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. 

The College List as Ethical Dilemma

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.


Last week saw new charges and countercharges in the recent skirmish that threatens to break a long-lasting cease-fire and end a peaceful coexistence that dates back to the 1950s.


No, Ethical College Admissions has not expanded its beat to include the conflict between North and South Korea.  Last week’s battle of words was between the College Board and ACT over the release of scores for the March SAT, the first administration of the new version of the test, and simultaneous release of both a score converter tool and a concordance for comparing scores with the old SAT and the ACT.


The need for the concordance comes because, as mentioned in the last post, the scores on the new test are 20-40 points higher on each section of the new test (Evidence-based Reading and Writing, Math) except at the extremes on the 200-800 scale.  It leaves those of us on the secondary side of the desk to figure out how to tell students that their 1230 score isn’t as good as they think and to explain to parents that tools such as Naviance scattergrams and published Middle 50% ranges are no longer valid or predictive for students in the Class of 2017.


We are obviously not the only ones baffled, confused, and irked by the new concordance.  Last Wednesday Marten Roorda, the Chief Executive of ACT, published a blog post criticizing the College Board for creating a concordance based on “equipercentiles” (which he described as an SAT word).  The equipercentile method of equating test scores from one test to another assumes that a score at the 65th percentile on one test is comparable, or “concorded,” to a score at the same percentile on a different test.  The College Board used the equipercentile method in developing the concordance released last week both between the old and new SAT and also between, using Roorda’s terminology, the “revamped” SAT and the “tried-and-true” ACT.


Roorda’s argument is that a true concordance requires time--and concord.  That’s doesn’t refer to the grape or the supersonic jet or even the Massachusetts town where Henry David Thoreau lived and claimed to have travelled widely.  It refers to agreement between the testing agencies.  In 2006 College Board and ACT worked collaboratively on a concordance based on a year’s worth of data following the last introduction of a “new and improved” SAT.  So what brought the two testing agencies together then?  An organization more powerful than NATO or the United Nations.  Yes, it was the NCAA that brought the parties together for that concordance, based on the need to determine eligibility for athletes.


Roorda suggests that any attempt to equate scores, either with the ACT or with the old SAT, is flawed until there is data from seniors taking the new version of the SAT next fall.  Not surprisingly, the College Board immediately responded, rejecting Roorda’s argument as “misinformation.”  The College Board says that its concordance is not based solely on the March test but on two concordance studies conducted in December 2014 and 2015 to serve members at colleges and universities  needing concordance info to make admissions decisions in the coming year. The real motivation, however, may be found in this sentence buried at the end of a paragraph in the College Board statement:  “Additionally, states and districts that have recently switched from administering the ACT to administering the SAT statewide need concordance information to maintain continuity of students’ historical data within their student information systems.”


So what are we to make of all this?  In a post a couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the fact that College Board criticism of the ACT test-prep alliance with Kaplan was unprecedented, represented a clear break with a long-standing policy of benign neglect between the two organizations.  ACT chose not to respond, which I thought was classy.  Was this opportunity to throw a jab too good to pass up?


There is within Marten Roorda’s original blog post a certain tone that might best be described by another SAT word, “Snippy.”  And yet I think he is right that any attempt to produce a concordance now is premature and any attempt to do so without ACT collaboration and input flawed.  While I am neither a statistician nor did I stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, I am skeptical that the College Board’s concordance truly exceeds industry standards.


I am even more skeptical of the College Board claim that the concordance was created to meet the needs of member colleges and universities.  If true, it would be one of the few times recently that the Board has acted as if it were a membership organization rather than America’s most profitable non-profit organization.  The College Board long ago became a dot.com masquerading as a dot.org.  I think the development of the concordance is clearly to serve the burgeoning state testing market rather than the college admissions market.


There is one other issue that continues to confuse me (which doesn’t take much).  The College Board has explained the need for the concordance by observing that temperatures on the Celsius scale have to be converted to Fahrenheit.  Having taken science, I get that.  But temperature conversion involves a formula, not a concordance. 


SAT scores are scaled scores.  A student’s raw score is converted to a score on the 200-800 scale.  I’m unclear about why the College Board couldn’t scale the scores on the new SAT in such a way that a 550 is comparable to a 550 on the old test.  That’s clearly been done when the test was changed before.  If the argument is that the new SAT is a fundamentally different test, then why not introduce a new scale altogether?  That was done to some extent when the SAT went to three sections and a student’s score was on a 2400 rather than 1600 scale.  Why is the 200-800 scale sacrosanct?


In any case, we don’t need prolonged bickering between the College Board and ACT.  It’s time to end the dance of discord.  Neither the College Board nor the ACT has any future on “Dancing With the Stars.”  

Re-centering Redux

When my children were little, attending a conference or visiting colleges meant bringing something home for each of them.  My daughter was generally happy with a stuffed animal from the college bookstore, whereas my son’s tastes were more eclectic.  When I visited colleges in upstate New York, he asked me to look for a child-sized suit of armor.  I was unsuccessful, but did find one a couple of years later— as part of an exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago.


He also went through a phase where he collected College Board memorabilia.  That was cheaper and easier to find than a suit of armor, but I was nevertheless relieved when he grew out of that.


The best piece of College Board swag ever was the slide-rule-like score converter produced back in the 1990’s when the SAT was re-centered.  I thought about that score converter yesterday when the College Board finally released a concordance comparing scores on the new version of the SAT with those on the old version.


You read it here first—or could have.  Back in December when PSAT scores came out and the furor focused on the difficulty in getting scores, I pointed out that the larger issue that no one had addressed was the fact that the scores for my students were significantly higher—approximately 30 points per section at each grade level—than on the old PSAT.  Was that a reflection that my students were particularly well suited to take the new version of the test, or did it reflect a new, quiet effort at re-centering scores?


Except it’s not really re-centering.  The re-centering back in the 1990’s was a correction to a changing spread of scores.  The scaled scores on the 200-800 scale were designed for a normal distribution of scores with 500 as the midpoint, and by the mid-1990’s the national mean on the verbal section had dropped closer to 400 than 500.  Re-centering was an attempt to restore the midpoint at 500.


What we have here is not re-centering, but off-centering.  The national mean for the old SAT was around 1010 (Critical Reading + Math), whereas the concordance released yesterday suggests that the national mean for the new SAT will be closer to 1090, with scores at each data point 20-40 points higher as one moves away from the extremes.  Jon Boeckenstedt’s blog has an infographic that shows that most clearly.  


So what’s going on here?  Twenty years ago re-centering was an explicit goal of the change in the test, but there has been no discussion (that I recall seeing) of re-centering being a goal in the move to the new SAT.  Was re-centering a hidden but intentional goal of the move to a new test or an unintended consequence?  Is the new SAT “easier”?  More in tune with, and therefore a better measure of, what students are learning in school?  Or, as suggested by Adam Ingersoll in a post on the NACAC Exchange, is the increase in scores a consequence of eliminating the penalty for guessing?


Also on the Exchange, Jennifer Karan from the College Board responded to questions about the scores by pointing out that the new SAT is a fundamentally different test than the old SAT, testing a different set of skills and content.  She also made the comment that it is scored on a different scale, albeit one that uses the same starting and end points.


