Asking Questions That Need to be Asked

iu-4In previous posts I have severely criticized the “Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success” and the report “Turning the Tide,” both of which reveal a lack of respect for high school counselors and students as well as a misunderstanding of how students, families, and counselors from all backgrounds approach the college process. In fact, they indicate a surprisingly severe myopia among primarily high-status colleges and universities about how those not in college admission offices perceive it.

A recent discussion with a thoughtful, experienced, and worried high school counselor clarified for me the sense that many counselors feel they don’t have the background or even the right to criticize colleges and universities when they make decisions that ultimately affect their students well beyond the limits of simply applying to college. And when a group of high-status institutions acts in concert, they feel it’s even harder to speak up.

Today I’m addressing every counselor working with students of every background aspiring to college educations: public, private, independent, and organizationally-based. You do have the right and, in fact, the duty, to speak up and question the behaviors of institutions when you believe them to be wrong or misguided. It’s unfortunate that as counselors we do not have the leverage that high-status colleges and universities have: We can’t withhold students’ applications or issue edicts or change the admission process from the high school side. We also can’t meet as a group away from prying eyes to establish a cartel to control the process (although there are subsets like ACCIS and the Jesuit schools’ group who have made their objections known). We can, however, ask questions.

iu-2Counselors spend a lot of time asking questions: Do you have any ideas about college? What would you like to study? How are you doing in your classes? What do you need to meet this deadline? That’s our stock in trade. As a group, we need to put that habit to good use by asking questions of and demanding answers from the “Coalition” and the “Tide,” as well as any other entities who need to be held accountable for behaviors we find questionable.

With that in mind, I’ve developed a series of questions counselors can ask colleges and universities, especially those associated with the “Coalition” and “Tide.” Feel free to use them with the college admission officers who visit your schools or when you are on campus talking with them. So far, I and others have received mostly “Stepford Wives” answers to many of them (“We are leveraging technology to level the playing field…” “How, exactly?” “We are leveraging technology to level the playing field…” That sort of thing.) But the key is to keep asking, ask publicly, and refuse to take a non-answer for an answer.

The Questions (750-1,000 words per question, minimum)

For the Coalition and its members:

  1. Why did you decide to create an entirely new “common” application when one already exists?
  2. What were/are the problems with the Common Application besides a temporary and fixable glitch in its online processing?
  3. If your main reason for developing a new application was discontentment with the Common Application, how will your application improve on it?
  4. How do you define “access,” specifically as it relates to underserved students?
  5. How, exactly, will your application address the problem of “access?”
  6. Many of your members already do a good job attracting applicants and creating diverse classes. Why was there a need for a Coalition of colleges already successful in this area?
  7. How much discussion did you have with college counselors or other non-admission officers before making this decision and what were some of the issues you discussed?
  8. How deeply did you study the admission processes of your colleges relative to underserved students before you made the decision to develop a new system?
  9. How was the “online portfolio/locker” decision made and why? Who suggested it? Has it been successfully used in other contexts? Which ones?
  10. You have said the locker is “private” but you indicate that students can share it with others. Why would you set it up like that? Wouldn’t keeping it private obviate the need for it?
  11. What do you imagine a 9th-grader would put in a locker? How would that change over time and how would it influence his or her eventual college selections, if that’s one of the goals?
  12. If one of the objects of the locker is so students can get help from colleges in their pursuit of a college education, how do you intend to structure that and how will admission staffs handle that new responsibility?
  13. Although the locker is said to be “optional,” students and families (especially privileged families) will almost certainly see it as a way to gain a competitive advantage in the admission process. How will you  deal with that situation when it arises?
  14. How will you evaluate the items in the locker relative to the application itself? What measures will you use? How will students with no locker or a “private” locker be seen relative to those who have lockers fully packed with papers, projects, etc.?
  15. It seems more likely that the locker, if colleges have access to it, will be used as much for colleges’ access to students’ data for marketing purposes as it would be to assist them in their journey to college. How will you address this issue, which includes the issue of privacy?
  16. Please explain how “technology” will level the playing field between privileged and underserved students. Include an explanation of what that technology will be and how you intend to see that it is equally available to all (i.e., a leveled playing field).
  17. Why did the Coalition decide to use CollegeNet to build its platform, when that company has been well-known for suing and continuing to sue, the Common Application? This action would appear to indicate the Coalition’s hostility toward the Common Application and therefore toward its playing field-leveling function.
  18. Although CollegeNet is said to be building the platform for free, presumably Coalition members will eventually be charged an annual fee. Why not use that money to support underserved students directly or to improve the Common Application itself?
  19. Why have the Coalition and its members been silent since the announcement at NACAC last fall? Why did it announce a significant project that was clearly under-researched and under-developed?
  20. Why hasn’t the Coalition been more transparent about its creation, function, and goals, and does it intend to be moreso in the future? If so, in what ways?

