can’t be applied practically has no value.

 

So how do we sustain our values/live our ideals in a world that may not seem to value or reward them?

 

It starts with being clear about what your guiding values are.  Throughout my career I have been guided by a belief that helping young people make decisions about their futures is a noble calling, with the college search and application processes being important developmental stages in the transition from adolescence to adulthood.  There are certainly moments when I wonder if that belief is naïve or outdated, but it serves as the foundation for my counseling.

 

I also believe, and am not hesitant to say, that the college process is not ultimately about getting into college.  It’s about readiness for college (which assumes that college is an experience rather than a credential), and it’s about discernment, about students figuring out who they are and what they hope to accomplish with their lives.  As counselors our job is to be a trail guide for that journey.

 

Having spent most of my life working in an independent school (something I would never have envisioned), I don’t accept that “hand-holding” or “coaching” or “packaging” are norms for independent school college counselors.  There are probably parents who think that is what they are paying for with their tuition, but I see my responsibility as using my experience and professional judgment to help the student develop independence, not remove the need for independence.

 

That leads to the second piece in sustaining one’s values, finding a work environment that supports or is consonant with our values.  Most of us talk to students about the importance of fit in choosing a college, but fit is even more important in a work environment.  It is hard to pursue one’s vision of college admission or college counseling when the rest of the institution is on a different page.  I used to believe that I could make a difference no matter where I worked, and I still believe that to some extent, but after working in one dysfunctional institution I realized that being in the wrong environment takes a toll on one’s psyche and one’s soul.

 

How does one help make the process more fair and how does one deal with knowing how the game is played versus how it should be played?  I’m not sure I have great answers.  There is inequity in the college admissions process just as there is inequity in society and inequity in life.

 

I have never been a member of a twelve-step program (but might need to be by the time I end my career), but I have found myself referring to the Serenity Prayer as having real relevance for college admissions and college counseling. 

 

The Serenity Prayer talks about the wisdom of knowing the difference between things over which you have control and those you can’t control.  I can’t control the changing nature of the college process and the games colleges feel pressured to play, but I can help my students and parents understand the reality of the college admission process.  I can help them navigate a process that can be confusing, and I can dispel myths, whether those myths be grounded in naivete or grounded in sophistication through trying to game the system.

 

One of my philosophical heroes, William James, talked about how each of our lives is a scientific experiment in how to live.  We make choices and decisions without knowing what is right, and every choice involves moral risk. We have to make choices based on what we value and what we believe, and we will probably never in this life be certain about whether we have chosen/lived correctly. 

 

To my correspondent, the very fact that you are asking those questions and struggling with those existential issues gives me hope for our profession.  Don’t give up your ideals, and keep fighting the good fight.

 

 

 

 

Rescinding a Rec

Is it ever appropriate for a teacher or counselor to rescind a college recommendation letter?  That question is among the issues at the heart of a Massachusetts school controversy that has attracted attention from publications including the Boston Globe and Huffington Post.

 

Just before Thanksgiving a student at Stoughton High School in Massachusetts made a swastika out of tape while decorating the halls after school and propped it against a recycling bin in a classroom.  Another student told him it was offensive and to throw it out.  The creator of the swastika did, but not before making a comment about Hitler’s killing of Jews during the Holocaust.

 

After local police determined that the incident did not constitute a hate crime, the school disciplined the students responsible.  But students weren’t the only ones disciplined arising from this incident.  Two Stoughton teachers received letters of reprimand for talking about the situation with colleagues and students, and a third has been suspended for contacting a college, rescinding her letter of recommendation for the student who made the swastika, and telling the college her reason for doing so.

 

I was unaware of this issue until receiving an e-mail early last week from Scott Jaschik, the Editor of InsideHigherEd.com, who was writing a story about the incident and wanted my take on the ethical and practical ramifications of rescinding a letter of recommendation and punishing a teacher for rescinding.

 

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that I responded with an essay answer to what might have been a short-answer question.  There are multiple issues in this situation germane to this blog.

 

First is the role of the recommendation letter in the college admissions process.  Recommendations are part of the student’s “voice,” helping put a human face on a student’s application.  A recommendation serves as the admissions equivalent of a legal brief, making a case for the student.  It also serves as a footnote for the student’s transcript, providing context and explanation.

 

What it should never be is an indictment.  I have written more than 2000 in my career, and I have never intentionally written one that is negative.  I say “intentionally” because my career almost ended before it began due to a recommendation I wrote that came across as more negative than I intended.

 

The student in question had a modest high school record at a good school, and in a self-evaluation she admitted that she had not worked that hard.  I had worked in admissions at the college level and thought that was true of most high-school kids and included the quote, naively seeing it as evidence of potential for better work in college.  I learned the hard way that not everyone read it the same way after one university, seeing that the application fee was missing, returned the entire application package to the student, including my letter of recommendation.  (How’s that for an ethical issue?)  Fortunately I was able to rewrite the letter, repair the damage with the student and family, and salvage my career.  The student was admitted everywhere she applied.

 

But what happens when the expectation that a recommendation will be positive comes into conflict with the truth?  The value of any recommendation consists partly in the credibility of the writer.  I tell teachers that they are not obligated to write a letter and should decline if they have reservations about their ability to put the student in a positive light. 

 

As a counselor I don’t have that option, so I always write the most positive evaluation I can.  Every recommendation tells a story.  There is the story of accomplishment, the story of growth, the story of adversity overcome, and the story of potential. Obviously some of those stories are easier to tell.  

 

Does that mean that a letter of recommendation is the truth but not necessarily the whole truth?  Perhaps, but in small schools we sometimes know our students too well and may not have perspective on how they compare to the larger applicant pool.  My rule of thumb is if you can’t say something nice, say nothing.

 

But what happens if subsequent events render a recommendation letter no longer accurate?  Does a teacher or counselor have the right to rescind a letter?  I believe the answer is yes from an ethical perspective, because the writer owns the recommendation (I am not aware of legal precedents regarding who owns the recommendation).

 

I have personally never considered rescinding a recommendation I had written, but remember talking to a colleague at another school a number of years ago who was thinking about doing so.  It would take something egregious on the part of the student, and I would simply inform the college that “My recommendation is no longer valid” without offering any explanation.  I would assume that the statement itself would raise a red flag.

 

So what behavior is egregious enough to take this step?  In the Stoughton case I don’t have enough information to know whether the student making the swastika out of tape is just being a stupid teenager (not to downplay the offensiveness of the symbol) or is a potential danger to both his high school and college communities.  Stupidity (or my being offended) is not cause enough to rescind.

 

That seems to be a point of contention in this incident.  The Stoughton police determined that this didn’t meet the definition of hate crime, but it is clear that a number of teachers felt that the student wasn’t sufficiently disciplined for what they considered hate speech.   The three teachers were disciplined after the parent of the student who made the swastika contended that the boy was being targeted by teachers.

 

Should a teacher be disciplined for rescinding a letter of recommendation?  In this case it appears the teacher was suspended more for volunteering the reason for rescinding than the rescinding itself.

 

The fact that two other teachers were also disciplined suggests larger issues within the school.  These kinds of incidents are teachable moments, and if teachers are prohibited from addressing them it leaves a void of rumor and innuendo that can make the issue much worse inside the school and in the community.  I also wonder about the school’s procedure for reporting disciplinary offenses to colleges.  If a school policy is to report nothing, then the only option a teacher would have to alert college officials about a student who might be dangerous would be through rescinding a recommendation.

 

Is this an isolated incident, or another example that offensive speech will come out of the closet in the Trump Era?  Time will tell.

 

Physics Lesson

I was reminded once again last week why I majored in philosophy and not physics.  I have always gravitated toward the humanities, and when I graduated from college opted to receive the Bachelor of Arts degree rather than the Bachelor of Science degree (which I was eligible for because I had completed Calculus), largely because I didn’t think it would look good to have a B.S. in Philosophy.

 

In college I satisfied the science requirement by taking the Astronomy/Geology sequence.  What may be most telling are the connections I drew between what I learned in the Geology course and my real-world experience and previous knowledge.  When we studied the geological feature “drumlins” I was reminded of a golf course of the same name located near Syracuse, New York (apparently now owned by Syracuse University).  In addition, almost every Geology class made me remember an episode from the old Superman television series.

 

My clearest memory from my Physics class back in high school was the day I dressed up to look like the teacher and taught a lesson.  It was a big hit, with a crowd assembled in the hall looking into the class, but if only I had paid more attention to the content of the course and less to my act, I might have avoided the mistake I made in the last post.

 

The last post was about being an eyewitness to a possible violation of the Statement of Principles of Good Practice, and in the midst of trying to get a cheap laugh with the interposition of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Einstein’s Bagels, I stated that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity states that the presence of an observer changes the reality itself.  I didn’t get the cheap laugh, and I didn’t get the Theory of Relativity right.

 

The post was selected last Wednesday by InsideHigherEd.com for its “Around the Web” feature.  Recognition by that excellent website is always gratifying and appreciated.  Later that day, I received an e-mail from Dr. Fred Gray, Chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Regis University in Denver, Colorado.  He had linked to the blog through InsideHigherEd.com, and he was writing to point out politely that my understanding of physics and Einstein were both wrong.

 

What I mistakenly referred to as relativity turns out to be quantum mechanics, to be precise the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, and the scientist behind the theory was not Einstein but Niels Bohr.  (I am proud that I recognized the name Niels Bohr and that I wasn’t tempted to make puns based on his last name or the fact that Copenhagen is a brand of smokeless tobacco.)  Not only is it not Einstein’s theory, but Fred Gray reports that Einstein fought against it on philosophical grounds and never fully accepted it.

 

I am grateful to Professor Gray for educating me about the difference and for giving me permission to credit him for helping correct my mistake.  In his e-mail he requested that I feel free to send anyone interested in studying physics, or anything else, at a small Jesuit college in Denver to look at Regis.  I hope readers of the blog will join me in doing so.

 

ECA will return next week with a post about a subject I know more about than Physics.

 

 

 

 

Eyewitness

They say that eyewitness accounts are inherently unreliable.  Of course we don’t know who “they” are, so that assertion may itself be unreliable.

 

Einstein’s Theory of Relativity apparently has nothing to do with bagels but states (if I understand it at all) that the presence of an observer actually changes the nature of the reality itself.  I recall a digression in one of George Plimpton’s books about sports where he writes about a guy whose job consisted of wearing a Mr. Peanut costume and walking around Times Square.  Because that doesn’t come close to being strange compared with much of what takes place around Times Square, he had the opportunity to people watch in a way that only a Mr. Peanut costume allows.  Couples argued and broke up in his presence unaware that he could hear everything they were saying, and he witnessed muggings and other crimes, imagining that witnesses asked by police if they saw anything suspicious might respond, “Well, there was this giant peanut.”

 

I have spent enough hours watching Law and Order reruns to know that four witnesses to the same event may have four very different accounts of what took place.  That can make it challenging to piece together a picture or narrative of an event after the fact.

 

I recently sat in on a disciplinary hearing involving unauthorized use of a cell phone in class.  There were minor discrepancies about timeline and about whether the class was reading or watching a video, but one witness testified that a sandwich was being eaten, introducing evidence at odds with all other testimony.  I wonder how Einstein would explain that sandwich.