She’s right that the test is different and not designed for score comparison, but the scale is the same, 200-800.  What is different is the distribution of scores.


If re-centering was a goal, is there anything wrong with that?  The answer is no, as long as all of us—the CB, colleges, secondary schools, the public—understand the change and don’t claim record score increases in our profiles next year without proper context.  But if that’s the goal, then let’s be upfront about it, and if that’s the goal, maybe it’s time to move away from the 200-800 scale to ease confusion.  


Now that we have a way to compare scores on the new and old versions of the SAT, there are two other issues that need addressing.  One is that the new score report contains new subscores and cross-scores, scores that might ultimately provide more useful information about a student’s strengths and weaknesses than the traditional section scores alone.  The problem is that I haven’t seen any information about those scores to help understand what a 27 on a 10-40 scale in Analysis in Science or an 8 on a 1-15 scale in Data Analysis and Problem-Solving really mean.  Can we get some meaning and context?


The other issue is figuring out a better way to distribute scores, at least to schools.  We still haven’t received our scores from January.  I understand that it’s a new system, and I understand that I must be the one at fault because the College Board never acknowledges responsibility or takes blame, but the score reporting fiasco makes the rollout of the Coalition look good by comparison.  That’s not a compliment.

Politics--Presidential and Test Prep

What do the Test Prep industry and the Democratic and Republican Presidential campaigns have in common?  Several weeks ago I would have said “nothing.”  Now I’m not so sure.


I recently attended the Potomac and Chesapeake Association for College Admission Counseling conference in Ocean City, Maryland.  That conference is always something to which I look forward, a chance to relax, refresh, and reflect with friends and colleagues.


I organized and participated on a panel with the title, “Suburban Legends.”  I prefer the term “Suburban Legends” to “myths” because “myths” seem clearly false while Suburban Legends, like Urban Legends, sound plausible, are commonly believed by people who are smart and sophisticated, and can always be traced to a FOAF (friend of a friend), or in the case of Suburban Legends about college admission, to a co-worker’s brother-in-law’s daughter’s boyfriend’s best friend’s sister. 


My fellow panelists were all friends as well as colleagues I respect greatly, and each of us presented a Suburban Legend for consideration.  This is not the full list, but they included the assumption that college counselors in independent schools are like Hollywood agents, negotiating/lobbying/cutting deals for students, the belief that selectivity=prestige=quality, and the bromide that the college years are the best years of one’s life.    


In introducing the session and explaining the concept of “Suburban Legends,” one of the examples I used was test prep.  I have always considered the test prep industry one of the marketing success stories of our time for convincing a generation of parents and students that test prep is necessary for SAT and ACT success.  I see test prep as worthwhile in familiarizing a student with test format and helping manage time effectively, but I am skeptical of claims that test prep produces huge increases in scores.


The evidence is at best circumstantial and inconclusive. I remember Bill Fitzsimmons observe during his service as chair of NACAC’s Testing Commission that claims about the benefits of test prep became more modest the minute the Federal Trade Commission began looking into the test prep industry. And yet, over the course of my career I have seen the College Board move from denying that test prep works to advertising itself as the ultimate source for test preparation, suggesting either a change of heart or recognition that there is money to be made from test prep.


On the very same day as the panel, there was news in the world of test prep.  ACT announced a partnership with Kaplan to provide live online preparation for its test beginning next fall.  On one level, that news wasn’t all that surprising, serving as a response to the College Board’s partnership with Khan Academy for free SAT “practice” introduced as part of the switch to the new SAT introduced this spring.  But on a different level, a partnership between one of the two major test providers and the leading test prep provider seems as unlikely as Nixon going to China or Hillary Clinton picking Rush Limbaugh as her Vice Presidential candidate.


What followed was even more surprising.  The next day a blog on the Education Week website featured an attack from a College Board spokesman on the new alliance, drawing the distinction between the free nature of the College Board/Khan Academy program and the cost (less than $200) of the ACT/Kaplan plan for all but low-income students. The spokesman also questioned ACT’s decision to affiliate with a company whose businesses include for-profit colleges.  (Kaplan is a subsidiary of Graham Holdings Company, formerly The Washington Post Companies, and Kaplan is responsible for the majority of Graham’s revenue.)


To my knowledge the College Board criticism of ACT is unprecedented.  For years the College Board has treated its competitor with benign neglect, even refusing to take part in panels that included someone from ACT.


The change may reflect how competitive—and lucrative—the college-admissions testing and test prep businesses have become.  In 2011 more students took the ACT than the SAT for the first time ever, and there have been suggestions that the new SAT, which is closer in format to the ACT than the old version of the test, was an attempt to win back market share. 


The real battleground, though, may not be college admission but rather state assessment testing.  States such as Illinois and Colorado have been using the ACT as their state assessment for high-school juniors.  College Board President David Coleman’s previous job was designing the Common Core; what better assessment of the standards than the SAT, make that “SAT Suite of Assessments”?  States such as Delaware, Connecticut, and Hew Hampshire have signed on to use the SAT as a statewide assessment, and the College Board got a coup this spring when Michigan decided to switch from ACT to SAT.


There is, of course, another less likely explanation for the public drama involving testing and test prep.  The College Board criticism of the ACT/Kaplan partnership came on the day of the New York Republican and Democratic primaries, at a time when the absurdity and declining civility that has characterized American politics in 2016 reached a new level.  Not only did we have the spectacle of watching job applicants for President of the United States try to figure out how to ride the subway and eat a variety of New York delicacies, but we also had the two Democratic candidates for the first time questioning each other’s qualifications.  So is the College Board/ACT spat a form of collateral damage from the current state of political discourse?


If so, who is who and what is what?  Does ACT/Kaplan represent Hillary Clinton, challenging Bernie Sanders/SAT/Khan’s promise of free test prep as unrealistic and unsustainable?  Or is ACT/Kaplan really Donald Trump, in favor of a test with American in the name and opposed to a test prep provider that sounds foreign?  Or is Ted Cruz standing in for ACT and Carly Fiorina his Kaplan, engaged in a desperate attempt to keep SAT/Trump from winning?  And while we’re on the subject, am I remembering correctly that Ted Cruz got his start playing the Count on Sesame Street? Which test/test prep partnership represents Common App and which the Coalition?


The presidential politics as reality show train has already left the station.  Let’s hope that neither test prep nor college admissions heads down the same track.






“We’re at an impasse.”


The mother didn’t need to tell me that. I had already figured out from the pained look on the face of her son who was sitting on the other side of my office.  They couldn’t agree on a final college choice, and had come to me for help, or mediation, or something.


The son was leaning toward attending what a good counseling friend refers to as an “ESPN school,” that is, a large public university with a big-time athletic program.  Like many boys that fit his vision of college—big football weekends, Greek life—and like many boys he knew what he liked but had a hard time articulating why.


The mother admitted that she was impressed when they visited his first choice university, but was nevertheless opposed to him going there.  She wanted him to choose from two liberal-arts colleges where he had been accepted, including the one his sister attends.


There are times when college counseling feels like great preparation for negotiating peace in the Middle East.  This is one of those times.  What happens when college counseling becomes family therapy?


