College Access Counseling

My firm, College Access Counseling, Ltd., works with adults and organizations who counsel and support first-generation and minority students on the way to college. I teach the ins and outs of the college process, helping them build social and cultural capital for their students. Click here for more information. I also write for NACAC's blog, Admitted. You can read my entries as well as some of my colleagues', here. Click here to read one of my entries in the New York Times's blog, The Choice.

May 23, 2009

System of a Downer

Those of us in the admission profession tend to think about what we do fairly narrowly when we talk about issues like testing, essays, financial aid, and other aspects of the college process. We focus on how we perceive them as elements of what we do, how they are related to the Standards of Principles and Good Practice (SPGP) and how they affect our bottom lines, whatever those might be for a high school or a college.

We forget sometimes that the college admission process is not an isolated thing--it is part of a system, or rather several systems. It doesn't exist in a vacuum, and it's not merely a neutral end result of twelve years of education. Among other things, it exists at the choke point between high school and post-secondary education, at a moment the late great MIT admission officer B. Alden Thresher called "the great sorting." When requirements are changed they reverberate through the educational system before it and alter the makeup of student bodies following it; when iconic universities decide to do something, it affects what others do as well.

Ripples from college admission intersect with major themes and threads of American culture. Class and status affect (or distort) how families are able to think about post-secondary opportunities for their children; educational philosophies affect how high schools articulate with colleges; economics determines the relationships that exist among families, colleges, endowments, and so on; the economy itself determines how many graduates the workforce can handle, and so on and on. In this light, the seemingly one-to-one relationship of good acadedmic performance and college admission seems almost comically small, although it takes up most of the reporting about it and should really be the centerpiece of the whole process.

Examples of these interrelations can be seen almost every day: How will "Score Choice" affect how students report their testing to colleges? How do private counselors affect the "integrity" of students applications? Why do people who can afford it feel compelled to use them in the first place? What's at stake? If a high school decides to use a unique grading system, how will that affect its students? When colleges change their admission requirements, how does that affect high schools? If financial aid becomes more restricted, how will families educate their children?

Some of these questions seem trivial, but if you listen to counselors and college people enough you'll see they reverberate as the system tries to adjust to maintain its equilibrium. But outside forces are always impinging on it and we don't always see that. What about those class and status issues? What about the growth of test prep as high schools decide scores are critical to college admission even as more and more colleges go test optional or treat scores with more latitude? Is the divide between low-income and upper-income students being addressed in regard to college access beyond now-traditional "multi-cultural recruitment" programs? Are those enough?

Not enough has been done to consider college admission and what surrounds it in the larger context of American culture. One problem is that it is such a vast and complex phenomenon it's difficult to know where to begin. But more should be done to study it in that context so we can try to create a genuinely equitable system that will motivate, accept, and educate all students to the best of their abilities no matter what their backgrounds. Until we have a comprehensive view of college admission, we will be talking too much to ourselves.

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Blog Archive

Books About College, Teens, and American Culture

  • A History of American Higher Education
  • A Hope in the Unseen
  • Admission
  • Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic
  • African Americans and College Choice
  • Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture
  • Boys Adrift: The Five Factors Driving the Growing Epidemic of Unmotivated Boys and Underachieving Young Men
  • Branded: The Buying and Selling of Teenagers
  • Campus Life
  • Class
  • College Access & Opportunity Guide
  • College Admissions and the Public Interest
  • College Admissions Together: It Takes a Family
  • College Gold: The Step by Step Guide for Paying for College
  • College Knowledge: What It Really Takes for Students to Succeed and What We Can Do to Get Them Ready
  • College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy
  • Colleges that Change Lives
  • Consumed
  • Contradictions of School Reform: Educational Costs of Standardized Testing
  • Doing School: How We are Creating a Generation of Stressed-out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students
  • First in the Family
  • Fiske Guide to Colleges
  • Going to College: How Social, Economic, and Educational Factors Influence the Decisions Students Make
  • Harvard, Schmarvard
  • Higher Learning, Greater Good: The Private & Social Benefits of Higher Education
  • Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood
  • I Am Charlotte Simmons
  • Increasing Access to College:
  • Less Stress, More Success: A New Approach to Guiding Your Teen Through College Admission and Beyond
  • Leveling the Playing Field: Justice, Politics, and College Admissions
  • Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered America
  • Limbo: Blue-Collar Roots, White-Collar Dreams
  • Looking Beyond the Ivy League
  • Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions
  • Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class
  • Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes
  • Race and Class Matters at an Elite College
  • Rescuing Your Teenager From Depression
  • Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education
  • Sophomore Guide to College & Career: Preparing for life After High School
  • Standardized Minds: The High Price of America's Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It
  • Status Anxiety
  • Taking Time Off
  • Tearing Down the Gates: Confronting the Class Divide in American Education
  • The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy
  • The Bond: Three Young Men Learn to Forgive & Reconnect with Their Fathers
  • The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools
  • The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton
  • The Culture of Narcissism
  • The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College
  • The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in American Life
  • The Little College Handbook: A First Generation's Guide to Getting in and Staying In
  • The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College
  • The Pact: Three Young Men Make a Promise and Fulfull a Dream
  • The Pressured Child: Helping Your Child Find Success in School and Life
  • The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges--and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates
  • The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids
  • The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager
  • The Secret Lives of Overachievers
  • The Unintended Consequences of High Stakes Testing
  • Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education
  • What Color Is Your Parachute? for Teens