Ethical College Admissions: Responding to Parkland

Jim Jump reviews the way college admissions officials have responded to the tragic killings at a Florida high school.

February 26, 2018

It is probably poetic justice that I am now a school counselor/teacher/administrator. When I reflect on my days as a student, I must admit that I was a thorn in the sides of both my high school principal and my college president. A colleague says that I am still a rabble-rouser, someone who likes to rock the boat without flipping it over.

I was never a troublemaker, just a smart-ass. When my high school principal announced that anyone who skipped school would be suspended, I was the one who wondered out loud if that actually punished someone who didn’t want to be in school to start with.

In college, when the president opposed men visiting to women's dorms and vice versa, I asked in an open forum that if his primary motivation was worry about sexual activity, shouldn’t he also be worried about same-sex activity and therefore not allow anyone to visit another student? For some reason he declined to respond.

I am not so old to have lost my youthful idealism, hatred of BS (except when it stands for bachelor of science) and capacity for righteous indignation. And so I have watched with admiration and empathy as students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School have tried to translate their tragedy, pain and loss into a crusade to address gun violence and school shootings.

After Columbine and Sandy Hook, school shootings were described with the adjective “isolated,” but in 2018 a school shooting no longer qualifies as news. It takes a horrific event like the one in Parkland, Fla., to penetrate the public consciousness. So is gun violence against children a peculiarly American form of terrorism, or is it a public health crisis? Would we be as blasé about a new strain of flu threatening schoolchildren at the same rate?

For those of us who have devoted our lives to educating and counseling young people, the news of the past couple of weeks hits close to home, and not just because schools are also our workplaces. What special responsibility do we have to our students and to society at this time?

On Friday an Inside Higher Ed article reported that a number of admissions offices have expressed support for students protesting gun laws, making it clear that students suspended from their schools for walkouts or participation in protests for what they believe in will not jeopardize their admission.

I think that’s the right call. Districts have the right to suspend students for missing class, and students need to understand that sincere protest and civil disobedience have never been without consequences, but admission to college should not be among them. The question, raised by several comments to the article, is whether colleges will be as supportive of students protesting what they believe in if those beliefs are less “politically correct,” such as anti-immigration or white supremacist.

That was the positive response from the admissions world.

There were also several responses that seemed forced and self-serving. The one that received the most attention was a tone-deaf statement from College Board president David Coleman that seemed to use student Emma González’s comments as an endorsement for the CB’s Advanced Placement brand. What was most troubling was that Coleman did not apologize for the statement himself, but through a College Board spokesman. Not much better are several emails I received from colleges promoting their culture of student activism.

I think that supporting our students starts with identifying the values and principles that are the foundation of our work. I have always believed that college counseling is not ultimately about getting into college but rather about helping a young person prepare for adulthood. My job is to be a trail guide during a student’s journey of discernment or self-discovery, where they figure out who they are and what they care about.

Choosing a college should be a student’s first adult decision. It’s important, not trivial. The choice in most cases is neither obvious nor clear. And you may not get what you want or even what you deserve. As such it’s excellent preparation for adulthood.

As counselors we navigate two conflicting roles. One is to support our students in pursuing their dreams. The other is to serve as a voice of reality. That is true not only in the college admissions process but in life.

As adults we need to support the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas and at other schools who want to change gun laws. We need to encourage their desire to change the world, we need to take their views seriously and we need to applaud their passion.

We also need to support them when their crusade meets resistance, as it already has, with conspiracy theorists alleging that the students speaking out are imported “crisis actors,” legislators dismissing their concerns as childish, and the gun lobby arguing that any restrictions are the first step down a slippery slope that will inevitably lead to the government banning all guns.

The slippery-slope argument is one of two logical fallacies at play in the debate over guns. The other is what might be called the “rational person” (formerly rational man) fallacy, the view that if I hold a certain position, then any rational person would hold the same position. All of us are prone to that view, but it’s dangerous, preventing rational discussion of difficult issues because of inability to understand the opposing viewpoint.

The gun control issue is complex, providing more questions than answers. I am not a gun owner, but I recognize that there are millions of law-abiding American citizens who are, and the Second Amendment gives them the right to do so. But the Second Amendment is confusing even for those who claim to be constitutional originalists. Is the essence of the amendment the right to bear firearms without restriction, or is that tied to the phrase “well regulated militia”?

What would the writers of the Second Amendment, whose frame of reference was the musket, think of the AK-47? If the right to bear arms is absolute, why can’t the average citizen own a tommy gun or a bazooka or a flamethrower? To what extent is the problem the weapons and to what extent the mental health of those who misuse them? Is a license to own a gun different from a license to drive a car? Will passing new laws make us safer or just feel better?

Our students need to know that changing the world is a noble cause but one that is neither easy nor quick. I hope we will support and validate their passion and idealism. I hope we will help them come to understand their unique path to make a difference, even if that is being a rabble-rouser and a smart-ass. Most of all, I hope we will show them that what is most important is keeping the world from changing you.


Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher’s since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women’s basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.


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