“It happens in the best of families.”  I make that statement every time I do a joint presentation for parents and students.  The college admissions process brings with it tension that can put families at odds.  Students crave independence and adulthood, and yet may not be ready for either.  For parents the advent of college provides a reminder not only that your baby has aged enough to be ready to leave the nest, but also that you are passing another milestone of aging yourself. How did you come to be old enough to have a college student?


That doesn’t begin to describe the complex issues often hiding beneath the surface.  The college decision can be our last chance as parents to have influence on our children, and the name of the college on the decal on the back windshield of the car can be seen (falsely) as evidence of our success as parents.  I learned long ago that I derive more pleasure from my children’s successes and feel more pain from their disappointments than anything that has happened in my own life.  There’s a fine line between healthy parenting and living vicariously through one’s children.


It is also the case that adolescents become pretty good at pushing their parents’ buttons and manipulating them.  That may take the form of non-communication or it may take the form of apparent disdain.  “They think we’re stupid,” I have had multiple parents lament about the way they are treated by their soon-to-be-adult children.  “No, they don’t,” I respond, “but they’re happy to have you think that.” 


In the middle of this thicket of philosophical, practical, and psychological issues sits the college counselor.  What are our responsibilities when college counseling morphs into diplomacy?


It starts with having a clear philosophy of college counseling.  I start with the assumption that the college search process is an important developmental step in a young person’s life, a transition between adolescence and adulthood.  The college search is ultimately a journey of self-discovery, and the journey is more important than the destination.


I believe that the student should drive the search process and make the final decision, as he or she will live with the consequences of the decision.  I believe that the adults involved, whether counselor, teachers, or parents, should be askers of questions rather than providers of answers, with the goal being to help the student discern who they are and identify colleges that fit their needs and wants.


I also recognize that I serve as college counselor and agent for the parent as well as the student.  I am not writing the tuition check, and I need to understand that a college education is a huge investment for a family.  My role is to help clarify issues and help bring about consensus.  In most cases there is ultimately a meeting of the minds.


In those rare cases when that doesn’t happen, they end up in my office.  I tell my students that I am willing (but not necessarily happy) to serve as mediator.


In those moments good counseling techniques come in handy.  I always try to break the ice by asking the student, “So why did you call this meeting?”  That usually gets a smile, even when it is clear they would rather be anywhere than sitting in the room with all the adults.  I try to have each party articulate their position, I ask follow-up questions to clarify nuances and identify underlying issues, and I summarize by saying, “Here is what I’m hearing.”  I try to keep my own views out of the discussion unless necessary, such as when a faulty assumption pops up.


I have learned through years of experience that rarely is the issue presented the real issue.  In the case above the mom first stated that the school was too far away and too expensive, but the son pointed out that both of the schools she was championing were more expensive, with no appreciable difference in distance from home.  The son argued that the mom was concerned mostly about whether the name of the school would impress her friends.


It soon became apparent that the mom wasn’t that happy with any of the boy’s options. It also became clear that she was fixated on rankings, and that her ultimate worry was that her son would fall into the social scene rather than get an education.  She wondered about the possibility of a gap year, but I told her is that my experience is that a gap year doesn’t produce a different universe of college options.  But she was also talking about hiring an independent counselor from the West Coast someone had recommended, so it wasn’t clear that she trusted my judgment. 


I tried to find common ground, asking both the mother and the student if there was a compromise choice that both would find acceptable, and whether they could agree on a contract with performance goals for the student’s freshman year.  That idea seemed to have potential, but they disagreed about where the one-year trial run should take place.


It was a reminder that good people with the same goals can profoundly disagree about the right choice, and it was a reminder that the hardest part of the college process may be making the final choice because it means opening one door and closing others.  We’ll see what the final decision is.


I may not have stayed in a Holiday Inn Express last night, but I now feel perfectly prepared to negotiate a diplomatic solution to the civil war in Syria. 




Essential Questions

If you’re looking for something to celebrate and didn’t get around to commemorating National Poison Prevention Week last week or aren’t into National Turkey Neck Soup Day (today) or National Bunsen Burner Day (Thursday), look no further.  If I have not miscounted, this marks the 100th Ethical College Admissions blog post.


That’s not only 98 more than I thought I was capable of cranking out when I started the blog three-and-a-half years ago, but also a significant milestone.  We should have a cake, but don’t, so have some leftover Easter candy (anything but Peeps) on us.


This is also the third and final post in a series prompted by the “Turning the Tide” report.  The first two parts dealt with the report itself and with character as a factor in college admission.  This post will focus more on the state of college admission.


College admission faces a perfect storm in 2016, with three major changes (the new SAT, the Coalition, and Prior-Prior) with combined power to alter the admissions process in profound ways.  At NACAC in San Diego a long-time admissions dean offered his opinion that Prior-Prior has the potential to blow up the admissions process as we know it, including the May 1 Candidates Reply Date.  I see that as possible but not inevitable.


The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success has been the biggest lightning rod for concerns about the changing landscape of college admission.  As I wrote back in the fall, I am not as hot and bothered as some colleagues about the Coalition.  I find the Coalition’s language about an admissions process that encourages self-discovery and reflection appealing, and yet the scanty details provided thus far about the Coalition application don’t seem to match that rhetoric.  The Coalition presentations I attended at NACAC and College Board left me with more questions than answers. 


I don’t seem to be the only one.  Will Dix has written thoughtfully and critically about the Coalition in his blog, and devoted one post back in February to a series of pointed questions about the Coalition and the Turning the Tide initiative.


Going back to the very first post, one of the goals of this blog has been to pose thoughtful questions about college admissions and college admissions as a profession.  That’s never been more important or timely than right now. 


I see the Coalition as part of a larger discussion.  Are we proud of the college admissions process we have today?  Is it the process we want?  The process we deserve?  Does the college admissions process need overhauling, and are the changes needed evolutionary or revolutionary?  If we were to design an admissions process that is educationally and developmentally sound, what would it look like?


Those are all examples of Essential Questions, questions that extend beyond a single application practice or platform to the essence of what we do.  As described by educators like Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Essential Questions are those that stimulate thinking and inquiry, spark discussion and debate, and raise more questions.


It’s probably worth having a conversation about what we want the college admissions process to represent.  Some of the conventions of college admission, including letters of recommendation, personal essays, and the emphasis on extracurricular activities, date back to the 1920’s.  Are they still relevant?  I spend hours writing recommendation letters each fall trying to put my students’ transcripts in context and tell their stories, but should they be advantaged because I can turn a phrase and have the time to get to know them?  I am guilty of making fun of colleges that allow students to turn in a video rather than an essay or even a transcript, but the truth is that this generation of students thinks digitally and visually in a way that I don’t.


Is it time to think differently about how we conduct the college admissions process?  We know that the next generation of college students will bring different backgrounds and different experiences to college.  Does the current process adequately predict who will be successful and who won’t?  Are there personal qualities in addition to the traditional academic measures that are relevant, and can we find ways to measure them?


Here are some other Essential Questions for college admission:


Does the college admissions process serve the public interest?  Does it serve colleges and universities well?  Does it serve students well?


Are high school college counselors and college admissions officers part of the same profession, or engaged in fundamentally different enterprises?  Is counseling an anachronism on the admissions side of the desk?