 

Eyewitnesses to a crime or accident often experience a sense of disbelief or unreality, questioning whether what they just saw or experienced actually happened.  I experienced that myself just before Christmas when I thought I might have witnessed first-hand a violation of the NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice.

 

I was at a lunch for counselors sponsored by a college that my students regularly attend.  It’s a good place with a success story to share, but it also tries too hard.  I appreciate institutions that are self-aware and comfortable enough with their identity that they share both their strengths and their challenges in presentations to counselors, because no place is perfect.  This school chooses to present a picture that is free of any blemishes whatsoever, such that the lunch is more infomercial than discussion, and I always feel that every two minutes they ask, “Have we mentioned how good we are?”  I want to tell them that 1) Yes, they have; 2) I’m already convinced; and 3) Schools that know they’re good don’t feel the need to convince others constantly.

 

Early in the presentation I thought I heard the Dean of Admissions say that merit scholarships would be awarded only to Early Decision and Early Action applicants, and that any counselor with a regular-decision applicant interested in a merit scholarship could contact the Dean and have the student’s application moved to Early Action.  I wasn’t the only one.  The other counselors at my table exchanged glances.  Had he actually said that?  Wasn’t that a violation of the SPGP?

 

It turns out it isn’t, at least technically.  I considered filing a complaint with the Admissions Practices Committee at both NACAC and my regional affiliate (Potomac and Chesapeake), but first consulted with two friends with AP committee experience.

 

They pointed out that the relevant section of the SPGP, II.B.4 under Mandatory Practices, states that postsecondary members will “not offer exclusive incentives that provide opportunities for students applying or admitted Early Decision that are not available to students admitted under other admission options.” The SPGP deals only with incentives for Early Decision candidates. Because Early Action applicants are also eligible for merit aid, the Dean’s statement does not violate the letter of the SPGP.

 

But does it violate the spirit of the SPGP, which is that colleges and universities should not discriminate against applicants based on how and when they apply (as long as they apply by an application deadline) and that there shouldn’t be incentives to coerce students to apply or enroll?

 

That raises some larger questions.  Aren’t most marketing practices attempting to convince students to apply or enroll?  Where is the line between marketing and coercion?  Are the assumptions many of us in the profession hold about college selection being about free choice outdated in today’s competitive higher education environment?

 

My judgment and suspicion may be clouded by the fact that a couple of years back the President of the same institution announced at the same gathering that the only students admitted would be those who applied either Early Decision or Early Action.  Both deadlines had already passed, causing the Admissions Office to backtrack and scramble.  It also raised a larger question.  Why have regular decision if you don’t intend to use it?  Why not rebrand Early Action as regular decision?   

 

Both of my Admission Practices contacts suggested that the institution could have avoided even the appearance of wrongdoing by establishing a scholarship priority deadline, even if that deadline happens to be the same as the Early Action deadline.  That gives students interested in merit scholarship consideration a clear deadline and does not tie scholarship consideration to applying early.

 

I ultimately decided to contact the Dean directly rather than go through the AP complaint process, and he replied quickly and thoughtfully.  The institution has instituted a new priority deadline for scholarships this year, which was not clear on the college website.  That was partially in response to scholarship funds becoming depleted the last couple of years by a stronger early pool.  Whether he misspoke, or we misheard, the reality is that students who apply regular decision are at a disadvantage for merit scholarship funds.  The priority deadline should help families (and counselors) understand that reality.

 

Three conclusions from this experience:

 

1)    Being an eyewitness is not all it’s cracked up to be.

2)    I suspect we’ll see more admission practices that are not necessarily wrong, but not necessarily right.

3)    I may start wearing a Mr. Peanut costume to all campus visits and counselor breakfasts/lunches.

 

 

 

 

Off-Duty

My first job after college was working as an Admissions Counselor for my alma mater.  I was the junior member of a four-person staff (Director included) that was described by another college’s Admissions Dean as the best admissions staff he had ever seen.  In our first year together, we brought in a freshman class that was 90 students over budget and also the best class in college history in terms of metrics like SAT scores and class rank.

 

At the end of that year, the Director completed the required administrative evaluation for each of us.  The only thing I remember from the evaluation was that none of us received the top grade, “Exceeds Expectations,” for the category, “Is available for duties as needed.”  His rationale was that we were expected to be available 24/7 and therefore none of us could possibly exceed expectations.

 

That logic seemed as specious then as it does today (although, to be fair, it made enough of an impression that I remember it 40 years later).  But it also introduced me to a question that I struggle with every year during this season.  As college counselors, are we ever “off duty”?

 

I’m obviously not alone in struggling with that question, because I have had several conversations with colleagues around the country who are considering, or being forced to consider, holding office hours during the holiday break to help students complete applications with a January 1 deadline.

 

This may not be the right time to reflect on this topic, coming near the end of a three-month marathon (I believe the operative word is “slog”) where most of my days are consumed with thinking about recommendation letters that must be written and applications that must be processed.  Just last week my office processed close to 150 (those of you who don’t feel sorry because your load was even greater have my sympathy along with a request that you let me wallow in self-pity and not share with me how easy I have it).

 

The demands and rhythms of the college admissions season mean that I come to Christmas break (ECA doesn’t want to show up on Fox News accused of being part of the alleged war against Christmas) exhausted and, quite frankly, unable to truly enjoy the holiday.  In some years (this is one) I don’t even think about Christmas shopping until school closes for the break, and as a result you can imagine the quality and thoughtfulness of my gifts.  In most years, I will get sick between Christmas and New Year’s as my body’s defenses let down their guard.  (I just re-read this paragraph and recognize that I come across as Scroogy or even Grinchy.)

 

In any case, throughout my career my policy has been that the school and the College Counseling Office are closed during the Christmas holiday.  Any school materials that must be sent for applications a January 1 deadline have to be sent prior to the beginning of break, and I begin making daily announcements as soon as we return from Thanksgiving and talk face-to-face with any senior I think has a January 1 deadline that all January 1 giving precise instructions about when applications need to be turned in to my office.  Students can submit their applications at any point before the deadline, but my office will not process application materials during the break.  If students decide to add schools to their list on December 28, that’s fine, but transcripts and recommendations will be sent as soon as school reopens in January.

 

For the most part that policy has worked.  I have never had the experience a close college counseling friend had where a student rang her doorbell on Christmas Eve, just as her family was about to sit down for dinner, bearing not gifts but rather college applications (this was pre-electronic submission).  The policy also doesn’t mean that my office doesn’t work during the break.  My administrative assistant will generally come in for a day or two to finish processing applications while it is quiet, and we review essays and meet with students as needed, but the office, just like the school, is officially closed.

 

This may be another of those areas where the college counseling landscape is changing.  The advent of electronic submission of documents means that we can work from home during a break rather than having to go to the office.  But should we?

 

My school changed from trimesters to semesters seven or eight years ago (is it my imagination or do all schools on semesters wish they were on trimesters, and vice versa?), and one of the negative consequences is that exams are just before Christmas rather than just before Thanksgiving.  That is generally a good thing, but it imposes a greater burden on seniors with January 1 deadlines who have to work on college applications at the same time they are studying for exams.  In the past couple of years I have seen more stress in my students than ever before, and this year I have a couple of good students who seem to have shut down from the college process.  Is that driven by the calendar change, or are we seeing a new generation of students, the product of a new generation of parents?

 

The other generational change that is coming is within our profession.  I have asked before whether the next generation of college counselors and admissions officers will be as committed/neurotic as my generation.  Millennials want a balance between work life and professional life that I admire and think is healthier than I have achieved, but that poses a huge challenge to institutions whose economic model is based on employees who work beyond the contract, who are never off duty.

 

What do those changes mean for my approach to college counseling?  I have always believed that the college process is not just about getting into college, but also about readiness for college.  The application process is about developing the kind of ownership and independence that will lead to success as a college student.  How do we help students develop that ownership and still maintain a safety net?  What is appropriate help, and at what point do we not just help but enable a student in avoiding responsibility?

 

Having once again posed lots of questions and provided few answers, I am going off duty as a blogger if not as a college counselor, returning in 2017.  Thanks for reading.  Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah/Chanukah, Kwanzaa, or even Festivus, have a wonderful holiday season.

Bias

Is the college admissions process biased, either consciously or unconsciously?  Is the playing field level for all applicants, or are some students advantaged and others disadvantaged by what information colleges ask for, how they ask for it, and when they ask for it? Is an admissions process free from bias even possible?

 

Those questions are far from original, and in fact this blog has discussed issues related to fairness several times.  I’m also not convinced that “bias” is the right word.  But two recent conversations have made me reflect on the biases, assumptions, and unintended consequences attached to the application and admissions processes.

 

The first conversation was with a retired admissions dean whose opinions I trust greatly.  He observed that the admissions process is biased towards kids who are verbal, who are able to write well.  I think that’s true, with possible exception of engineering applicants, but I would also amend his hypothesis to “write well in a certain way.”  The personal essay is a different, and perhaps even peculiar, form of writing, and many students who are perfectly good academic and analytical writers struggle with the personal essay format.

 

Another dean for whom I have great respect but who is nowhere near retirement, Lee Coffin at Dartmouth, has observed that a student’s voice (activities, essays, recommendations) is more important in the admissions process at highly-selective colleges and universities than data (transcript, test scores) because every competitive applicant has superb data, making the voice piece what distinguishes among applicants. 

 

That raises two questions.  How much does a personal essay reveal about applicants, especially when so many personal essays are crafted with so much assistance?  I used to think I could identify a legitimate Ivy candidate just by the depth of thought and creative flair found in their essays, but I’m not as sure today.  The other question is whether the personal essay actually translates into the kind of writing and thinking that a college student will be required to do.

 

The second conversation was with the Executive Director of one of the nation’s leading merit scholarship competitions.  The scholarship recognizes excellence in scholarship, citizenship, and leadership.  Just as almost all the applicants to highly selective institutions have outstanding data, making voice more important, in the scholarship competition all the nominees have outstanding scholarship and citizenship, making leadership the most important of the three supposedly equal “legs.”

 

I wondered if the scholarship foundation was thinking any differently about what signifies leadership.  In her best-selling book, Quiet, Susan Cain argues that the unique leadership strengths of introverts are often overlooked in a culture that values a certain style of leader.  Another scholarship competition has moved away from judging nominees based on resumes and elected leadership positions to looking for evidence of the growth mindset identified by Carol Dweck, defining leadership as making a difference rather than holding office.

 

The answer was that the scholarship process had always recognized that leadership comes in many forms, but the Executive Director also commented that the nature of the scholarship competition is very different from, and potentially alien to, schools with an ethos of modesty and self-deprecation.  The scholarship competition is not necessarily designed this way, but it advantages those who are at best self-confident and at worst self-promoting. 

 

Are there other examples of admissions procedures or conventions that may have unintended consequences?  Much of what passes for merit, particularly heavy reliance on test scores for admission or scholarship consideration, may actually reflect socioeconomic privilege, advantaging those who are already advantaged.  Colleges that admit half their freshman class under Early Decision or Early Action help students from affluent, educated families or who have access to savvy college counseling.

