It started as an innocuous request. A friend and colleague who is faculty adviser to the student newspaper called one afternoon just about a year ago with a simple request. Would I send her the list of colleges the seniors were attending for the newspaper to print?
The request was hardly unreasonable. The list of colleges each graduate is attending has always been printed and handed out at Commencement, and I’m pretty sure my office had sent the list to the student newspaper in previous years. One of the curses in writing a blog about ethical issues in college admission is that you begin to see ethical dilemmas around every corner, and there had just been a discussion on the NACAC Exchange the previous week about whether a school’s college list should be publicized at all, so I told the journalism teacher that I had reservations.
Is it appropriate for a school to publish a college list? Is a student’s college choice governed by privacy, his or hers to divulge, or does the school community have a legitimate interest? If legitimate, what is the role of the College Counseling Office in sharing that information?
I wish I had good answers. What I have instead is a jumble of practice and principles that don’t neatly align. Is that lack of consistency: 1) a demonstration of hypocrisy in action; 2) awareness that the ethical issues confronting us on a daily basis are rarely black and white but more commonly layered in shades of gray; or 3) adherence to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s commandment that “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”? Or 4) all of the above?
I have always believed that a student’s college choice is personal and private, part of the journey of self-awareness and self-discovery that each of us takes. I know there are schools that publicly celebrate college acceptances as they come in, either by posting in a prominent place or announcing in a daily communal gathering. I have always recoiled from that, out of respect and concern for those students for whom the college process may not be easy or smooth.
But is publishing a year-end list any different? A couple of years ago I had a late-blooming senior who decided that his best path was attending community college. He had been accepted at a couple of four-year universities, but thought he would have better long-term options by doing a year at the local community college and then transferring. My school is a place where in most years 100% of graduates attend four-year colleges and universities, and I knew that there were people in the school community who wouldn’t understand that he had made a thoughtful choice, one I suspect will be more common moving forward. I sat down with him and gave him the option of listing the community college as his destination, listing him as “Undecided,” or listing one of the four-year colleges. He preferred “Undecided” and that is what we listed.
But was I more concerned about the student or about me? The reality of being a college counselor is that too often our effectiveness in college counseling is judged by our success in college placement. The more removed the audience, the greater the danger. Rarely do I have a senior parent who is unhappy about the final college choice, because they see on a daily basis their child’s human strengths and weaknesses. It is the lower school parents who critique the college list, knowing nothing about the individual journeys the list reflects. We have to check ourselves to make sure that our counseling of an individual student is not influenced by our desire to see the college list look impressive. In the case of the community college student I did my penance, asked daily for the next month by the staff of the school alumni magazine if the student had yet made his choice.
Publishing a college list can be an example of ethical relativism, tied to the culture of the school. As already stated, the tradition at my school is that the list is public at graduation, and I’m not aware that any student or parent has objected. Tradition or precedent doesn’t mean that an action is right, but it is a starting point. At the same time, having listened just yesterday to a heated sports radio debate about changing the Washington Redskins’ name, I understand that accepted mores are always subject to cultural shift, that what is today seen as standard practice may in the future be viewed as insensitive and offensive.
Is it a college counseling office’s job to keep the rest of the campus informed about the college decisions made by individual students? I find myself often asked by the Development Office or faculty members or even students where a particular student is going to college, and I always struggle with whether that information is mine to share. I used to have an administrative colleague who wanted the college list each spring not because they needed it in any official capacity, but because they wanted to “congratulate them if I run into them,” in other words for gossip reasons. I try to judge each request on a “need to know” basis, but generally feel dissatisfaction whether or not I’ve released the info.
In the case of the newspaper request, I judged it as legitimate. Given the culture of our school I would have been a jerk to suddenly refuse without good reason, i.e. information that a student had been embarrassed or hurt by the information being revealed. I talked my concerns out with the newspaper adviser, and we ultimately agreed on a compromise solution. Given that one of the skills being taught in the journalism program is reporting, the ability to gather facts, we agreed that the newspaper staff would be responsible for gathering the list of college choices directly from the seniors rather than from my office. I agreed to serve as “Deep Throat” (the Watergate character, not the porn movie) and confirm or deny their information. Graduation is this Friday--If you need information about where my seniors are going to college before then, find me on level 3 of the parking garage.