“Is it just me, or is this simply a stupid idea?”  That was the question posed in a post on the NACAC Exchange a week or so ago. 

I was immediately intrigued.  I am drawn to college-admissions-related stupidity the way a moth is drawn to a flame or a dog to a fire hydrant.  Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and pornography, I may not be able to define it, but I sure know it when I see it, and it is one of the things that keep this blog in business.

I was even more intrigued when I saw that the “stupid idea” in question was a product of the College Board.  I certainly have my issues with the College Board, which I have described tongue-partly-in-cheek as America’s Most Profitable Non-Profit Organization. It has chosen to be a corporate entity rather than a membership organization, a .com rather than a .org, and College Board meetings often feel more like infomercials than professional conferences.  I suspect every policy decision made by the College Board is grounded in cost-benefit analysis, in profit rather than principle, so it may be calculating, but never stupid.

The “stupid idea” in question is the Apply to 4 or More™ program.  I was not familiar with that name, but in looking at the section of the College Board website devoted to the program I recognized it as one of the Board’s programs to increase access to higher education and particularly an attempt to deal with the issue of “undermatching” as described by professors Caroline Hoxby at Stanford and Christopher Avery at Harvard, where students from economically-disadvantaged backgrounds apply to less selective colleges than their credentials might allow them to earn admission.

The College Board website describes Apply to 4 or More ™ as “a national movement to encourage all students—but primarily low-income, college-ready students—to apply to at least four colleges.”  Students are identified for the program based on having received a fee waiver for the SAT or SAT subject tests, or in some cases based on Census data.  They receive a packet of information including a personalized cover letter, a college application timeline, and in some cases fee waivers.

The goal of increasing access to higher education for low income students is laudable, and in fact needs to be a national priority.  Is Apply to 4 or More a better way to accomplish that than President Obama’s “free community college” initiative?  I’m not sure they address the same population or the same issue, but I give the College Board credit for trying to do something.

I am more interested in the messages sent by and the assumptions underlying Apply to 4 or More.  To what extent does the program provide understanding about the college admissions process and good college counseling?

One of those assumptions has to do with “undermatching.” The embedded assumption is that the student could “do better,” with better=more prestigious=more selective.  I recognize that many students who come from homes without financial resources and lack good college counseling may be unaware of places that might be good options, but undermatching is not automatically negative. I believe that the value of college lies in the educational experience rather than the name on the diploma. A student who attends a less selective school where he or she is a top student may have a better college experience and better educational opportunities.

I don’t find the advice offered in Apply to 4 or More “stupid,” but I do find it quaint.  It’s the kind of advice that a guidance counselor might have provided back in the days when “guidance counselor,” not “school counselor,” was the operative term.  It’s exactly the kind of college counseling I would expect to find if there was a college counseling office on Main Street USA at Disneyland.

Take, for example, the advice to “Build a Diverse College List,” including 1 “Safety,” 2 “Good Fits,” and 1 “Reach.”  Back in the fall there was discussion on the NACAC Exchange about whether the term “safety school” is pejorative.  Certainly no college wants to be seen as a safety school, with its connotation as a place where you’ll go if all else fails.  Apply to 4 or more defines “safety” as “a college you’re confident you can get into.”  There are students who have a unique self-esteem problem, in that they have far too much self-esteem, and are more confident than they should be about where they’ll get in.

As a college counselor I have never liked the term “safety,” although I think it will be unfortunate if we get to a point where students and counselors can no longer predict admission likelihood. I tell students that I want them to apply to at least one school that they know, and more important that I know, they’ll get in. I also don’t believe that every student must apply to a reach.  The notion of “ good fit,” which to its credit Apply to 4 or More emphasizes, is more about finding places that offer a program and culture that meets the student’s needs and values, and a thoughtful college search can result in a good fit even when a student applies to one or two places.

The Apply to 4 or more student website states that applying to four or more colleges increases your chances of being admitted.  I find that to be terrible advice.  Admission has more to do with the quality of applications and options rather than the quantity.  If your credentials make you a long shot for the Ivy League, applying to all eight rather than two doesn’t increase your chances of getting into one but rather your chances of getting rejected by eight rather than two.  And if applying to four is better than two, is applying to 30 even better?  I do accept the argument that students for whom financial aid is important may benefit from being able to compare offers, but doesn’t the Net-Price Calculator allow that without having to apply? (If I am showing my ignorance or naivete on that point, feel free to correct me.)

The first rule of ethics is “Do no harm.” Apply to 4 or More ™ meets that test, but I’m not sure it provides students with the kind of information and advice they need to apply to college in 2015.  I’d love to see a conversation about what information we should be providing, what advice we should giving, and how best to do that.