 

Not all the consequences of admission practice may be unintended.  Jerome Karabel’s fascinating history of admission at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, The Chosen, argues that application mainstays such as essays and recommendation letters were put in place back in the 1920’s to make sure that the “right” kind of applicants were admitted to keep the percentage of Jewish students in check, to make admission to college more like admission to a social or country club.

 

Fortunately the admissions process today does not seek to exclude certain groups, although some Asian-American groups would beg to differ.  But admission, particularly in hyper-selective places, is a zero-sum game.  Valuing or giving preference for one type of skill or talent may disadvantage those with a different skill set, and making progress with one type of diversity may hurt a different kind of diversity.

 

Karabel’s history identifies three epochs in the selective college admissions process.  First came Best Student, where the evaluation was based purely on academic preparation.  Then came Best Graduate, where personal qualities assumed greater importance.  The current epoch is Best Class, where the aim of the admissions process is not admitting individuals but rather a class full of differences that helps an institution achieve a variety of institutional goals.

 

Is it time for a new epoch?  I don’t pretend to know the answer, but I hope we will question the admissions process we currently have.  Do we ask the right questions and measure the right qualities?  Do our assumptions stand scrutiny?  Are there subtle, unintended biases?  Do we have an admissions process we’re proud of, or merely one we’re satisfied with?

 

 

College Admission as Resume' Building

Several weeks ago the communications office at my school sent out a news story that caught my eye, especially when viewed through my ECA lens.  The story was about one of our juniors having been selected as a “Richmond Forum Scholar.” 

 

The Richmond Forum is a subscription speaker series, the largest of its kind in the United States, that brings speakers ranging from Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to Jane Goodall and Steven Spielberg to Richmond.  Each year the Richmond Forum selects five area high school juniors as “Richmond Forum Scholars” for what the Forum website describes as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” (a description that seems just a bit hyperbolic).  The students selected are essentially interns whose responsibilities include staffing VIP receptions, escorting speakers, introducing speakers to student groups, and additional duties as required.  I’m not sure how selective the program is--my students who have been selected have been great kids, but I’ve also had a couple of great candidates who didn’t get selected.

 

What got my attention was a sentence that listed one of the benefits of being a Richmond Forum Scholar as the opportunity to list it on college applications.  That bothered me, so I walked over to the communications office to talk to the new staff member who had written the story.  It turned out that phrasing had come directly from the Richmond Forum website.

 

It will not surprise those who know me or who read this blog on a regular basis that I am skeptical of the claim that being a Richmond Forum Scholar will provide the promised college admission benefits.  It certainly isn’t a negative in any respect, but is it a plus factor, enhancing one’s chances of being admitted? Is this the kind of thing that impresses admissions officers?

 

I would assume that the students selected for the program have been chosen because they are already outstanding and involved in their schools and community. For none of them will being a Richmond Forum Scholar constitute their most important activity.  Their selection probably doesn’t significantly enhance their extracurricular record or their college chances.

 

But even it was a student’s sole extracurricular commitment, how significant would it be?  It’s a nice experience and an opportunity, although perhaps not once-in-a-lifetime, to meet famous people.  But from what I know of the program, it is in no way compelling. It’s certainly not comparable to curing cancer or winning the Nobel Peace Prize. The greatest college admission benefit of being a Richmond Forum Scholar is not the title, but the fact that you have been selected from a pool of outstanding students from throughout the community.

 

This case begs the kind of larger questions this blog loves to pose.  What is the value of extracurricular activities in the college admission process?  Is quantity of activities important or quality of activities?  Should activities be chosen because of the experience they provide or because they impress admission officers?  And what does it take to impress admission officers?

 

Those questions are relevant because the Richmond Forum is far from the only organization promising, or overpromising, college admission benefits. College admissions advantage seems to be a core marketing strategy for any program aiming to make a living off the anxiety that students and parents experience from the college process.

 

A number of years ago a former parent and Lower School faculty member at my school started a business advising students on summer opportunities, and for several years my Head of School contracted her services.  She was very knowledgeable and had done her research, but I didn’t buy the fundamental premise behind her business, that participating in summer programs would have college admissions benefits. I never found that to be the case.

 

There is as much mythology about the role of extracurricular interests as there is about other parts of the college admissions process.  Several years ago one of my student applying to the Ivies listed 17 different significant activities.  When I advised him to prioritize and cut the list, he said he couldn’t, that all were important. He actually added a couple more at the urging of his mother.  He wanted to send a message about the breadth of his extracurricular interests, and he did, but it was not the message he thought.  Because he cared about everything, he appeared to truly care about nothing.

 

Do some activities carry more value in the admissions process?  A commonly-held belief is that colleges love community service.  That’s true, but probably less true than the days when community service was relatively rare.  Not all community service is equally impressive.  Long-term service is preferable to short-tern service, and there is a clear difference between service that is voluntary, service that fulfills a graduation requirement, and service that is court-mandated.

 

The belief that activities should be chosen because of their college admission value is part of a larger phenomenon.  Is preparing for college (and life) about accumulating experiences or about building a resume?  About substance, or the illusion of substance?

 

Back in the spring, the “Turning the Tide” report produced by the Making Caring Common initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education argued that the college admission process could serve society by valuing students who want to serve the common good rather than enhance their resume.  That’s a laudable goal.  But it ignores the more important question, which is whether the current admissions process, especially at super-selective institutions, encourages and rewards students who are about building resumes.  And, if so, what are the implications for those institutions?  

 

 

 

Suppose that a certain activity or honor by itself had the ability to move a student’s application into the acceptance pile.  Should we advise our students to pursue that activity?  I’m torn, with cognitive and moral dissonance.  As a college counselor, it’s my responsibility to provide my students with information about the realities of the college process, even if I find those realities repugnant.  At the same time, as a human being, should I enable a process that is in conflict with my values? 

 

Thankfully, that’s not a dilemma I face on a daily basis.  After my visit to the communications office, the reference to the college admissions benefits of being chosen as a Richmond Forum Scholar was deleted from the news story.  

 

The China Syndrome, Part 2

The most recent ECA post dealt with issues arising from the Chinese company Dipont bringing admissions officers from prestigious American colleges and universities to China for a summer workshop on applying to American colleges.  The ethical issues had to do with paying travel expenses and, in some cases, an honorarium, and Dipont’s marketing the admissions officers’ attendance as evidence of a special relationship the company had with those colleges.  (That post was featured in Inside Higher Ed’s “Around the Web” section, recognition that always means a lot.)

 

After the post was published, I received an interesting e-mail from Judy Oberlander from the Ojai Valley School in California.  Judy reported that she had been among a group of high school counselors invited by Dipont to come to China and work both with students and counselors.  Judy has given me permission to share her perspective on her Dipont experience, and it appears below, with minor edits.

 

 

I've been following the news about Dipont with interest because I (and several other US high school counselors) spent several summers in China working at a Dipont summer camp for Chinese high school students.  We were initially recruited by Bruce Hammond, who quit Dipont in June of 2010, just before we started the summer program.  Bruce was upset about dishonesty and cheating in China.  I had several phone conversations with him.  He assured us that he felt that we would be treated well and that the camp was a legitimate operation. That first summer nine of us went to China, five to Nanjing and four to Shenzhen.  I returned for the next two summers to Shanghai along with several of the original counselors and some others as well. 

 

I found the camp to be fairly well run (although things are always different in China), the people were nice, and the students were almost all great kids.  We were each responsible for 14 -16 students for two weeks, taking them through the application process, writing essays, practicing interviews, making college lists, the whole thing.  We each worked with 2 or 3 counselors from Chinese high schools so that they could observe a college counseling program.  These counselors were supposed to be learning from us so that they could work with students in their schools on applying for admission to US/UK schools.  All of the Chinese counselors I worked with were great people, and I still keep in touch with some of them as well as with some of my former students. 

 

As part of the program we had a steady stream of college reps from "name" schools who presented their spiel and then sat in on the classes and talked with students.  They were all nice people, and I never got the impression that they thought they were being used or that the students thought they were getting special access.   However, we (US counselors) did notice that the college reps always seemed to be treated like visiting celebrities while we were just everyday counselors.  We thought it was funny because most of those reps were not directors; mostly they were regular admissions reps who did not have a lot of clout.  One friend (now a Director of Admission) visited some Dipont schools around the same time and she told me that her institution had been approached by Dipont with what sounded like expectations of special treatment in admissions.  That was the end of their relationship. 

 

Dipont has a relationship with a number of public schools in China.  They established an AP/IB curriculum for students who did not intend to stay in China for college but who wanted to go to another country.  They recruited teachers from the US, Canada, and the UK.  By 2012 (my last summer) they had hired a number of US high school counselors to work in their schools.  The counselors that I knew were committed to helping the Chinese students make honest applications.  I have heard that these programs are controversial because admission to these public schools is very selective, but admission to the AP/IB programs is not.

 

I had a wonderful time those three summers and I learned a lot.  So I was very disappointed to learn that Dipont too was caught up in the frenzy.  A number of people that I know worked for them full time, and it is sad to know that the company has acquired this reputation.

 

One funny thing happened during the summer of 2011.  I was at the Shanghai airport with another friend waiting for our flight to Los Angeles and we ran into the Directors of Admission from three UC schools waiting for the same plane.  They had been at a camp sponsored by another company.  I'm sure they were a big draw.  I have no idea how much money they were paid.  I wish Dipont had offered me first class airfare, but I was just happy that they paid for my trip and put me up in a hotel for the duration of the camp.

 

I want to make it clear and I, and most people I know, are a bit dubious about the way things are done in China.  I think Dipont was really trying to do a good thing; establishing the AP/IB programs is one of those good things.  And they really seemed to want us US counselors to share how we do things with Chinese counselors so they understood how the applications work.

 

 

I appreciate Judy sharing her experience and her perspective on Dipont.

 

 

Dipont Circle

My first opportunity to serve our profession (beyond my daily counseling role) was as the assistant program chair for the Potomac and Chesapeake Association for College Admission Counseling conference in the spring of 1991.  I had no idea that role would set me on a path that would eventually lead to serving as President of NACAC.

 

The conference was in Wilmington, Delaware, and the committee chair (my friend Lucy Neale Duke, currently a counselor at the McDonough School outside Baltimore) and I proposed that the conference theme be “Better Living Through Counseling,” a take-off on “Better Living Through Chemistry,” the slogan of Delaware’s leading corporate entity, DuPont. Unfortunately, the other members of the conference planning committee did not share our enthusiasm.

 

I was reminded of that theme several weeks ago when I saw that a Reuters investigation was alleging that a company had bought access to admissions officers at a number of top American colleges. At first glance I thought the company in question was DuPont, and wondered why a chemical company would diversify into the world of college admissions, but upon further review (as they always say after NFL replays), I realized that the company in question was not DuPont but the Chinese company Dipont.

 

The controversy surrounding Dipont is three-fold.  At a basic level Dipont has been paying admissions officers from prestigious American colleges and universities, covering travel expenses and in some cases providing cash honoraria, to come to China for a summer program advising Chinese students who are Dipont clients on how to apply to American colleges.  At a more complex level Dipont advertises itself as having a special relationship with those colleges, promising that the admissions officers become “exclusive consultants” to Dipont clients.  And the ultimate underlying issue is that Dipont has been accused by former employees of encouraging behavior ranging from writing application essays for clients to changing high school transcripts.

