Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Letters and Venting

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Counselors seem to do a lot of venting this time of year. It’s easy to understand; there’s only so much energy to devote to the noble task of finding new ways to say “Wonderful” without having at least a little of it spill over to, as much as we love our students, wishing we were past this. That’s when those little things that typically sit quietly in the corner of our view take on a life of their own, leading to social media posts that say “Why do the colleges do this?”, “Why don’t the colleges do that?”, and the many variations of “Why do students come with parents?”

Some of these heat-of-the-moment murmurings have true merit. That came to mind last week with three announcements that garnered lots of attention. Smith College announced it was joining the rare air of colleges that include no loans in their financial aid packages. Smith joined Earlham College in the headlines, as Earlham announced it would now be tuition free to all low-income Indiana students. Finally, Amherst College joined the newsmaker when it announced it would no longer consider legacy as part of an application.

The Amherst news made the biggest splash, in part because legacy admissions is seen as the current roadblock to access and equity at many colleges (a gentle reminder that every part of the college application process is biased by wealth and privilege). When a storied place like Amherst makes this change, it suggests maybe all the muckety-muck schools may be poised to do the same.

On the other hand, it’s important to keep perspective. Smith, Amherst, and Earlham are all great schools, but they are also private, small, and mighty expensive. The number of colleges that, by themselves, enroll more students than these three combined is staggering, it’s easy to see why most counselors—and certainly most students—would look at these announcements with a pronouncement of “Yeah? So?”

And there’s the problem with trying to change college admission—yes, the system is skewed, and far too many bright students are denied access to colleges that would do them a world of good. But how exactly do you fix that? By calling on individual institutions to be their own change agents, or by affecting public policy to move the entire profession in a different profession?

There are clearly limits to both. Colleges have the admissions policies they have because they work for that particular college. It takes a lot of humility and vision to say “Hmm, maybe this doesn’t need to be in the mix after all.” It also takes a lot of courage, since every change runs the risk of, well, change, including at the bottom line—and once the ledger is involved, it brings the attention of more than just school counselors or admissions folks.

On the other hand, the notion that one public policy change will fix all problems is simply wishful thinking. The moment the free college folks start talking about free food banks and child care for all, we’re not really talking about just free college, and are talking about lots of equity issues. That complicates things, and may make good the victim of perfect.

The visions we get during letter writing season of a more just and equitable process run the gambit from small to huge, and are vital to the progress of the profession. Grand or petite, they have their value—but they do take commitment, and they require action beyond a social media post or two. That’s the nature of change; it’s a great idea, but it’s also a project.

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