Does the college search and admissions process promote thoughtful reflection and discernment on the part of students?


Should the admissions process measure readiness for college?  Does it have a role to play in the transition from adolescence to adulthood?


Do college admissions officers understand how high school students think and the reality of their lives?  Is the acceleration of the application process developmentally appropriate?  Does college admission ruin the educational value of the senior year of high school, and do we care?


Is college about producing good students or good persons?  How should the answer to that question impact the admissions process?


Is the quest for selectivity/prestige out of control?  Is there something wrong with a regular admissions process where 2% of applicants get admitted?  Is selectivity at odds with access?


Does the admissions process reward substance or the illusion of substance?  What is the difference?


Is the college admissions process sufficiently transparent? What message do we send students and parents about college admission?  What messages should we send?  



Are these the right questions?  Are there others?  Anyone want to suggest answers?  In this year of potential unrest for college admission, I hope we won’t just criticize the changes in landscape that concern us but will also tackle the more important underlying Essential Questions.


Never Mind

Everyone is entitled to screw up occasionally.  The measure of a person’s character is not that they never make mistakes, but rather how they deal with their mistakes.


That’s advice I’ve found myself giving my students numerous times through the years.  Is it true for institutions as well as individuals?


Yesterday morning one of my seniors stopped me, bewildered by an e-mail he had received the previous evening.  The e-mail congratulated him on his acceptance to the University of California at Santa Cruz and invited him to a special reception for accepted students in the D.C. area at the end of March.


My student found two things confusing.  The first was that the e-mail had been sent to a personal e-mail account different from the school e-mail he uses for all college-related communications. Even more confusing was the fact that he hadn’t applied to Santa Cruz.   


I also found that odd.  My first thought was that he had applied to Berkeley or another branch of the University of California and inadvertently listed Santa Cruz as well when he completed the application used in common by all the UC schools. 


I also asked him if there was a chance that one of his friends was playing a prank on him.  About ten years one of my students came into my office with a letter from the University of the South, better known as Sewanee, announcing that he was the recipient of the “Tennessee Williams Scholarship.”  I didn’t react, for reasons that will become apparent, until he asked, “Could this be real?”


I responded, “What’s today’s date?”  When he answered that it was April 1st, I asked him if the date had any significance. He observed that it was April Fools’ Day, then a look of recognition crossed his face.  He had just figured out what I already knew, that several of his buddies had gone to the trouble of downloading Sewanee letterhead and composing the scholarship letter.  I had refused their request to be in on the joke.


The Santa Cruz e-mail seemed different, so I asked the student to forward it to me.  Several hours later, there was a post on the NACAC Exchange from a counselor at a D.C.-area school stating that a couple of his students had received the same e-mail.  I replied that I had a student as well, and when I returned from lunch had a voice mail from Nick Anderson at the Washington Post, who was trying to track down the story. 


Once my student forwarded me a copy of the e-mail, it looked legit, signed by the person who is the East Coast rep for UC-Santa Cruz, so I e-mailed her, asking if she was aware of the situation.  A short time later she responded that due to human error the e-mail that was supposed to go out to accepted students instead was sent to the same group of students invited last fall to an area reception.  The Post article (in the spirit of full disclosure, I am quoted despite not really having anything to contribute) suggests that 4000 students received the incorrect e-mail.  A corrective e-mail was sent out yesterday afternoon.


These kinds of mistakes happen.  It is not comparable, but years ago during my admissions days I had responsibility for a newsletter that was sent to our entire prospect list.  I spent hours writing, editing, and proofreading, but when the newsletter came out I found one typo.  I had spelled my own name wrong.  Not long afterward, I had the opportunity to do a brewery tour at the Pabst brewery in Milwaukee.  During the after-tour tasting session I was reading the fancy brochure they gave us and immediately noticed a typo—in one place they had renamed Pabst Blue Ribbon as “Past Blue Ribbon.”  When I pointed it out, the Pabst person told me they had just ordered 500,000 copies of the brochure.


As a secondary school Director of Admissions, my secretary sent a letter to the son of the Parents Association President from me saying Dear Jimmy, when his name was Timmy.  I sent a handwritten apology saying that I didn’t want them to think my office didn’t know the difference between a “J” and a “T” and signed it “Tim Tump.”   


I feel bad for any students who received false hope and bad for the folks at Santa Cruz.  This is not an example of the kind of admissions gamesmanship that this blog finds so objectionable, but rather an honest mistake.  And from what I can tell, UC-Santa Cruz has handled this about as well as possible.  I will continue to wear the Zen Banana Slug hat I bought years ago on a campus visit to bring home to my children (and then decided to keep for myself) with pride.


ECA will be back next week with the final installment of the three-part series inspired by the release of the “Turning the Tide” report.  A couple of notes:


            --The last post was selected by Inside Higher Ed earlier this week as an “Around the Web” selection.  We’re always glad to be included on that list.


            --For those who love admissions trivia, I discovered last week that Beth Behrs, the blonde star of the CBS sitcom, “Two Broke Girls,” is the daughter of an admissions veteran.  Her father is the Associate Vice President for Enrollment Management at Clarion University in Pennsylvania.  I met him when he was at Lynchburg College in Virginia a number of years ago.


Last Week in College Admissions

Here is news and commentary from the past week in the college admissions world:



HEADLINE:  Simon Newman Resigns as President of Mount St. Mary’s.


It turns out that Newman’s plan/public relations disaster to improve retention by forcing out 25 at-risk freshmen before the end of the first month of school (and the date by which enrollment numbers have to be reported to the Federal government) failed to meet its retention goals in at least one key area—his own job.


There are several lessons here. 


Lesson #1: Before you try to “Drown the Bunnies,” make sure you know how to swim.


Lesson #2:  When you do something stupid and get caught, don’t make it worse by firing those who recognized from the beginning that it was stupid.


Lesson #3:  Success in the business world (Newman previously worked for private equity firms including Bain, the firm founded by Mitt Romney) and resulting wealth are not the same thing as wisdom and leadership.  Higher education may be a business, but it’s a business where the product is hard to measure and where the most important kind of capital is human capital.  (NOTE:  Lesson #3 may hold for areas of American life other than higher education—if you catch my drift.)



HEADLINE:  New SAT Debuts:  Some Registrants Uninvited


This past Saturday marked the first administration of the “new and improved” SAT, but one group of test takers missed the party.  Early last week a number of those registered to take the SAT on Saturday were informed that their test administration was being rescheduled for May.


The “uninvited” consisted of non-high school students, in most case employees of test prep companies hoping to get an “up close and personal” look at the new SAT.  According to a Chronicle of Higher Education article, the decision was made for security reasons, to lessen the likelihood that test content would be stolen and shared.


The concern was certainly well-founded.  The test prep industry has been flying blind ever since the announcement of the new test, and I have had to remind parents and students during the past year that anyone claiming to offer a prep course for the new SAT was only guessing at what might be on the test.  For the test prep industry the chance to see actual test questions must be like Milan fashion week for those who make their living producing fashion knock-offs. 


What is most surprising about the decision is that the College Board would pass on an opportunity to make a few bucks, but there are also several interesting questions raised (long-time readers of the blog are aware that we are much better at throwing out questions than we are at providing answers), some serious, some not.