 

Dipont (or should we call it Dipont-gate?) is, in other words, a textbook case study of the ethical challenges of recruiting in China.  American colleges and universities look to China as a source of bright, full-pay students, but entering the Chinese market means entering a game where it is hard to know whether you are a player or being played.

 

Let’s attempt to sort through the ethical issues present in this case.

 

First of all, there is nothing necessarily wrong or questionable in an admissions officer having his or her travel reimbursed to attend the eight-day admissions workshop or serve as a presenter.  That’s common practice in the United States.  What is questionable is that it’s not clear that Dipont’s compensation was limited to travel reimbursement.  According to the Reuters article, during the past two summers each admissions person received compensation worth $4500, with the option of receiving business-class airfare or economy-class airfare plus a cash honorarium.  According to a Dipont consultant, one-quarter to one-third went for the second option.  When an honorarium was paid, it was ordinarily done in cash, usually with $100 bills.  I probably watch too much Law and Order, but payment by C-note is generally reserved for activities that are either illicit or likely to embarrass your mother. 

 

Ignoring the method of payment, is there anything wrong with an admissions officer accepting an honorarium in addition to being reimbursed for travel?  That’s a more complicated question.  The NACAC Statement of Principles of Good Practice does not speak to that issue (although in light of the Reuters article, that may be about to change).  But should an admissions officer receive payment, whether by check or in cash, for presenting at an event such as that workshop sponsored by Dipont?

 

That requires answering another question.  Was Dipont contracting with admissions officers as individuals or as institutional representatives?  In other words, were the individuals invited because of their personal experience and expertise as college counseling professionals, or were they invited because of where they worked?  If their presence at the Dipont event was tied to their knowledge of the college admissions process and not their institutional affiliation, then accepting payment for services rendered is appropriate, as long as Dipont is advertising them as representing their institution.  If they were invited because of their institutional role, then their remuneration should come from their employer, as part of their official duties on behalf of the college or university.  If they were paid by both, is there potential for conflict of interest?

 

I think it’s clear what Dipont’s motivation was.  It was marketing access rather than knowledge.  The admission officers’ presence at the Dipont workshop implied a special relationship for Dipont clients at the colleges and universities represented.   

 

From an institutional standpoint, are the colleges and universities involved complicit in sending the “special relationship” message?  Should they have known better?  Several years ago, when NACAC was considering expanding its college fair program to China, there were clear red flags.  Representatives from the State Department advised members of the NACAC Board not to allow anyone in China to take their photo, lest the photo appear as evidence of NACAC sponsorship or support of some event or agency? An American working in China responded to concerns about fraud and misrepresentation by saying, “Of course they are going to cheat.” Did the desire for easy access into the Chinese market override concerns about ethics or propriety?

 

That question must be asked because the Reuters article quotes eight former Dipont employees who report that the company’s business practices are at the forefront of the application and credentials fraud that is endemic in China.  That is ironic in that a non-profit set up by Dipont, the Council for American Culture and Education, has given $750,000 to the Center for Enrollment Research, Policy, and Practice at the University of Southern California to create a program to combat fraud among Chinese applicants to American colleges.

 

Is dealing with fraud a consequence, unintended or recognized, of trying to recruit in China?  Can we maintain our values and ethical standards in a culture where the norms are very different?  Where is the line between being compensated and being bought?  Hopefully the Dipont case will provoke new introspection and discussion about the tension between ethics and enrollment goals.

 

 

 

The Ides of October

“Beware the Ides of March,” a soothsayer told Julius Caesar (the character) in Julius Caesar (the Shakespeare play).

 

As with any great work of art, that line raises more questions than it answers.  What ever happened to soothsaying as a profession?  How did one get credentialed as a soothsayer—bachelor’s degree from a for-profit college, associate’s degree from a community college, certificate program? For that matter, what exactly is sooth, and why don’t we have more of it?  Is there something unique about the Ides of March, or should we be worried about all Ides?

 

It’s October, not March, and I find the Ides of October plenty intimidating (although that, forsooth, may just be my innate sense of paranoia and doom shining through).   I may not be seeing things clearly as I gaze through the lens of the pile of things that must be done by November 1, and in my office an October Surprise refers not to Hillary Clinton’s e-mail or Donald Trump’s mouth, but rather a student who makes my blood pressure rise by announcing that he has a November 1 application ten days after the announced internal deadline.

 

On most days I feel like the plate spinners who used to appear on variety shows on television, focusing on whichever plate is about to topple and crash without ever seeing all the plates spinning smoothly.  What ever happened to those guys?  For that matter, what ever happened to variety shows? Both can be found in the same retirement community as soothsayers.

 

Over the past few weeks three unrelated incidents have caused me to reflect on some big picture issues impacting our profession.

 

Last week a friend and colleague informed me that he was thinking about hiring an independent consultant for his son, one of my seniors.  He said that was not intended as a criticism of me or my office, but he and his wife are not seeing the son moving as fast on applications as they might like, and are worried that the son might be paralyzed by the prospect of writing college essays.  The son has no pressing deadlines and is focused on soccer and Student Council.  He doesn’t want an independent counselor and plans to write essays over Thanksgiving break, but hasn’t necessarily communicated that, subscribing to the classic teen strategy of controlling parents by controlling information.

 

It was hard not to take it personally.  I believe in personalizing the college process and in providing exceptional customer service, and I don’t want to believe that my students need outside help when one of the benefits they should be receiving for their tuition dollars is superb college counseling.  At the same time, I am struggling during this month just processing applications and writing recommendation letters for students with a pressing deadline (the plates about to topple), with little time to attend to students who aren’t in crisis.  I also believe philosophically that it is essential that students take ownership of this process with adults in a support role, but I see more students who don’t seem to be ready or willing to be independent.  Is the expectation of college counseling going to change to managing the process rather than advising students and parents?  Can I, or do I want to, make that change?

 

That ties into the second issue.  At the NACAC Conference in Columbus I attended the featured presentation on brain development by Dr. Frances Jensen from the University of Pennsylvania, author of The Teenage Brain.  Her presentation did an excellent job of connecting brain development in adolescents and young adults with issues such as addiction and the onset of mental illnesses such as bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia.  I thought she would be a good speaker for my students and parents, only to learn that: 1) her fee is a challenge to our budget; and 2) I’m in the wrong business.

 

The issue she didn’t explicitly address is the connection between brain development and the college admissions process.  Given the developmental issues with the adolescent brain, how do we design a college process that promotes discernment and measures readiness for the college experience?  Can the college search be a bridge between adolescence and adulthood, or is that a pipedream?  Do colleges think about teenagers when they establish admission deadlines that force kids to make major decisions about their future before they may be ready?  Do we need to rethink both the timing and the content of the admission process?

 

The third issue came up last Friday, when I did a session at the Virginia Association of Independent Schools conference with my good friend Brian Leipheimer from the Collegiate School.  The conference theme was “The Gift of Failure,” taken from keynote speaker Jessica Lahey’s bestselling book of the same title, and our session title was “The Fallacy of Failure,” talking about the challenges independent schools face as they balance their educational beliefs and goals with the external pressures related to the college admissions process. 

 

Our expectation was that absolutely no one would attend our session, and we were shocked (or, to quote my son when he won a track event back in 5th grade, “dumfounded”) when we had a standing-room only crowd.  A colleague who attended described our presentation as “inspirational and depressing.”  I’m not sure that was exactly the vibe we were hoping for.

 

I often tell parents that the college process tests what you truly believe—about college admission, about parenting, about life.  That is just as true for schools. 

 

Do schools that advertise themselves as college-preparatory truly believe that failure is a gift?  The answer is a resounding “maybe.”  We know that learning to deal with failure is part of preparing for successful adulthood, that you can’t develop persistence if you never have to persist, but does that carry over to college admission?  An independent school ad campaign premised on a slogan like “We help your child fail” is as likely as a mission statement promising academic adequacy or pretty-goodness rather than excellence.

 

The ultimate issue is whether the college admissions piece of the school’s mission outweighs the educational mission (whether those should be in sync is a discussion for another time).  Is what the school provides college placement or college counseling?  Do we market ourselves only by referring to certain colleges, or are we proud of the college journey and the college destination for every one of our students?  What data points indicate academic quality and what data points are misleading?  Do we tell prospective parents what they want to hear or what they need to know?

 

Those are the questions.  If only I could find a soothsayer to provide the answers.     

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prior-Prior, Pants on Fire

I have found myself thinking about storms a lot lately. This is the middle of the tropical storm season in the Atlantic and Caribbean, and as I write this Hurricane Matthew has hit the Florida coast after ravaging Haiti, and coastal residents throughout the southeast have been advised to evacuate.

 

A different kind of storm season came to an official end without apparent incident last Saturday. Over the past year there has been a lot of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing over the feared perfect storm of changes to the college admissions process—new SAT, the Coalition, early FAFSA--impacting students in the Class of 2017.  The immediate threat from that Bermuda Triangle of admissions changes (how’s that for a metaphor that’s both tropical and mixed?) passed with the October 1 date allowing students and families to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid three months earlier than in previous years.

 

It’s too early to draw conclusions about the threat or damage from any of the changes, but it seems safe to say that predictions that the college admissions process as we know it might get blown up aren’t going to play out in 2016-2017. At the NACAC Conference in Columbus College Board President David Coleman said the right things in apologizing for the clumsy rollout of the new test and problems with reporting scores in a timely fashion.  The Coalition was nowhere near as visible or talked about as a year ago, and I suspect that’s deliberate to buy a year to make sure the application platform works as promised.

 

Of the three changes, I have felt that the earlier availability of the FAFSA and the ability for families to use “prior-prior” year tax information in applying for financial aid has the greatest potential impact on college admission.  One long-time (or “seasoned,” the euphemism my youthful new boss is using to describe me) admissions dean I respect predicted last fall that “prior-prior” could mean the end of the May 1 Candidates Reply Date as colleges move up application and financial aid deadlines for competitive advantage. I hope that won’t prove to be the case. 

 

Prior-prior is another skirmish in the war over whether college admission will be a profession or a business.  That is, of course, hardly an either/or distinction.  The “college admission as business” train left the station a long time ago.  There is no question that college admission is a business.  Whether it qualifies as a profession is still up for grabs.

 

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning history of the medical profession, Paul Starr argues that three things are characteristic of professions.  One is an orientation toward service rather than profit.  Second is self-regulation, with standards of good practice and a code of ethics.  Third is authority based on technical, specialized knowledge.

 

Starr’s definition exposes the existential dilemma those of us who are college admission/college counseling practitioners face.  We like to talk about college admission as a profession devoted to serving students, but those who employ us do so not primarily for the service we provide but for the net revenue (profit) we produce.  College counseling and admission increasingly require specialized knowledge and expertise, but joining the profession doesn’t involve a particular credential, and the school counseling establishment treats college counseling as a stepchild or afterthought.  And while concern for self-regulation and professional ethics has been the cornerstone for NACAC since its founding more than 75 years ago, today market pressures create a constant tension between institutional self-interest and the public interest.

 

So what does this have to do with the earlier availability to file the FAFSA and the ability for families to use tax information from the prior-prior year (if a student is entering college in 2017, they use 2015 tax information on the FAFSA)? 

