Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The More Things Change

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

High school counselling offices are busy with the sounds of college this week.  PSAT results are being returned, leading juniors to wonder about the next steps in their exploration of college.  Meanwhile, seniors are starting to hear back from their colleges, especially the students applying through Early Action or Early Decision plans, where students organized enough to apply sooner, hear back from colleges sooner.

The busyness of this week seems to be as old as college itself, but even as this annual ritual plays itself out to a new audience, cracks in this traditional system are rising to the surface.  A detailed piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education spelled out the challenges faced by students whose applications for financial aid are flagged for verification by the US government.  On the one hand, most of these applications include unusual situations that often need to be investigated, to make sure they accurately represent the student’s need.  On the other hand, it should be no surprise that a vast majority of these students come from low-income backgrounds, and they aren’t used to having outside parties ask about their finances.  Combined with the second- , third-, and fourth-requests that are often part of the verification process, it’s no wonder many students flagged for review decide the process—and therefore college--  isn’t worth it.

Verification is just one of many parts of the college application process that’s been brought up for scrutiny and review this year.  Colleges using ACT or SAT test scores have generally asked students to submit official copies of the results—copies students typically have to pay for.  Dozens of colleges have changed that policy this fall, giving students the option of self-reporting their scores.  Many have put this policy into effect immediately, saving students hundreds of dollars, while costing testing companies thousands, if not millions, of dollars.  Combined with colleges who are allowing students to self-report their grades, the process of applying to college is becoming more of the work of the student, and less the task of coordinating the work of others.

Early Action and Early Decision programs are also under review, as many colleges admit as high as half of their students through an early program.  While data is lacking, there is a clear impression that more of the students applying to early programs come from high schools with more counseling services—schools that tend to be in higher income communities.  Low-income students who do apply early often run the risk of having to accept the financial aid offer of the Early Decision school that admits them without having the opportunity to compare offers from other college.  If they decide to compare the offers of several schools by waiting to apply Regular Decision, they run the risk of applying in a larger applicant pool, decreasing their chances of admission.

These challenges make it clear that changes in the college selection process could create new opportunities for students—but not everyone is in agreement about what those changes should be.  Advocates for test optional schools insist that reform lies in less testing, while accountability advocates insist the only way to track academic success is through more testing.  Suggestions that some students should defer college for a brief stint in the world of work—an experience that could increase their understanding of the value of college—are rebuffed by those who insist that students won’t go back to being students, once they know the feeling of having a regular paycheck.

Meanwhile, thousands of students are waiting to hear from colleges with news that could change their lives—proof that not all change is bad.

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