What does the College Board mean by security?  Industrial security or national security?  Should we think of the test prep industry as engaged in theft of proprietary secrets or as terrorists, stealing a national treasure?  Will the Department of Homeland Security get involved?


Is the College Board’s partnership with Khan Academy an attempt to level the test preparation playing field or an attempt to squeeze out other test prep providers and obtain a monopoly, a potential antitrust violation?


Is taking the SAT a right or a privilege?


Is the College Board guilty of ageism in deciding whom to exclude?


Is test preparation a form of cheating?  That’s the broadest question underlying the decision to exclude adults working for test prep firms from taking the March test, and the answer is the same as the answer to so many college admissions questions, “It depends.”


A number of years ago an admissions dean friend stated that taking an SAT prep class is a form of cheating.  I am hardly a fan of the test prep industry, particularly its suggestion that test prep is necessary, but I don’t agree that preparing for the test constitutes cheating.  Clearly having test questions in advance would constitute cheating, but practicing for the test and receiving instruction on test strategies is not inappropriate.  The question is whether test prep destroys the equity, and therefore the validity, of a standardized test.  Do kids who pay for expensive test preparation get an advantage?  My heart says no; my head says yes.  But is that cheating?  It may be cheating the system, but if the system encourages or rewards the test prep industry, the problem is not with the industry but with the system.



HEADLINE:  Author Pat Conroy Dies at Age 70


Pat Conroy, author of books including The Prince of Tides and The Lords of Discipline, died last Friday of pancreatic cancer.  I never met Conroy, but feel a connection with him in two different senses, one of them related to college counseling.


The first magazine article I ever sold was a piece back in the 1980’s for Southern Living on the football rivalry between Randolph-Macon and Hampden-Sydney, the oldest small-college rivalry in the South.  I was trying to begin a career as a free-lance magazine writer, and Southern Living had a special section on football in the South each September, including team previews, tailgate recipes, and one feature article.  If I’d done careful research, I would have realized that the article had no chance of being published, because the previous feature stories had been written by Pat Conroy and Willie Morris, both legendary Southern writers.  My naivete ended up being a virtue, because the article was published, and I was able to say that I had something in common with Pat Conroy.


It turns out I have two things in common.  In Conroy’s memoir of his senior year as a basketball player at The Citadel, My Losing Season, he wrote about the high school English teacher who turned him on to literature.  That English teacher was none other than Joe Monte, legendary college counselor at Albert Einstein High School outside D.C. and a former President of NACAC.  Joe is a friend and an inspiration, and every time I see him he has a list of books he has read that leave me in awe.  When Conroy was doing a book tour for My Losing Season, he did an event in D.C. and talked about Joe Monte’s influence on his life, not having any idea that Joe was in the audience.  I’m glad that Pat Conroy had and I have the good fortune to know Joe Monte.



I am working on the final installment of my three-part series on issue related to the Turning the Tide report released in January.  This part will focus on some larger questions about whether it is time to rethink how we conduct college admission.  Last week the Washington Post published an article by Jon Boeckenstedt at DePaul questioning whether letters of recommendation are unfair.  It’s worth reading and discussing.    



Drowning the Bunnies, or Sermon on "The Mount"

(Note:  the dual titles for this post are in homage to the old “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoons, which for each episode had two titles, including one with a bad pun)


One of my basketball players recently received his first Division One scholarship offer.  The offer came from Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland, one of the nation’s oldest Roman Catholic colleges. 


Mount St. Mary’s, better known as “The Mount,” is a place I know pretty well.  It is located between Gettysburg and Camp David, and in the early 1800’s Elizabeth Seton, who eventually became the first American saint, lived for a while on the Mount St. Mary’s campus.  In the 1970’s I used to drive past Mount St. Mary’s on my way from my home in upstate New York to college in Virginia, and after her canonization I wrote a poem about her titled “U.S. 15” that included an image of a Lincoln (the luxury car now promoted by Matthew McConaughey, not the President) looking for a Gettysburg address.  It might have been the best poem I ever wrote, which may explain why my career as a poet ended shortly thereafter.


I know Mount St. Mary’s primarily through its basketball team.  Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s “The Mount” and my alma mater, Randolph-Macon, were bitter Division Two rivals in the old Mason-Dixon Conference until they parted ways, with the Mount moving up to D1 and R-MC dropping back to D3.  The face of the Mount was legendary bow-tied coach Jim Phelan, who won more than 800 games in a 49-year career as the school’s head coach, including a national small-college championship.


In recent weeks Mount St. Mary’s has received national attention for a different reason.  In January the student newspaper at the Mount published a story including confidential e-mails from President Simon Newman detailing a plan to boost the school’s retention rate 4-5% by forcing 25 at-risk freshmen to drop out by September 25 (students who leave by that date are not included in the enrollment data required by the U.S. Department of Education).  The article quoted a faculty member (also quoted by the Washington Post) reporting that President Newman had said that faculty needed to stop thinking of students as cuddly bunnies and recognize that it was necessary to “drown the bunnies.”


That alone is enough to disprove the old adage that any publicity is good publicity, but as they say in commercials for products like ShamWow!, wait, there’s more.   In the wake of the article, President Newman demoted the provost and fired two professors, one of them the newspaper advisor and the other tenured (they have since been reinstated).  He also criticized the student journalists involved for publishing confidential e-mails and interpreting them out of context.


We have become used to colleges playing admissions games in order to enhance metrics such as yield and admit rate, but this is the first time I’ve heard of a similar game tied to retention.  I’m also guessing that Mount St. Mary’s is not the first institution to go this route. 


There is much about the Mount St. Mary’s story that is troubling, ranging from being more concerned about rankings than serving students to the use of a confidential survey to identify candidates for removal to punishing those who objected to the plan. The focus of this blog, however, is Ethical College Admissions, not Ethical College Retention.  Are there ethical issues related to admission arising out of the Mount St. Mary’s saga?


Of course there are.  Clearly counseling out 25 freshmen to drop out before the end of the first month of school solely in order to improve the retention rate is indefensible, but the bigger issue is whether those students should have been admitted in the first place.


An offer of admission implies a moral commitment on the part of the institution.  In loco parentis is no longer in vogue in higher education, but offering a student a place in a student body imposes a duty to the institution to provide an atmosphere in which the student has a sincere and genuine opportunity to grow both academically and personally.  It is not the institution’s obligation to guarantee the student’s success but it is required to make a good-faith effort.  That requires treating the student as a human being worthy of dignity and respect, exhibiting what the theologian Martin Buber referred to as an “I-thou” relationship.


That can be challenging at an institution where the budget is driven primarily by tuition revenue.  At such places meeting enrollment goals can be a matter of institutional health or even life and death.  It is clearly unethical to admit a student who has no chance of success, but what if there is some chance?  In my previous job I worked as Admissions Director at an independent school that was struggling.  On my first day I counseled a student interested in transferring to stay at his current school because I wasn’t sure he could pass math in our program, and my secretary informed me that the school had never before discouraged a prospective student.  I had to admit a certain number of risks each year, and I knew some would work out and some not, but I didn’t know which students would fall into which group.  (I also learned that those students about whom I had behavior concerns would inevitably be hanging out with each other an hour after school began, but that’s a story for a different time.)