 

Last fall, when the Obama Administration announced the move to an earlier FAFSA, I heard colleagues at small, private, tuition-driven institutions anticipating that earlier FAFSA availability would have three unintended consequences:

 

1) consumers expecting earlier aid offers;

2) a market where institutions would encourage students to apply for admissions and financial aid even earlier; and

3) potential for an arms race where institutions are pressuring students to make earlier commitments.

 

I have yet to see that happening widely this fall, but it may be that colleges and universities are spending this year adjusting their financial aid processes to align with the Federal changes.  A recent article by Beckie Supiano in the Chronicle of Higher Education showed that different segments of the higher education community are preparing differently, but results from a recent survey suggest that two-thirds of colleges anticipate significant changes in their enrollment and financial-aid operations. 

 

How significant those changes are depend on an institution’s market position and on where it falls on the business vs. profession spectrum.  At a basic level, prior-prior means that the time frame for financial aid, both for families and for institutions, can be decompressed.  Families don’t have to wait until January to receive their year-end tax information to file the FAFSA, and colleges have more time to process aid packages.  Students can make thoughtful decisions about where to apply with better information about what is affordable.  That supports our profession’s emphasis on college decisions based on good information and fit.  It serves our students and us well.

 

Where Prior-Prior becomes dangerous is when it becomes a tool for competitive advantage.  We don’t need application and financial aid timelines accelerated any more than they already are, we don’t need earlier application deadlines, and we don’t need new incentives to coerce students to commit earlier.  We also don’t need a culture where financial aid becomes an extended negotiation, although that may be an unintended consequence.  A greater emphasis on yield activities is also likely to be a consequence.

 

It is too early to know whether the winds of change emanating from Prior-Prior are refreshing breezes or hurricane force.  Storm-like conditions bring out both the best and worst of humanity.  I hope our profession will weather the coming storm without evacuating our principles. 

Thoughts on Penn (but not Teller)

On Friday afternoon, three hours after my post referencing the University of Pennsylvania’s new Early Decision guidelines, the University sent out an announcement from Dean of Admissions Eric Furda that Penn is returning to its previous policy of allowing students who apply Early Decision to Penn to submit applications to non-binding Early Action programs as well.

 

If I were (more) egotistical and self-promoting, I would claim responsibility for the change, but I think it is clear that Penn had heard a variety of voices questioning the new policy and that the change was already in the works.  I applaud Eric Furda and his staff for being willing to reverse course. 

 

Being ethical is not about avoiding mistakes altogether, but rather how you deal with your mistakes.  Admitting a mistake in judgment is not a weakness, but rather a strength.  That might be good advice for any Presidential candidate, and particularly one who happens to be a Penn alum.

 

In an article in The Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn’s student newspaper, Eric Furda made the point that Early Decision is a commitment that shouldn’t be taken lightly.  That sentiment was at the heart of the change in policy to restrict other early applications, and I happen to agree.  There is a debate to be had within our profession about whether Early Decision and Early Action programs should be abolished altogether, but I tend to think that Early programs constitute a legitimate part of the admissions process.  We need to make sure that early application programs don’t benefit applicants who are already privileged, and we need to make sure that there are consistent definitions and procedures in place.  I hope that discussion of those definitions will become part of the work of the Steering Committee that NACAC has appointed to review the Statement of Principles of Good Practice (in the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of that group).

 

I received several e-mails about Friday’s post, all appreciated, but want to mention a couple of them.  Matt Sweeney from Scarsdale High School wrote to ask if I had confused “Restrictive Early Action” with “Single Choice Early Action.”  Perhaps—I was using “Restrictive” as a blanket term, but technically there are differences between Georgetown’s Restrictive Early Action and the Single Choice Early Action programs at places like Yale.  That reinforces my larger point that it is in none of our interests to have too many different early plans with too many nuances.

 

Jon Reider from San Francisco University High School, a loyal reader and correspondent of this blog, was interested in the question I asked about at what point the Early Decision commitment takes place, at application or upon deposit.  Jon said that as a counselor he has always considered the application itself as the commitment.  That is actually the same for me.  I always advise my students that they shouldn’t apply Early Decision unless they have already determined without question that the school where they are applying ED is their clear first choice, and once or twice I have told a student that they were not ready to apply Early Decision after they told me on Friday that they were applying Early Decision to one college and on Monday that they were applying ED to a different institution.  It wasn’t until deconstructing (or perhaps over-deconstructing) the issue while writing the post last week that I realized that we assume that Early Decision is a commitment at the time of application but that we nevertheless ask for a deposit after the student is accepted.  So which actually constitutes the commitment?

 

Jon also pointed out the other side of the Early Decision bargain, which is that colleges provide extra consideration in admission for Early Decision applicants because of the implied commitment from the student, and that it is student failure to understand or appreciate the added consideration that roils colleges and causes them to try to restrict the other schools to which Early Decision or Early Action applicants may apply.

 

By the way, Jon also volunteered that if he were elected Czar of Colleges Admissions with unlimited power, he would abolish all early application options, abolish all standardized testing, and limit applications from any student to a reasonable number.  I think an election for Czar of College Admissions would be far more interesting than any election I’ll get to vote in this fall.  I also like Jon’s platform, although I worry that the economy might suffer due to declining profits in the domestic test prep industry unless, like Wall Street banks and the auto industry, test prep is deemed “Too big to fail.” 

 

Last week I spent two days with students at the Loudoun Academy of Science in Sterling, Virginia talking about ethics (not college admissions ethics, just ethics).  We talked about Socrates, who in The Apology argues that as a citizen you are obligated to follow the laws of society even when those laws are unjust, and then lived out that belief by drinking poison rather than escaping after being convicted of treason. 

 

As a college counseling citizen, I think it is my obligation to advise my students to follow the rules for applying even when those rules may not make sense.  I also have obligations as a member of a profession and as an ethical individual that limit my ability to support students and parents who may not want to obey those rules.  I am blessed to work in a school where commitment is taken seriously, where my ethical values are consonant with those of my colleagues, and where I am unlikely to be forced to drink hemlock for following my conscience.

 

Thanks to Penn for listening to the counseling community and responding.

 

ECA is off to NACAC.

Restrictive Early Decision

What will they think of next? First there was Early Decision.  Then came Early Action, an opportunity for a student to receive an admissions decision early but without obligation to commit to enroll. 

 

That morphed into Restrictive Early Action.  As I have previously argued, I have always felt that Restrictive EA is a misnomer.  Restrictive Early Action is really non-binding Early Decision. 

 

When NACAC defined early admission options back in the 1990s, it drew the line between Early Decision and Early Action as binding vs. non-binding.  That was certainly a defensible choice at the time, but within a couple of years several of the Ivies and other highly selective schools sought to keep their Early Action application numbers from going through the roof and threatened to leave NACAC unless they were allowed to implement Restrictive Early Action.  Had the ED/EA distinction been built around single choice/multiple choice rather than binding/non-binding, those schools would have operated a form of Early Decision, where a student applies to a single school during the early application, but allowed students to wait until May 1 to deposit.

 

Does Restrictive Early Action constitute restraint of trade?  Students are told that they may apply early as long as they refrain from applying to a particular class of institutions at the same time.  The same is true of Early Decision, but with ED there is an implied contract between college and student that in exchange for a commitment to enroll if accepted, the student will receive a decision earlier than other applicants.  There is benefit to both parties.

 

That is not the case in Restrictive EA. It can be argued, of course, that the rules of Restrictive Early Action don’t prevent students from applying to other institutions, just from applying to those institutions early, so no restraint of trade.  But as institutions take larger percentages of their freshman classes early (which happens more with ED than EA), having to wait to apply to a school until the regular application process may severely jeopardize a student’s chances of being admitted.  Given that one original justification of Restricted Early Action was to limit Early Action numbers, has Restrictive Early Action become a descendent of the Overlap Group, where the federal government concluded that the practice of colleges standardizing financial aid offers was a potential antitrust violation?

 

So what will they think of next?  Now we have the answer to that question.  In the past week there has been considerable chatter among counselors on e-lists such that run by ACCIS about the University of Pennsylvania’s new “Restrictive” Early Decision plan.

 

Penn doesn’t call its plan “Restrictive,” but it has definitely increased the limitations it places on Early Decision, to the point that its Early Decision plan is more restrictive than any other plan I’m aware of (although not quite as restrictive as I believed up until a couple of minutes ago, as I had originally read it as restricting applications to public university EA programs).  Penn says that Early Decision applicants may not simultaneously apply to any other Early Decision, Restrictive Early Action, or Early Action program, with the following exceptions:

 

            --Public colleges or universities with non-binding early admission;  

            --Foreign colleges and universities;

            --Any college or university with a non-binding early scholarship deadline.

 

The restriction that is new is on applying to ordinary (as opposed to Restrictive) Early Action programs.  Which begs the question, Why the change?  I asked a member of the Penn Admissions staff earlier this week during the annual group travel with Harvard, Stanford, Duke, and Georgetown.  Apparently Penn is seeing more cases where students who apply Early Decision and are accepted instead accept an Early Action offer from another school (some of the e-list chatter named places like MIT and Chicago).  I don’t know if this a new phenomenon, but Penn’s statement on Early Decision also makes clear that “Penn’s Early Decision program supersedes (emphasis theirs) any other early notifications.  If you are admitted to Penn, then you are expected to enroll.”

 

That raises another question.  At what point does a student who applies to an Early Decision program commit to enroll?  Is it at the point of applying, or is it at the point where the student deposits after being accepted?  It is clearly unethical for a student to renege on an Early Decision commitment after depositing, but is it unethical for a student admitted through Early Decision to decide not to accept the offer of admission?  My assumption as a counselor has always been that a student should not enter into an Early Decision agreement unless he or she is absolutely sure about the intend to enroll, with the one reason to back out being for financial reasons, but is an Early Decision application the same thing as an enrollment deposit?  If so, should Penn increase the Early Decision application fee to equal the enrollment deposit (with a refund for students not accepted), and would that accomplish the same objective as prohibiting students from applying to all other Early Action programs?

 

Long time readers of this blog know that we love posing questions without providing answers, but this development raises some broader questions for our profession.  Early admission programs are good for some colleges and some students, but are they good for college admission as a whole?  What values does early admission promote and what values does it subvert?  Is it time to rethink the definitions found in the Statement of Principles of Good Practice?  Do we want to return to the days when every college and university has its own application guidelines and restrictions?  Is there any way to enforce Early Decision at a time when a new generation of students and parents may understand “commitment” differently?  Will those who choose to game the system find ways to do so no matter what the rules are?

 

I understand Penn’s concerns, but I’m far from convinced that, to quote Gilbert and Sullivan, “the punishment fits the crime.”  Our profession needs to have a big-picture conversation about early admission and other admissions practices to make sure that we work together to maintain public trust in what college admission and the college admission profession stands for. 

 

We should pay heed to an American icon whose list of accomplishments includes founding a great university, none other than the University of Pennsylvania, in fact. Benjamin Franklin told the signers of the Declaration of Independence, “We must all hang together, or most assuredly, we will all hang separately.”  That’s true for our profession as well.  

