Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The Legacy of Lloyd Thacker

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

The counseling world is pausing this week to reflect on the retirement of Lloyd Thacker.  A former college admissions officer and college counselor, Lloyd left the world of high school in 2004 to start The Education Conservancy, a one-person non-profit dedicated to making sure college admissions remains student-centered, and not overcome by other interests.  Under Lloyd’s guidance, the Conservancy played an early role in calling college rankings into question, and was one of the first voices to question the importance of SAT and ACT testing in the college selection process.  In short, Lloyd was one of the first college admissions professionals who saw college admissions heading into the overheated, competitive morass it’s become today, and tried to steer us clear of this disaster.

Lloyd’s work has always inspired college admissions officers and school counselors who have long wondered just why college admissions needs to become the arms race it is.  That’s helped the field tremendously, since Lloyd’s very public work of challenging the assumptions that make up the base of college admissions, have led others to do so as well, creating more students who approach the process with a greater focus on who they are and what they need from college, and less focus on getting into the “right” college, if indeed such a thing exists.
As this excellent piece by Eric Hoover shows, one of the frustrations Lloyd realized during his work is how slow, and undetected, the nature of change can be in complex systems like college admissions. Michelle Obama’s success with the Reach Higher campaign is the exception to the rule.  Using the power of celebrity to celebrate low-income students and first generation students who overcome the odds is one thing; using data to get a college to abandon the US News rankings and develop a less sensationalistic tone to their student recruiting campaign is another.

The inability of college counseling—or school counseling in general—to make a major splash is both a blessing and a curse.  Keeping out of the limelight allows us to work with students in ways that are nearly anonymous, allowing counselor and student the freedom to explore ideas and discover answers without having to worry about the opinion of others.  This great gift is tempered by the need for greater recognition when counselors need to identify their successes, something they need to do when asking for more counseling time, or more resources to promote healthy students.  We could ask students to come forward and share their counseling successes to prove the worth of counseling.  But that can be a dicey proposition, and explaining what counselors do in some kind of hypothetical narrative often leads critics to ask, “So, all you do is talk all day?  What good does that do?”

That’s the challenge Lloyd faced- and all of us still face—in an age when colleges seem more interested in recruiting record students than making sure the few they admit graduate, and have an engaging college experience along the way.  If we can’t prove that a low-pressure, student-centered approach to college recruiting can lead to increased applications, why would a college risk changing their current practices?  Fewer applicants means a larger acceptance rate, something that plays havoc with rankings, and makes the college less elusive, and therefore less interesting.  That’s no way to increase Website clicks.

School counselors are keenly aware of the power and beauty of the moment when a breakthrough is made with a student—it’s why we do this work.  At the same time, the intensity of the work and the unique needs of each student makes it difficult to ramp this success up to a higher scale, sometimes making its value seem small in a world driven by Likes.  That’s the challenge we take with us when our work is done, and we look back to see notable achievements, all made out of the public eye.  The absence of a “big win” may make us wonder if our work ever made a difference.  The legacy Lloyd Thacker leaves is that work undetected is not the same as work unnoticed, and that reminder is a vital one indeed.

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