Even if a student looks unlikely to succeed and graduate, the first month of the school year, and especially the freshman year, is too early to determine that.  College is a developmental process, a transition from adolescence to adulthood, and each student’s journey is different, with the light going on at different times in a student’s college career.


Counseling students properly is part of an institution’s responsibility to the students who enroll and the families who invest both financially and emotionally in the institution’s program and mission, and that may include counseling out.  That’s not what happened here.  In pursuit of short-term goals to improve retention and thereby rankings, President Newman lost sight of the bigger picture and potentially has done long-term damage to a good place. Want to improve retention?  The better and more ethical plan would be to do a better job of helping the students already enrolled succeed and graduate. 

Character Welcome

(Second in a three-part series)

For the past ten years the USA cable television network has marketed itself using the catch phrase, “Characters Welcome.”  That phrase reflects the network’s decision to differentiate itself by producing original one-hour dramas built around oddball characters such as Monk, the detective with OCD played by Tony Shalhoub.


If a recent report gains traction, the college admissions world may soon embrace the message, “character welcome.”  Last month the Making Caring Common project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education released the report, “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions,” arguing that the college admissions process can and should promote ethical as well as intellectual engagement in students.


I wrote about “Turning the Tide” in a recent post, intended to be the first in a three-part series (the three-part series is unexplored territory for ECA).  This is part two, some reflections on character as a factor in college admission.  The third part will focus on whether the college admissions process as currently constituted serves the public interest or needs reform, even revolution.


“Turning the Tide” assumes that colleges have the power to change student behavior by the messages sent through the admissions process, an assumption not everyone shares.  But is that the case? Will asking different essay questions and valuing community service in a different way produce a more caring student body?  More to the point, do colleges care about a student’s character, and should they?


Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that I have strong opinions on this topic.  I am fortunate to work at a strong academic school that nevertheless clearly states that we care more about the kind of person we produce than the kind of student we produce, and with my own children I was clear that I cared more about their character than achievement (although I always added that I didn’t know why I couldn’t have both).


I don’t know that higher education is as concerned with character formation or development as I might like.  Character is acknowledged as a goal in many colleges' mission statements, but does that carry over to the admissions process?  Several years ago a senior administrator asked me if I had written about a student’s character in a letter of recommendation.  He was disheartened, or at least disillusioned, when I responded that they didn’t care about character.


Colleges are more concerned about behavior.  Dishonest or criminal behavior (which may reflect lack of character) can disqualify a student for admission (except for blue chip athletes, who get a pass), but strong GPA’s and SAT/ACT scores almost always outweigh strong character.  In my experience the student most likely to be disappointed by the college process is the great kid who thinks that character and good citizenship will be plus factors.


Perhaps that’s as it should be.  Character can be hard to define, much less to measure.  Does the nice kid who does the right thing on a daily basis exhibit character, or is character defined only by how one deals with adversity or even tragedy?


It is also the case that discussions of character can reflect personal and cultural biases.  Back in the 1960’s in Seattle, a citizens' committee made life or death decisions about whom would receive access to kidney dialysis at a time when there weren’t enough machines for everyone who needed treatment.  The committee’s definition of good character, including church attendance and membership in civic groups, reflected a narrow definition without diversity of thought, ethnicity, or experience, leading one commentator to write that the Pacific Northwest was no place for a Henry David Thoreau with bad kidneys.


As described by Jerome Karabel in his history of college admission at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, The Chosen, discussions of character and conventions like letters of recommendation entered college admission back in the 1920’s during a paradigm shift from admitting the best student to admitting the best graduate.  That move made admission to college resemble admission to a country club. Karabel argues convincingly that the move was an attempt to lower the number of Jewish students being admitted to HYP. 


The challenges inherent in defining and measuring character don’t mean that a college or university shouldn’t value character.  The admissions process is a key component in building a campus community, and a successful community requires a critical mass of individuals with character just as much as it needs other kinds of critical mass. 


The “Turning the Tide” report argues that colleges have a responsibility to send messages about what colleges value, and that those messages should be about concern for others and benefitting society.  I wonder whether several trends in admission actually work in opposition to those goals.  The “well-rounded student” is out of vogue at the nation’s most selective schools, and yet there is some evidence that being well-rounded is important for success in life, if not in the college admissions process.  “Hyperselectivity” may reward a certain kind of student who is obsessed with achievement or better at gamesmanship.  What happens when there is a student body full of such students and what happens after they graduate?  Will future graduates of the most elite colleges have the same impact on society that previous graduates did?  I don’t know the answers, but I think the questions are worth asking.


The USA cable network has sought to distinguish itself from the competition by counterprogramming, establishing a niche by developing programming that is original and different.  I would love to see just one highly-selective college or university decide to counterprogram by focusing on enrolling a student body devoted to character rather than academic achievement alone.  That would require different messages to students and parents, it would require investigating non-cognitive measures and predictors of success, and it would require the confidence to care less about U.S. News rankings. It would be an interesting experiment, and I’m betting it would be successful.


In his “I Have a Dream” speech, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of a day when children would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.  We have made much progress as a nation in the half-century since that speech, but we still focus on color of skin, only with an appreciation for the benefits greater diversity brings.  The next step in honoring Dr. King’s message is to value “ethicity” (a word I just made up) as well as “ethnicity.”





Reneging on Early Decision

Is it ever appropriate to renege on an Early Decision commitment?  Is it that big a deal?  Last Monday a post on the NACAC Exchange sought the collective wisdom of the list on those questions. The counselor responsible for the post wanted to advise a student on the repercussions of breaking an Early Decision commitment in order to accept an offer from another school. She reported that another area counselor had stated that backing out of an Early Decision commitment is not that serious, but she had heard rumors of ED list-sharing between colleges and even blacklisting.


The post on the Exchange arrived as I was in the midst of an all-too-rare frenzy of cleaning out my Inbox, and so I deleted it without much thought.  Later that same evening I received an e-mail that looked like another Exchange post, except that it was addressed to “Jim.”  It was from a colleague I have met but don’t know well, and she asked, “Should our group respond?”


One of the gifts I received from my mother was the ability to read between the lines and understand subtext and nuance.  Her first comment after my high school graduation was, “Dennis sure won a lot of awards,” which I correctly translated as “You sure didn’t.”  Likewise, when she told me how good my sister was to her, I understood that the commentary wasn’t about my sister but about me.  So when I read the e-mail, I realized that the proper response wasn’t that “Yes, someone should” but rather “Let me take a whack at it.”   I responded to the Exchange, but let me take a whack in this venue as well.


I consider an Early Decision commitment a big deal.  A number of years ago I had a student tell me on a Friday that he was planning to apply Early Decision to one institution and then tell me on Monday, after a weekend campus visit, that he was applying ED to a different institution.  He, like many students, considered Early Decision as an end in itself rather than a means to an end.  He was applying Early Decision, he just hadn’t decided where.  I told him that if one weekend campus visit could change his mind about where he wanted to go, then he wasn’t ready to apply anywhere Early Decision.