While We Were Away, Part Two

The previous post commented on the rollout of the Coalition Application.  Here are some other news stories and developments from the summer:

 

ITEM:  Reuters reports breach of SAT test questions.

 

In early August Reuters reported that it had been leaked questions and answers developed for the new SAT, including 21 reading passages and 160 math problems.  That is roughly enough material for four versions of the test.  Test security has been a concern for the College Board, especially in Asia, but previous concerns have revolved around the re-use of test questions.  The material leaked to Reuters involves test questions in development. 

 

Who is responsible?  A disgruntled employee?  Julian Assange and Wikileaks?  Vladimir Putin?  It’s one thing to hack and make public e-mails from Hillary Clinton, the Democratic National Committee, the Department of State, or the National Security Agency, but when you target the College Board and SAT, you’re hitting too close to home.  You might as well be releasing secret documents showing that apple pie doesn’t contain apples or that major league baseball players use Performance Enhancing Drugs.

 

 

ITEM:  Haverford announces shift to need-aware admission.

 

In late June Haverford College became the latest prominent liberal-arts college to announce that it will be need-aware in filling the final few places in its freshman class.  Schools like Wesleyan and Macalester have previously made the move, and a number of other schools, including Grinnell, have considered it as an option.

 

This is a complicated issue with no good answer, as demonstrated by an Inside Higher Ed article in July.  I have written about this issue several times previously, so here are a few observations arising out of the Haverford announcement.

 

Following the announcement, Haverford student Hannah Krohn wrote an article for the student newspaper arguing that “Upholding the need-blind admissions policy is upholding a moral principle.”  But is need-blind admission a moral principle or a moral dilemma?  Need-blind admission is a worthy ideal but a challenge to maintain in today’s economic climate.  Admitting students without regard to ability to pay is certainly a moral principle, but so is stewardship of financial resources and long-term sustainability.

 

Ms. Krohn also argues that “Haverford will inevitably become less diverse” as a result of the move away from need-blind purity.  That is a legitimate worry, but hardly inevitable if need-aware admission operates only on the margins.  Haverford’s decision is not necessarily a move down the slippery slope.  (The slippery-slope argument is sometimes called the “Camel’s Nose in the Tent.”  Apparently if you are out camping and encounter a stray camel you shouldn’t let its nose inside your tent, or before you know it you will have a permanent tent-guest.)

 

What are the optics of becoming need-aware? Several years ago George Washington University got negative publicity after claiming to be need-blind when it wasn’t. Does moving away from need-blind send a negative message about a school’s openness or commitment to socioeconomic diversity? Does being need-aware turn full-pay students into a type of diversity or special talent?  Higher education is certainly a business, but do we want the public to see that the man behind the curtain is not the Wizard of Oz?

 

The real dilemma for all but a few wealthy institutions is whether to admit without regard to need or whether to provide full funding for admitted students.  That isn’t an either/or question, of course.  I have previously argued that providing an admissions decision based on the student’s qualifications is the ethical imperative, with providing financial aid virtuous or supererogatory rather than obligatory. At the same time, while financial aid may not be an entitlement, there seems something wrong with admitting students with high need and then gapping them thousands of dollars.

 

 

ITEM:  NYU will ignore the Common App “checkbox” on criminal, discipline history

 

I predict that the role of criminal and disciplinary history in the admissions process will be a major issue in the coming year.  Last spring ECA discussed the issue in light of an Obama administration request for colleges and universities to rethink how they look at discipline issues as part of the White House’s Fair Chance Higher Education Pledge.   It’s popped up this summer in a couple of different instances.

 

New York University has been in the forefront on this issue.  Back in 2015 it announced that it would evaluate applicants for admission without looking at whether students had checked the box on the Common Application asking about student criminal or disciplinary history.  Earlier this year it asked the Common Application to conduct research to assess the predictive value of the check box on disciplinary history.  And recently it announced that it will ignore the Common App question altogether, substituting narrower questions on its section of the Common App.

 

This is an issue where the pendulum is swinging.  A decade ago colleges and universities were under public pressure to gather information on applicants’ criminal and discipline backgrounds and mental health issues as a means of keeping campuses safer in the wake of campus incidents such as the Virginia Tech shootings.  Campus safety continues to be an important consideration on a residential campus, but there is now an increasing awareness that asking about criminal/discipline history on the application may be prejudicial, especially given that evidence suggests that school suspensions are disproportionately handed out, both by race and by region.

 

Asking about discipline is not only an issue for the Common Application.  The new Coalition Application asks more detailed questions about discipline (or did—they have disappeared from the sample student profile I filled out), and it appears that concern about how those questions are asked is one reason that a number of Coalition member schools are choosing not to use the application this year. 

 

Should questions about criminal/discipline history be asked in the main part of the application, or asked within the questions posed by each school, as NYU is doing?  Is disciplinary history relevant when a student has been accused, or only when convicted?  There is currently a discrepancy between what the two major application platforms ask, such that being put on probation is reportable in one but not in the other.  For schools accepting both the Common and Coalition applications, do we want students deciding which application to file based on what they have or don’t have to report regarding discipline?

 

Stay tuned—I think we’ll hear more on this issue.  

 

 

ITEM:  UNC responds to NCAA.

 

ECA covered the scandal involving academic fraud at the University of North Carolina two years ago, and the case is back in the news.  UNC has adopted an interesting defense strategy in its response to the NCAA over five alleged major rules violations.  UNC is arguing that the infractions are none of the NCAA’s business, that it lacks jurisdiction to punish the University for the academic fraud involving paper classes in the African and Afro-American Studies department (AFAM) over an 18-year span. Students in those classes, many of them student-athletes, never attended class but wrote a paper to earn credit, with many of the papers graded by the AFAM departmental secretary rather than a faculty member. 

 

The essence of the UNC argument is that the academic fraud was not confined to student-athletes but was equal opportunity fraud.  Because the fraud involved the academic program rather than the athletic program, the NCAA does not have jurisdiction.  That argument may be technically defensible, but it doesn’t inspire confidence that the University feels remorse or has learned from its mistakes.

 

 

There are a couple of other issues coming out of the summer that deserve their own post, and I get to them eventually.

 

 

While We Were Away, Part One

Whatever happened to summer?  I don’t mean this particular summer, although I can’t figure out what happened to June and July.  I’m talking about summer as concept. 

 

Recently I talked to several colleagues who have been in the profession for a long time about how the circadian rhythms of our jobs have changed over the course of our careers.  A close friend who worked with me during my admissions days and is now a legendary Dean remembers us having time to saunter downtown each summer day to get ice cream and spending some afternoons in the Dean of Students office working on what was billed as the world’s biggest crossword puzzle.

 

Summer used to be down time, time to catch up on a few projects and prepare for the fall.  No more.  Any semblance of leisure disappeared long ago in admissions offices. 

 

The change has been slower on the secondary side of the desk.  “Are you a 12-month employee?” is a common question among school counselors, but I can’t fathom how a college counseling office in the 21st century shuts down for most of the summer.  Summer is thankfully still a little more relaxed than the regular school year, but that gap closes every summer.  I am in the office most days, and there is never any shortage of things to do.

 

So why should the blogosphere be any different?  Since starting this blog, my habit has been to shut down for a couple of months each summer, assuming that readership drops off and that there are likely to be few issues bubbling up.

 

This summer has forced me to rethink that plan.  I assumed that the world of ethical college admissions issues would be quiet once the Supreme Court Fisher v. Texas decision was released, but scarcely a week went by this summer when there wasn’t some item in the news that either had been or could be a subject for an ECA post. 

 

For those of you, then, who only work ten months, have been off the grid, or just haven’t been paying attention, several posts over the next week or so will catch you up on what’s been happening while we were away.

 

 

ITEM—The Coalition has launched!

 

After a year of anticipation and vigorous discussion, the new application platform for the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success is now up and running—sort of.  Only three Coalition members—Vanderbilt, Carleton, and Indiana—have their applications available for students to access, and of the three universities that had announced exclusive use of the Coalition application for the coming year only one remains (University of Florida). Slightly more than half of the 90+ Coalition members will use the application in its inaugural year, a level of endorsement and support resembling enthusiasm among the Republican Party establishment for Donald Trump.  

 

(By the way, you heard it here first:  if Trump doesn’t win the election, he’ll return to television with a new sitcom, a spinoff from the short-lived series “$#*! My Dad Says.”  It will be called “$#*! Our Presidential Nominee Says.”  Joanie Loves Chachi star/convention speaker Scott Baio will play Trump’s sidekick/apprentice.)

 

I wrote about the Coalition last fall, trying not to join the Greek chorus portraying it as the college admissions equivalent of ISIS. The Coalition leadership includes both schools and admission deans that I respect, but information has been slow to surface and hard to find. No one is against access or affordability or success, but it has been far from clear that the new application platform will make a dent in any of those. 

 

There has always been in the Coalition’s backstory an element of high school romance gone sour.  The Coalition arose from dissatisfaction with the Common Application’s implementation of new technology that didn’t work as well as advertised or hoped. Once the founding member schools of the Coalition saw Common App without its makeup, they concluded they no longer wanted to date exclusively.  The Coalition began flirting with a dark brooding antihero, CollegeNet, which just happened to be recovering from a bad breakup, its ex being none other than the Common Application.  Somewhere in all of this is a remake of West Side Story or The OC or Joanie Loves Chachi.

 

I recently tried to create a student profile so I could get a sense of what the Coalition Application looks like, and I found the process frustrating.  A student doesn’t complete the application in the traditional sense but rather completes his or her profile, and the application will apparently be auto-filled from the profile.

 

Completing the profile, in short, is a pain in the butt.  The profile requires a student to list all courses and grades completed in high school.  Does that suggest that some Coalition members are going to ask students to self-report grades rather than have schools send transcripts?

 

If a student has a Social Security number, it must be entered or the profile is incomplete. Why? “Your Social Security number is essential in awarding federal financial aid and also helps us make sure that your record is accurately maintained.”  

 

I find that statement curious. A Social Security number is certainly essential for federal financial aid, but unless I’m missing something the Coalition application has nothing to do with federal financial aid, so why mention it? My initial reaction was that it is illegal to require a Social Security number, but apparently private organizations can ask. If the real reason for wanting a student’s Social Security number is for record-keeping and the student provides it voluntarily, fine, but if mentioning federal financial aid leads a student to share the Social Security number out of fear of losing aid, that’s deceptive, coercive, and an invasion of privacy.

 

There is one other thing about the Coalition Application that is odd.  When I originally began filling out the profile there were a series of discipline-related questions for the applicant to complete.  According to a post on the ACCIS e-list, concern about the discipline questions was a factor in the University of Washington backing away from using the Coalition App as its sole application (it’s delaying use of the Coalition App for a year).  When I went back into my profile earlier this week, the discipline questions are nowhere to be found.  Is removing part of a student’s completed profile a reportable disciplinary offense?

 

The Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success is clearly a work in progress.  I like its aspirations, but the rollout has been underwhelming, feeling rushed and not carefully thought through.

 

 

Early next week we’ll publish another post with other summer developments.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lessons From Fisher

Last Thursday the United States Supreme Court announced its second decision in Fisher v. Texas. The Court originally heard Fisher back in 2013, and at that time remanded the case back to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, then agreed to rehear the case during this term. Fisher challenged the constitutionality of an affirmative action program used by the University of Texas at Austin to supplement the diversity produced by Texas’s state law requiring use of class rank to fill 75% of the slots in the freshman class. 

