Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Fixing College Admissions: If There Was Just One Thing…

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I don’t have to tell most of you November 1 is a pretty big deal in the world of college admissions. With more and more students applying Early Decision and Early Action (you know the difference, right? RIGHT?!), many high schools report they are sending more transcripts and college applications out in October than they are for the rest of the year combined. This surge in early applications leads many counselors to wonder if students are still making thoughtful decisions about where to apply, now that they feel this need for speed to get their applications in. Is it really true that you make a weaker decision if you get less time to think about it?

The larger issue for many counselors is the unintended advantage this early application mania gives to students who go to high schools with more counselors. More counselors, the theory goes, means smaller caseloads, giving counselors more time to meet with students and fine tune college plans. Does that mean students with fewer counselors lack the understanding or resources to apply early—and if colleges take as many as 60% of their students early, does that put these students at an even greater disadvantage when it comes to applying to college?

It turns out, this is just the start of the conversation about the fairness of college admission. Long ago, college counseling guru Jon Boeckenstedt pointed out how something as innocuous as the teacher letter of recommendation can give an advantage in the college application process to students in wealthier schools. I’ve since taken that theme and shown how similar advantages exist in test preparation, essay help, interviews—just about every part of the college selection process. Colleges are only well too aware of these inequities, but how they adjust for them as they wade through a mountain of applications is another issue. Does every admission officer understand how unbalanced the system can be?

This question seems to be on the minds of more than a few of our colleagues. This week, NACAC announced the formulation of an Ad Hoc Committee on Leadership in College Admission. Among their other charges, the Committee will look at the existing college admissions process and simply ask—how can we do better? The announcement of the committee has already generated a lot of buzz among counselors, as this is the first time in recent memory NACAC has looked at the current state of admission as a construct.

Of course, NACAC is by no means the only group asking this question. This upcoming weekend, the Facebook group Hack the Gates will be convening for their first group-based effort to consider what college admissions should look like. The first answer, of course, is “different,” but this weekend’s convening (if you go to the webpage, you can find out how to participate online) is the first serious effort to put meat on the bones of this proposition of change.

Early indications suggest this desire to develop new admissions methods could be fruitful. In the last few years alone, test-optional schools, schools that allow self-reported grades and scores, and colleges developing alternative admissions methods have seen unparalleled growth, with each change making access to the process easier. Changes in issues like affordability (Is there really such a thing as free college? Would colleges give up the financial benefits of Early Decision programs if doing so increased access to college for all?) and completion rates may prove to be thornier propositions, but the “one piece at a time” approach in the admissions process itself suggests there is a hunger to find a better way for higher education to serve all students.

This is an exciting time to be a counselor.

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