I don’t know whether I would give the same advice today.  I haven’t changed my view that Early Decision should be chosen as an application option only if a student is far enough along in their college search to know that they have an absolute first choice and don’t need their senior year to bolster their credentials for admission, but the realities of the selective college landscape today mean that Early Decision may now be a necessary strategy.  With some institutions admitting half their classes early and at least one Ivy anticipating that the admit rate for regular applicants will be 2%, Early Decision may be the only chance for an unhooked student to get admitted to a highly selective college or university.  There is therefore cognitive dissonance between my beliefs about how the college search and admissions processes should be conducted and my responsibility to advise my students properly.


Early Decision is not legally binding, but is a moral contract where the college agrees to give the student a decision earlier than normal in exchange for the commitment to attend if accepted.  Usually Early Decision also specifies or implies that the student will withdraw other applications once accepted Early Decision.  Most colleges require the student and parent (and in many cases the school counselor) to sign an Early Decision agreement acknowledging the expectations of Early Decision.


So, when, if ever, is it legitimate to back out of an Early Decision commitment?  It is considered kosher to renege on Early Decision if the college is unable to meet the student’s demonstrated financial need (not necessarily the same thing as what the family is willing to pay)?  On the same day that the post regarding Early Decision appeared on the NACAC Exchange, I received a call from the parent of one of my seniors who had been accepted E.D. 2 over the weekend.  The dad was confused and flustered because the financial aid package seemed to include no grant and approximately $30,000 in loans, a very different package than suggested on the college’s Net Price Calculator.


I hope the dad’s understanding about the financial aid package was incorrect, but that kind of package would seem a legitimate reason to back out of the ED commitment.  I suppose an all-loan package qualifies as meeting full need, but asking a family with clear need to go into debt more than $100,000 is indefensible.  I don’t happen to believe that a college has an ethical obligation to meet a student’s financial need, but it is ethically desirable and praiseworthy to do so.  I think the bigger issue from an ethical (and perhaps legal) standpoint is the discrepancy between the financial aid award and the Net Price Calculator.


Do colleges share ED lists and do they blacklist students and schools who break ED commitments?  In my Exchange post I mentioned that the technology now exists for colleges to know when a student has enrolled elsewhere and that it is not unheard of for both colleges to withdraw acceptances when they learn that a student has played games.  That is more likely to occur with double depositing on May 1 than in Early Decision.  I don’t have evidence of any kind of Early Decision blacklist, and suspect there are plenty of institutions who would be unconcerned that a student had backed out of a commitment at another institution, but I have heard a Dean of Admission at a prestigious national liberal-arts college state that she would hold a student’s failure to live up to the Early Decision commitment against the student’s high school.


What is a school counselor’s obligation with regard to an Early Decision commitment?  That question came up in a follow-up from a counselor after my post to the Exchange.


I think our first responsibility is to educate our students about what Early Decision means, focusing less on the Early piece and more on the Decision piece.  Early Decision is not a game or strategy or choice to be taken lightly.  The ethical obligations for the counselor are increased if he or she has signed an Early Decision agreement form or if the school is a member of NACAC, where the Statement of Principles of Good Practice requires counseling professionals to advise students to abide by application requirements and restrictions.  That is hard to do without the support of school administrators, especially in a litigious age.  In the rare case where there is a compelling reason for backing out of an Early Decision agreement, I would counsel the student to contact the college and ask to be released from the commitment.  The college may not be happy, but it also doesn’t want to force a student who doesn’t want to be there to enroll.


The larger question, of course, is whether Early Decision should exist at all.  That’s a discussion for another day. As long as ED is a recognized convention within the college admission world, we need to make sure that it works as intended and that it is taken seriously by all parties. 





Turning the Tide

(First of a three-part series)

Last week, just in time for the Blizzard of 2016, the Making Caring Common project at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education released a report, “Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions.”  The title is misleading, in that the report’s title and focus on concern for others have nothing to do with either University of Alabama football fans or college students who need to do laundry more often, but the report should nevertheless spark a lot of discussion in the world of college admission.


Making Caring Common’s goal is producing caring young people with ethical awareness and a concern for the common good, and “Turning the Tide” attempts to examine how those qualities might be reinforced through the college admissions process.  The report, authored by psychologist Richard Weissbourd, co-director of the project and a presenter at last fall’s NACAC conference in San Diego, argues that “the college admissions process is powerfully positioned to send different messages that help young people become more generous and human in ways that benefit not only society but students themselves” and that “colleges can powerfully collaborate to send different messages to high school students about what colleges value.”


The recommendations in the "Turning the Tide" focus on two areas.  One is promoting “meaningful, sustained community service,” contrasted with what the report describes as “high-profile or exotic forms of community service, sometimes in faraway places, that have little meaning to them (students) but appear to demonstrate their entrepreneurial spirit and leadership.”  Related to that focus are suggestions on how colleges might assess ethical awareness and concern for others, primarily through revised essay questions.


The second area involves reducing pressure to achieve to impress college admissions offices (what I would describe as resume-building).  Recommendations include: emphasizing quality over quantity in extracurricular activities; reducing the emphasis on taking as many AP/IB courses as possible; discouraging “overcoaching” of the application process; reducing test pressure; and challenging the belief that there are only a handful of “good” colleges.


I read “Turning the Tide” while snowed in over the weekend, and it is an important contribution to the conversation about what college admission should represent as process and as profession.  Like many reports, it is much better at identifying problems than it is at proposing solutions, and some critics have already questioned its basic premise that today’s prospective college students are lacking in ethical awareness and concern for society.


The report also hints at/begs larger questions about both college admission and higher education.  Is a college education about producing good students or good people?  What are the messages that colleges send to students through the college admissions process, and what messages should they be sending?  Does the college admissions process need overhauling, and are the changes needed evolutionary or revolutionary?


I’m going to attempt to tackle some of those questions in what will be a first for ECA, a three-part series.  In this first part, some observations regarding “Turning the Tide.”


First, I accept and endorse the report’s basic premise that colleges have an opportunity as well as an obligation to drive the conversation about what qualities and what credentials are important in the college admissions process.  The report seems to assume that colleges have the power to change the behavior of students and parents, and I’m not sure that’s the case, because there are other powerful influences at work.  But at a time when there is a billion-dollar industry profiting off the anxiety related to the college admissions process by peddling myths (or the term I prefer, “Suburban Legends”) about college admission, the failure of our profession, especially on the college side, to speak up and clarify what is important and what is b.s. is a lost opportunity and perhaps an abdication of responsibility.


One of those “Suburban Legends” involves community service, and the strength of the report is its focus on “meaningful, sustained community service.”  There is an argument to be made that all community service has value, but there is a clear difference between service that reflects an individual’s passion, service done to fulfill a graduation requirement, and service that is court-mandated.


There is also a difference between sustained service and one-shot service.  A number of years ago one of my students wrote in a college essay that his community service during our two-week experiential learning term was the most meaningful experience of his life.  When I pointed out that colleges might wonder, “If it’s was so meaningful, why aren’t you still doing it?”, he didn’t have a good answer. 


In many parts of the country there is a subtle arms race when it comes to service, founded in an assumption that the more glamorous the service, the more it will impress colleges. Is building a house in Haiti more worthwhile or impressive than building a house in one’s own community?  Colleges certainly don’t send that message, but do they dispel that idea clearly enough?