 

Last week the Supreme Court sided with Texas on a 4-3 vote. (There is a vacancy on the Court due to the death earlier this year of Justice Antonin Scalia, and Justice Elena Kagan, who was U.S. Solicitor General when Fisher was originally before the Fifth Circuit, recused herself.) Justice Anthony Kennedy, who had never before voted to support the use of affirmative action, wrote the majority opinion, with Justice Samuel Alito issuing a strong dissent.

 

So what does this mean?  We can speculate, but should also recognize that it is probably easier to predict the long-term consequences of the Brexit vote taken the same day.

 

The Supreme Court decision will please no one, which makes it either brilliant or flawed.  The Fisher decision preserves the consideration of race in college admission but does not settle the constitutionality of affirmative action.  Those who expected the Court to outlaw racial preferences in college admission once and for all are both shocked and disappointed, and yet the decision hardly qualifies as a ringing endorsement of affirmative action.

 

Just as the first Fisher decision talked about the need for affirmative action programs to be “narrowly tailored,” the most recent decision is itself narrowly tailored, addressing the specific facts of the case rather than resolving the larger issues of philosophy and public policy.    

 

BURDEN OF PROOF—The key point of disagreement between Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion and Justice Alito’s dissent is which party should have the burden of proof.  The essence of Kennedy’s argument is that Fisher and her lawyers have not proved that she was damaged by the existence of the affirmative action program (though there is also a strong hint that the Court is tired of dealing with this case).  Alito, on the other hand, argues that the decision three years ago to remand the case back to the Fifth Circuit was a warning shot to Texas to produce evidence proving the need for the affirmative action program, evidence it hasn’t provided, and that the majority opinion lets the university off the hook.

 

GOOD FAITH—The last ECA post talked about “Good Faith” as an ethical standard or principle, and the majority opinion talks about good faith multiple times, arguing that UT-Austin’s attempts to increase diversity in the aftermath of previous Supreme Court affirmative action cases, including the current program, constitute a good faith effort to meet the constitutional requirements of those cases.

 

JUDICIAL DEFERENCE—Fisher 2 breaks with Fisher 1 with regard to how much deference the courts should give colleges and universities to determine the composition of their student bodies and how admission decisions are made.  The first decision suggested that colleges should have to show that their programs meet the legal definition of “strict scrutiny,” and Alito argues that the present decision gives too much deference.

 

IMPACT OF THE TEXAS TOP 10% LAW—Fisher v. Texas differs from previous affirmative action cases in that the University of Texas system already had in place a race-neutral option for producing diversity due to the state law passed in the late 1990’s that guarantees students who finish in the top 10% of their high school class admission to UT.  That plan continues to fill 75% of the freshman class at UT-Austin (although it is now in essence a top 7-8% plan), and it has produced a reasonable amount of socioeconomic and ethnic diversity.  The Top 10% Law is not at issue in Fisher v. Texas, but rather the affirmative action program designed to increase the diversity of the class through the remaining 25% of places in the freshman class.  As a challenge to affirmative action, that makes it either ideal or awful. 

 

During oral arguments Texas argued that the Top 10% law didn’t produce enough or the right kind of diversity, at one point seeming to contend that diversity requires admitting students of color from upper and middle class backgrounds with lower class ranks to counter the stereotype that all students of color are bright and poor.  On the other hand, the majority opinion concludes that Fisher’s failure to gain admission to UT-Austin was influenced far more by the fact that she was not in the Top 10% of her high school class (and thus not eligible for 75% of the spaces in the UT freshman class) than the affirmative action program. 

 

PLUS FACTOR—At one point the majority opinion refers to race as a “plus factor,” and that phrase caught my eye.  Back in the mid 2000’s I was interviewed by a writer for U.S. News and World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” who informed me that I was the originator of the term “plus factor.”  I’m not sure that is actually the case, but if so, you’re welcome, Justice Kennedy.

 

 

So where does that leave us?  Fisher allows colleges to take race into consideration in admission for the foreseeable future as, to quote Justice Kennedy, a “factor of a factor of a factor,” and that’s a good thing.  My friends on the college side were relieved and overjoyed by the decision, arguing that ending race-conscious admission would hurt their ability to make progress on the diversity front, and I take that seriously.  I’m sensing that the Supreme Court majority, and Justice Kennedy in particular, concluded that Fisher was not the right vehicle to end affirmative action in college admission at this time.  It may not be the end of affirmative action, but it’s also probably not the end of legal challenges to affirmative action.

 

The ethical issues may be even more complex than the legal issues.  I find myself in the uncomfortable position of seeming to agree (probably the first time ever) with Justice Clarence Thomas, who in a one-page dissent argued that racial distinctions of any kind are prohibited by the Constitution.  That is true in a perfect world, but we don’t live in a perfect world.  The ends promoted by the use of affirmative action are worthy and laudable, but the larger ethical question is whether those ends justify the means used to achieve them.

 

It is those means that deserve deeper discussion, not just with regard to race but also with regard to admission in general.  The use of holistic admission was discussed both in the Fisher case and also in the complaints filed with the Department of Education on behalf of Asian-American applicants to several Ivy League institutions.  In the Fisher opinion Justice Kennedy points out that using a single metric for admission, such as class rank, is a “blunt instrument” that can’t produce meaningful diversity.  It also doesn’t produce nuanced admission decisions.  Holistic admission allows a college to take into account multiple factors that might be relevant, but it can also function as a shroud preventing transparency and allowing different applicants to be admitted for different reasons.

 

Related to holistic admission are two other practices that deserve closer scrutiny.  One is the use of preferences of any kind.  There are plenty of students and parent who find affirmative action objectionable but think nothing of asking a family friend with influence to intervene on their behalf.  To what extent are admission preferences for athletes, legacies, and those who apply early defensible educationally?

 

The other issue is the use of college admission as a form of social engineering.  It can be argued that any approach to admitting a class constitutes a form of social engineering, but I have never felt comfortable with the idea that admissions committees should start with a desired end result and then reverse engineer the admission process to produce a class full of differences.  I’m not saying that I wouldn’t practice that were I running a selective admission process, but I find it hard to defend from the perspective of fairness and equity for each individual applicant. It is college admission as social engineering that is ultimately on trial in cases like Fisher.

 

Thus endeth the sermon.  And thus endeth another year of Ethical College Admissions (the blog).  ECA is going to go on summer break to relax, refresh, and reflect, although we reserve the right to post if some issue raises its head that won’t wait for the end of August.  Thanks to all of you who take the time to read the blog and share your support by e-mail or in person.  It means more than you can know.

 

Finally, in the shameless self-promotion department, the last post was selected by Inside Higher Ed as an “Around the Web” selection, the 19th time this blog has been mentioned.  

 

 

In Good Faith

Ten or twelve years ago a student came to me several weeks after the May 1 deadline and told me that he thought he had made the wrong college choice.  He wanted to know if he could contact the university he thought was the right choice and see if it would still allow him to enroll.

 

I wasn’t encouraging, explaining that May 1 was designed to bring finality to the college admissions process (ignoring the Wait List phase) and that it was unlikely that the desired institution would have space available or be willing to consider a deposit in mid-May.  That seemed to settle it, although someone told me over the summer that they had heard the student was attending the second institution.

 

I didn’t think any more about it until early September, when my secretary gave me a message to call the new Dean of Admissions at the Ivy League university where the student had originally deposited.  My first thought was that the student must have switched schools and not informed either the first school or me.

 

That wasn’t the case.  The student was attending the original choice, but the Dean had received an angry phone call from the Dean of Admissions at the second school.  I ultimately learned that the student had contacted that school in May at a time when an enrolled freshman had just switched from Arts and Sciences to Engineering, and rather than go to the Wait List the Admissions Office offered my student the spot.  He had deposited at the second school but matriculated at the original choice.

 

Several days later I received a letter from the Dean at the second school.  He was ostensibly reporting on my student’s behavior but there was also a not so subtle implication that my office had acted improperly.  The letter stated that the student’s actions did not demonstrate the integrity, honor, and responsibility that our school seeks to teach students, and he made the point that what bothered him most what an apparent lack of good faith.  The letter concluded with an invitation for me to call to discuss the matter further.

 

I generally have a high boiling point, but I am guessing that at that moment I had what my children used to refer to as my “mad look,” especially when I called immediately and was told that the Dean was travelling.  In my nearly 40-year career there have been exactly three times when I was filled with righteous indignation (my best quality) and wrote a letter to reflect that.  This ranks at the top of that list.

 

I wrote the Dean that we were in agreement that the student handled the situation poorly, but also expressed surprise that he had never called me or requested a final transcript once the student had contacted him about changing his original decision.  I shared what I knew about the situation and what I had advised the student, and concluded that my office had handled the situation in good faith, exactly as it should have.  I invited him to call me to discuss the situation further.  Ten years later, I’ve stopped waiting for the phone to ring.  

 

I thought back to that incident recently after an Admissions Dean friend contacted me asking for advice regarding an ethical situation.  The situation offered a different perspective on an issue I wrote about back in February, how to deal with a case where a student wants to renege on an Early Decision commitment.

 

In this particular case, a student had applied for a competitive merit scholarship at the Dean’s college.  The student didn’t advance beyond the first round of the scholarship competition, and at some point apparently told someone on the admissions staff of his intention to withdraw his application.

 

The withdrawal never got into the college’s admission system, so when regular decisions went out at the end of March, the student was admitted.  The student was surprised to receive the acceptance, given that he thought he had withdrawn, but his interest was renewed with the offer of admission.  The complication was that the student had in January applied and been accepted to another college through its Early Decision 2 option.  As a further complication the student and his parents were at odds about which school he should attend.

 

The Dean called me for an ethics consult.  What was the institution’s ethical obligation in this case?

 

In any ethical situation each moral agent may have a different set of obligations.  For the student, entering in to the moral contract associated with Early Decision trumps any other interest (please note or sense my unease at having to use the verb “trumps”), especially if an Early Decision Agreement has been signed.  If I were the student’s counselor, I would feel dishonest sending a final transcript to a school other than the one committed to through Early Decision, and if a student now wanted to change his or her mind I would be strongly advising that should be done only after notifying the ED school.  We don’t do students any favor when we allow them to treat a commitment like Early Decision as anything other than serious.

 

But what is the non-Early Decision college’s ethical obligation?  Is it obligated to police and enforce the Early Decision agreement with the other college?  My conclusion is no.  It made its offer of admission in good faith, not aware that the student thought he had withdrawn or that he had subsequently applied ED-2 to another institution.  I told the Dean that the college had acted appropriately and had no further obligation, but that in a perfect world the student should ask to be released from the Early Decision commitment to the other college.  That is apparently what has happened.

 

What ties the two cases together is the concept of acting in “good faith” (from the Latin bona fides).  Acting in good faith is a key concept in contract law, but also a key concept in ethical interaction with others.  Good faith implies sincerity, honesty, and good intentions, with motivations free of pretense.

 

Like many other things, good faith is in the eye of the beholder.  Good faith does not resolve ethical dilemmas by itself, but asking “Am I acting in good faith?” is always a good starting point in trying to figure out what is the ethical thing to do.

