Back in graduate school I took a class in philosophical skepticism.  It met on Wednesday afternoons in a windowless room in the basement of the business building, and every week we would spend three hours discussing topics like “How do I know that the chair I’m sitting in exists?” (Does It really matter as long as I can sit in it?) This was long before Donald Rumsfeld talked about “known knowns,” “known unknowns,” and “unknown unknowns,” but the class would have been right up his alley.  I lived in perpetual fear that someone would walk into the class by accident, hear our discussion, and then padlock us in.

Early in my college-counseling career I was introduced to a college counselor whom I found both impressive and intimidating at the same time.  He had an encyclopedic knowledge of colleges that I couldn’t hope to match.  Name any college or university, and he could provide multiple factoids about its programs and campus culture.  He could wax eloquently about the differences between the education programs at Murray State and Morehead State despite the fact that he had never lived or worked in or anywhere close to Kentucky. I couldn’t decide if he was full of (rhymes with) it or simply a bigger admissions geek than I was (and am).   

Over the past couple of weeks both of those came to mind as two events made me think about the distinction between what we know and what we think we know.  One was an interesting discussion thread on the NACAC Exchange, and the other was the process of finishing up lists of college suggestions for my juniors.

A counselor posted on the Exchange asking for suggestions of colleges that will be accepting and have support for a transgender student.  The ability to get help generating a list of options for a student with special needs or circumstances has always been one of the best features of the Exchange and its ancestor, the E-list, and this particular question seemed much more appropriate than those who ask for northeastern colleges with an English major.   

The conversation that ensued was vibrant and worthwhile.  Several people suggested liberal-arts colleges with culturally liberal reputations, and one regular poster recommended that the student look at “activist” schools.  Those generated responses asking why one would assume that a transgender student is either liberal or activist, or would gravitate to those kinds of places.

The more interesting part of the discussions came after another counselor posted that he was “nervous” about throwing names around and “branding” institutions, especially when the recommendations as good fits for the student weren’t coming from representatives of the institutions themselves. Some of the nervousness clearly was related to the fact that the query had to do with a transgender student, but some also related to how easily the common wisdom becomes stereotype.  A number of years ago I met Ted Fiske, editor of the Fiske Guide to Colleges.  “How do you find the time to visit all these colleges?” he was asked.  “I never visit colleges,” he responded.  “I send out questionnaires, and if I get two back, I can tell you exactly what a place is like.”  At some level he’s probably right, but that answer bothers me nonetheless, and it reveals the limitations of guidebooks and other mass-market sources of information.  They are based on a limited spectrum of opinions, and you are unlikely to find a take on any college that’s contrary to what the public already believes.

It turned out that several of those recommending colleges had previously worked at those places.  Another counselor observed that she would be skeptical of suggestions posted on College Confidential, but trusted the professional expertise and judgment of the Exchange.  And voices such as Jon Boeckenstedt, Jon Reider, and Scott White (at least several of whom are regular readers of this blog) weighed in with thoughtful comments about the dangers of treating any information, even that from knowledgeable colleagues, as gospel truth.

I found the discussion poignant with because I was working on college lists.  It is easy for many families to see “The List” as a report card on their child (and perhaps on their parenting) and to take umbrage at the inclusion or exclusion of some name among the recommended colleges. I have always seen a college list as suggestions designed to expand horizons rather than a definitive judgment of where I think a student can or should go to college.  Putting together a college list is more art than science, and impressionist art at that.  After many years and many campus visits, I “know” a lot of colleges, but so much of that knowledge is based on impressions.  I don’t have the expertise to know with certainty that one institution is better for a student than another, and if one of the tenets of “fit” is that college selection is personal, then what I think is best may not be what the student thinks is best.

That raises a broader question (regular readers of this blog know that we always love the broader question).  What is the essence of good college counseling? Is it about being an expert, a provider of answers, or about being a trail guide and coach, an asker of questions and provider of context and background?  Is the currency of college counseling knowledge or wisdom? 

To some degree that debate mirrors the debate taking place in education about whether good teaching is about being a sage or a coach.  But it is especially timely for those of us in the college counseling trenches.  There is a perfect storm on the horizon.  At the same time that colleges are coming up with a myriad of application options and deadlines—Early Decision, Early Action, Priority Deadlines, Snap Apps—we have a generational change in both students and parents, and it puts new demands on college counseling professionals.  We may increasingly be asked to be managers and strategists rather than counselors, and that will carry it with expectations that, like the colleague who intimidated me with his command of college minutiae, we have specialized knowledge about programs, scholarships, and the games that admissions offices are playing to maximize revenue and selectivity/prestige.

I hope that day won’t arrive soon (or at least after I’ve retired).  But it’s a call for our profession to think about what we know and what we can’t know and be clear about the difference with students and parents. 

We need to follow our own advice.  Just as we would advise a student not to trust the opinion about a college from a classmate with different tastes, we should treat any source of information as one source and not definitive, and we should always understand the difference between what we know and what we assume.