“Turning the Tide” isn’t as strong when it comes to making the admissions process more sane, rehashing ideas like reducing the emphasis on AP/IB courses and testing.  I don’t disagree with those, but don’t see that they will automatically produce more ethically aware students.  What those things have in common with community service is that they are shortcuts that stand-in for substance and depth.  One of the things about college admission best kept secret is how little time is spent reading applications compared with how much time students spend completing them.  Until that changes those short-cuts will continue to be emphasized.

One of the groups listed as supporting “Turning the Tide” is the Board of Directors of the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success.  I find that interesting, hopeful, and ironic.  One of the things that appealed to me about the Coalition was its language about establishing an admissions process that encourages reflection and personal growth in students, and yet when I sat through Coalition presentations at NACAC and the College Board Forum I wasn’t hearing anything that supported that, particularly in the proposed new application platform. 


The schools that have joined the Coalition are a powerful collection of leading public and private institutions that can truly drive conversation and changes about what the college admissions process should be.  At the same time, the establishment of the Coalition also seems at odds with the emphasis in “Turning the Tide” on expanding students’ thinking about “good” colleges, since the Coalition can be seen as an elitist club with membership requirements that exclude the majority of  “good” colleges and universities in the United States.


I hope “Turning the Tide” will engender an ongoing discussion within our profession about how college admission can serve the public interest (the “common good”) and not just institutional self-interest.






















ECA Quoted in Washington Post

Last week's post about the release of PSAT scores has garnered attention in several places.  

It was quoted in an article in Valerie Strauss's "Answer Sheet" column in the Washington Post, and despite the fact that the quote she selected highlighted my technological incompetence (inability to remember User Name and Password), I appreciate the mention.

The post was also highlighted last week by Inside Higher Ed as one of its two daily "Around the Web" selections.

Robert Schaeffer of FairTest expressed his appreciation for our question about whether the College Board's release of PSAT scores was best described as a fiasco or a snafu in a post on the NACAC Exchange.

As always, we are grateful for our readers and for the recognition.

Occam's Razor, Conspiracy Theory, and the College Board





I’m not a big fan of sports talk radio, but I listen when I’m in the car during times when NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered aren’t on.  Recently I have noticed a common advertiser on several different sports talk radio shows, the Dollar Shave Club.  I use an electric razor, so am unlikely to become a member, but apparently the deal is that the club does home delivery of razors and blades for less cost than found in stores.


I have become intrigued, though, by another product offered by Dollar Shave Club, Dr. Carver’s Easy Shave Butter.  I’m curious about the difference between Shave Butter and shaving cream, shaving foam, or shaving gel.  Is there such a thing as Difficult Shave Butter, or would that be considered shave margarine?  Is Dr. Carver the famous George Washington Carver, and if so, is Easy Shave Butter another of the hundreds of products he invented from peanuts?


In the last few days I have also been thinking about a different kind of razor.  In philosophy Occam’s Razor, named for the medieval philosopher William of Occam, is the hypothesis that the simplest explanation for a phenomenon or problem is usually the correct explanation.  Obviously William of Occam never watched TV detective shows, and obviously he never dealt with the College Board.


So is the College Board rollout of PSAT scores more accurately described as a fiasco or as a snafu?  Who would have guessed that the Board could make the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success’s introduction of its new application platform appear to be a public relations stroke of genius by comparison?  If the goal was to increase traffic on the NACAC Exchange, it worked. There were more than 50 posts regarding accessing scores.


It will probably not come as a surprise that most of them contained a hint of frustration and anger.  It wasn’t just the fact that the test scores were a month late or the difficulty in accessing scores whether you are a student or a counselor. For students it was a five-step process, and at the end of step five some students were told that they hadn’t taken any College Board assessments. 


For counselors the only thing more difficult than accessing the score reports was figuring out what the scores meant.  Over the weekend I went on the College Board website looking for explanatory information.  After getting my User Name and Password straight (not the College Board’s fault), I found a download that looked promising, but when I clicked on it I got not the PDF but the previous page.


The response from the College Board has been underwhelming (but hardly surprising).  Several e-mails expressed sympathy for our difficulties, but there was nothing that resembled an apology or acceptance of responsibility.


The discussion so far has been about accessing scores, but the more interesting issue is the scores themselves.  I had all my students in grades 9-11 take the PSAT (not the PSAT 8/9), and my preliminary look at the scores tells me that the ERW scores (Evidence-based Reading and Writing) for each grade are 30-35 points higher than the Critical Reading scores were last year for the same grade.  The math scores are also higher, but not to the same degree.  I also see that the increase in verbal (CR/ERW) + Math scores from 9 to 10 and 10 to 11 is about 120 points, close to twice the increase I saw a year ago in each case.  I’m apparently not the only one seeing increased scores.  Several independent school counselors have reported that the numbers of students with National Merit index scores exceeding the cutoffs for Semifinalist and Commended Student status are much higher than previous years.


So what does that mean?  I’m not sure, and the preliminary concordance released by the College Board isn’t much help.  Are my students much brighter than a year ago? Maybe.  Does the new test advantage students from schools with rigorous academic programs?  That was a hypothesis when I saw the design of the new test, but it is hard to imagine that an organization devoted to access and equity is going to produce a test that advantages those who are already privileged.  Or is this a new form of “recentering,” where all the scores are higher? If so, will we hear a year from now that the nation’s record-high SAT scores are evidence of the success of the Common Core, which just happened to be developed under the direction of one David Coleman, who leveraged that accomplishment for a new job as President of the College Board?


Occam’s Razor doesn’t help us answer any of those questions even when enhanced with an existential version of Dr. Carver’s Easy Shave Butter. It also doesn’t answer the broader question, which is why college admission continues to have rollouts of “new and improved” technology-driven innovations that are new but not improved.


First, there was the Common Application, then the Coalition, and now the College Board.  What do they have in common?  All involve the introduction of an enhanced technology platform that doesn’t work as promised.  Why is that?


(Please note:  What follows is intended to be tongue-in-cheek, which doesn’t mean it’s not also right.)


The only thing stronger than my belief in rationality as represented by Occam’s Razor is my belief in conspiracy theory.  What do Common Application, the Coalition, and the College Board have in common?  They all begin with the letters “CO.”  If that’s not evidence of a conspiracy (another word that starts with “CO”), I don’t know what is.


Is it coincidence (another CO word) that when the Common Application was taking heat for its lack of competence (CO word), the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success reared its head to deflect attention and make the Common Application’s problems seem minor?  Just when the counseling community (both CO words) begins getting exercised about the Coalition’s efforts, along comes the College Board with problems that take the Coalition away from the spotlight.  Are the snafus nothing more than a comedy (CO word) of errors, lack of competence (CO word), competition (CO word) to see who can screw up more creatively, or communism (CO word) rearing its ugly head?


And what is the significance of the letters CO?  It just happens to be the chemical formula for Carbon Monoxide.  Carbon Monoxide is colorless, odorless, tasteless, and toxic, killing its victims without awareness that they’re endangered.  At some level, aren’t all these innovations a kind of Carbon Monoxide, having a toxic effect on all of us and on the college admissions process we love?


So—Common Application, Coalition Application, College Board.  Coincidence or conspiracy?  Which seems like the more reasonable explanation?