 

 

P.S.  Ethical College Admissions is about to shut down for the summer.  I am anticipating one more post to comment on the Supreme Court decision in Fisher v. Texas.

 

The most recent post, on discipline-blind admission, was selected by Inside Higher Ed as an “Around the Web” selection.  As always, that recognition is greatly appreciated.

Discipline-Blind Admission

I spent last week out of the office attending two admissions meetings, the Southern Consortium Deans Summit at Amelia Island, Florida and the McNab Alumni Legacy Program at Davidson College.  Both were good professional experiences, helping me to recharge and reflect at the end of a long year, and I enjoyed seeing old friends and comparing notes with colleagues from both sides of the desk.

 

One of the curses of blogging is that I am always on the lookout for topics to explore, and I thought that one or both meetings might provide inspiration for a post.  What I didn’t expect is that I would find material on the ride from the airport.

 

I arrived in Jacksonville early Monday afternoon just ahead of tropical storm Colin, which pounded the Atlantic Coast of Florida that evening, generating tornadoes in the Jacksonville area.  I was picked up by a limo service, and because my wife has just started driving part-time for a service in Richmond, I asked the driver about the job.  He is a former Navy helicopter mechanic who is now studying mechanical engineering at the University of North Florida and driving to supplement the income his wife earns as a real estate agent.  He talked about the challenge of going to school with eighteen and nineteen-year old kids after having lived with the structure and discipline of being in the Navy.

 

He may also have been psychic or working for a government agency other than the Navy. He knew I was going to the Southern Consortium meeting, and so we started talking about college admission, and at some point I mentioned the blog. He asked what I thought about colleges considering criminal and disciplinary offenses as part of the admissions process.    

 

I didn’t think anything about that conversation until I returned home on Friday and saw that the Obama Administration earlier that day had asked colleges and universities to rethink asking about criminal and disciplinary histories on applications for admission.  The request is part of the White House’s Fair Chance Higher Education Pledge, a program designed to reduce barriers for Americans who have criminal records and are trying to get their lives back on track.  Twenty-five higher education institutions have already signed on to the pledge.

 

The Obama Administration request comes out of a Department of Education report, Beyond the Box.  That report argues that it is in the national interest to integrate into society the 70 million Americans who have been involved with the criminal justice system, including a disproportionate number of citizens of color. Education can be an important pathway for those individuals to become productive members of society, but there are studies suggesting that individuals with criminal histories may be deterred from applying for postsecondary education by application questions asking about criminal and disciplinary histories.

 

We hope justice will be blind, and we hope college admission will be just.  Does that mean that we hope college admission will be blind?  Need-blind, yes, but discipline-blind?

 

I understand the argument and am sympathetic to those who made mistakes, paid their debt to society and now face discrimination because of their record, but I think it is entirely appropriate for colleges to ask about criminal and disciplinary offenses as part of the admission application.

 

I work at a school where we hold students accountable for both academic integrity and behavior.  In any honor or discipline case there are two considerations.  One is what’s best for the accused individual.  The other is what’s best for the community.  Similarly, college admission offices are charged with two ethical imperatives that may conflict, giving the student a fair decision based on his or her credentials and also protecting the welfare of the college community.  That has to be a consideration in any college community, but especially in one that’s residential. 

 

The Clery Act requiring colleges and universities to report crime data had its origins in the murder of a Lehigh University student in 1986 by another student.  Since then we’ve had the mass shootings at Virginia Tech, raising awareness of the need for better information about and help for students with mental health issues.  And recent cases at Stanford, Baylor, and other campuses highlight the epidemic of sexual assaults on campus.  In this landscape, not asking applicants about criminal and disciplinary history is foolish and perhaps even negligent.

 

College admission requires inductive reasoning.  Past experience may not accurately predict future performance, but it is the best evidence we have.  We ask for a transcript of a student’s previous academic work because it may give us a glimpse of what we can expect in the future, recognizing that individuals grow and change.  Similarly, asking about previous behavior may tell us something about what kind of roommate and classmate an individual will be.  

 

What is open for discussion is what information we ask for and when we ask it.  Beyond the Box suggests that colleges ask about convictions rather than arrests.  That makes sense, since in our society being accused of a crime does not lead to a presumption of guilt, but asking the question that way may disadvantage those who don’t have the ability to hire lawyers to reduce charges and make deals.  The report also suggests that colleges become discipline-blind in the application review process, looking at disciplinary history only after an admissions decision is made based on academic qualifications. New York University employs this procedure, with a special committee charged with evaluating the criminal and disciplinary records of those admitted.

 

I have previously argued that colleges should in the admissions process only ask for information relevant to admission.  Criminal and disciplinary history is certainly relevant, depending on the student and depending on the institution, and colleges have a right and responsibility to ask for it.  It shouldn’t, however, be used as a barrier to opportunity for those who have made a youthful mistake and paid their debt to society.  They shouldn’t face double jeopardy from both the criminal justice and the educational systems.

 

 

 

 

Variations on a Meme

There are several requisite, traditional memes played out in the media each spring that signify the end of another college admissions cycle. 

 

The opera ain’t over until there’s an article about this being the most competitive admissions year in history, with record numbers of applications and record low admit rates at many institutions (Let’s all pat ourselves on the back for a job well done).  That article is often accompanied by a sidebar about the student with “stellar” grades and scores Wait Listed at his or her public flagship university (I always suspect there’s more to the story). 

 

And then there is the profile of the student admitted to all eight Ivies.  I’m not sure that’s something to be celebrated or glorified.  It sends the wrong messages about college admission, from perpetuating Ivy-lust to rewarding collecting acceptances as trophies to ignoring the importance of fit, accepting uncritically that Ivy League institutions are indistinguishable from each other.

 

We may be watching a new college admissions meme in the making. 

 

Two weeks ago the Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE) filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education alleging that Yale, Brown, and Dartmouth unlawfully discriminate against Asian-American applicants in the college admissions process. 

 

AACE is the same group that filed a complaint a year ago against Harvard on behalf of 64 Asian-American groups (more than 130 groups signed on to the current complaint).  That complaint was dismissed last July because a similar lawsuit was being litigated in federal court, but a similar, older complaint against Princeton was dismissed by the Office of Civil Rights last September.

 

So why go after Yale, Brown, and Dartmouth now?  Are those three doing something that frames the argument for unlawful discrimination in a different way than the Harvard/Princeton suits? Does AACE, like the student seeking admission to all eight Ivies, aspire to file a complaint against each Ivy member?  According to the AACE complaint, Brown and Dartmouth have the lowest admit rates for Asian-American applicants.  Yale was included because it destroys admission records (and potential evidence of discrimination) for its law school.

 

I was interviewed last spring by NPR following the filing of the suit against Harvard and wrote a blog post about the subject as well.  My position at the time was that I didn’t see evidence of discrimination per se as much as impact from the nature of selective admission.  I continue to believe that, but I can’t prove it, because I have never sat on an Ivy League admissions committee.

 

The evidence cited in the complaint is eye-catching but also circumstantial.  The Asian-American college-age population doubled from 1995 to 2011 without any increase in the percentage of Asian Americans enrolled in the Ivies.   The complaint claims that Asian-American enrollment in the Ivies is “capped” at 16%, a figure significantly lower than the percentage earning honors like National Merit Semifinalist and Presidential Scholar.  It also cites a study conducted by Princeton professor Thomas Espenshade and coauthor Alexandra Radford estimating that Asian-Americans have to score 140 points higher on the SAT than whites and 450 points higher than African-Americans to have an equal shot at admission to the Ivies.

 

But do those facts prove that the Ivies are engaged in a “covert and insidious scheme to enforce race-based racial quotas” or that Asian Americans are discriminated against like Jewish applicants in the early part of the 20th century?  Are Asian-American applicants victims of discrimination or victims of selective admission?

 

In the Princeton case the Office of Civil Rights concluded it is the latter.  The challenges faced by Asian-American applicants are challenges faced by applicants of all backgrounds.  In an admissions environment where only 1 in 20 highly-qualified applicants will be successful, lots of superb candidates are overlooked.  Among applicants for the Princeton Class of 2010, only 18% of school valedictorians were admitted, and more than half of those with perfect 2400 SAT scores were unsuccessful applicants.  Princeton admitted 1800 applicants, but 4800 had SAT Critical Reading scores of 750 or better and 6300 had SAT Math scores of 750 or better.  In that kind of competition, no student has an academic record that guarantees admission.  To borrow a phrase from logic, superb academic credentials are “necessary but not sufficient.”

 

But are Asian Americans underrepresented?  A UCLA study by Dr. Richard Sander and Medha Uppala of Asian-American applicants at three of the most selective Ivies showed that Asian Americans send 27% of score reports but comprise only 17-20% of those admitted.  At the same time, if the Asian-American college-age population is 5% of the national population, Ivy enrollment of 17-20% hardly qualifies as underrepresention.

 

One of the key arguments made by AACE is that “holistic” admission is a vehicle for subtle bias against Asian Americans.  It is true that holistic admission can provide a shroud masking how decisions are made, with different criteria being decisive for different applicants.  But I think the AACE is wrong on this point, partly because its definition of “holistic admission” is antiquated.  It equates holistic admission with the desire to admit well-rounded students, a desire that disappeared a long time ago.  Today highly-selective colleges and universities are looking to admit a well-rounded class made up of “angular” individuals who are exceptional in some way.  It is that emphasis on the well-rounded class with “uniqueness” as a virtue that produces the issues objected to in the AACE complaint, not holistic admission.

 

I suspect there is another factor at work here.  The desire to craft a class can easily become a kind of reverse engineering, where the shape of the class is established up front based on institutional goals and priorities and individual admission decisions made only insofar as they fit that freshman class jigsaw puzzle.  That approach is great for the institution, but not so much for any individual who doesn’t happen to help meet those admission goals.  That may be a more accurate explanation than bias for why the percentage of Asian Americans varies so little from year-to-year. Does the desire to craft the class lead to bias, conscious or unconscious, against some applicants?

 

The complaint from AACE represents the “back side” of the Supreme Court’s consideration of affirmative action in Fisher v. Texas.  In that case the University of Texas has argued that a “critical mass” of students from underrepresented groups is necessary for educational reasons, which is why there is a need for affirmative action beyond that produced by the Texas Top 10% law.  How that critical mass is reached is at the heart of the case.  Is the admissions process reverse engineered to achieve that critical mass, and does the end justify the means?  That issue has relevance for selective admission far beyond the Fisher case.

 

What does affirmative action have to do with Asian Americans?  According to a 2005 study by two Princeton scholars, one of them the aforementioned Thomas Espenshade, of the impact of ending affirmative action, acceptance rates for African-American and Hispanic applicants would decrease significantly without affirmative action.  The beneficiaries of such a move would be primarily Asian-American applicants.  If selective college admission is a zero-sum game, advantage for one set of applicants means disadvantage for another.

 

We have now had two consecutive springs of complaints about Ivy League admissions discrimination against Asian-American applicants, with five of the eight named.  If it is true that something qualifies as an innovation the first time you do it and tradition the second time, ladies and gentlemen, we have a tradition. The clock is running for Columbia, Cornell, and Penn.