For “Turning the Tide” (750-1,000 words per question, minimum)

  1. You placed great emphasis on how students and parents can/should change their behaviors regarding preparing for college, yet very little on how colleges can change theirs, except for including more essays or “encouraging” applicants to do things. Why is that? What would you recommend colleges do to help make the proposed changes realities?
  2. Your major changes seem to revolve around including more essays, including some about social service and the ethical challenges the applicant may have experienced during the process. How do you expect these to further the goals of the report, how do you expect them to be evaluated by admission committees, and how do you expect them to valued in relation to academic and other current elements of the application? Do you expect students to answer the essays truthfully or in ways they believe college admission officers expect them to?
  3. You indicate that the “college admission process” can change individuals’ behavior, and that by asking the right questions on the application colleges can steer students from being “all about me” to being more compassionate and other-directed. How do you see that working, especially when there is such a highly valued goal at stake?
  4. You emphasize a lessening of pressure on students to take AP/IB courses or multiple ACT/SAT testing, yet given the competitiveness of the colleges many students will be applying to, how would it be possible to achieve this result?
  5. Encouraging greater community involvement, compassion, and other-directedness in youth is an admirable goal, but isn’t that a job for parents, schooling, and communities themselves? Although the college application looms large in many students’ lives as the end of high school approaches, how can it really be expected to influence not only behavior but also genuine character formation as children grow up?
  6. If there is to be a “compassion index,” let’s say, that is somehow connected to the college application, how will it be evaluated and used in the admission process? Will it be consistent across colleges? Will there be trainings for admission officers in the field? Why or why not?
  7. Sincerity and authenticity are excellent qualities to encourage in students, but the college admission process is inherently artificial. How will college admission officers be able to distinguish students who are sincere and authentic from those who are not?
  8. Isn’t raising these qualities to essentials for college acceptance simply shifting pressure from one quality (academics) to another and therefore unlikely to achieve the goal you intend? If not, why not?
  9. How would you expect counselors to advise students approaching the college process? If the students have not already committed themselves to service, etc., should the counselors urge them to do so, knowing they will be evaluated accordingly? If so, doesn’t that defeat the goal of “authenticity?” If counselors don’t advise students to take on other-directed activities, are they not doing their best for their students? Should counselors begin telling students in 9th grade to find ways to be compassionate? If not then, when? Should counselors inform parents that their children need to be compassionate to get to college?
  10. Is it really within the purview (or power) of the college admission process to control or influence students’ behaviors and inner lives? If so, why? If so, why privilege these particular qualities over others? Alternatively, is it really possible for admission officers accurately to discover how “authentic” or “sincere” students are? Are you not trying to address major cultural and social issues through a highly restricted, highly stylized process?

Some of the institutions in the Coalition have already appointed staff members to be liaisons charged with handling inquiries, relations with schools, etc. I suggest sending these questions to them as a start. Ask the representatives who visit your school (if they do) a few of them (I know the time constraints). Add your own. You know who your students are. If nothing else, simply asking the questions that need to be asked is enough.


About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. I also blog for on college admission issues that affect students and families. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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2 Responses to Asking Questions That Need to be Asked

  1. Jon Boeckenstedt says:

    My wife always says she goes shopping in her own closet first. The Ivy League Universities denied 220,000 students in 2013. One might think some of them are low-income.


  2. Mark Kantrowitz says:

    Won’t the lockers add new barriers to low-income students. The more barriers you erect, the fewer low-income students who will have access to the Coalition colleges.


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