Ethical College Admissions: A Fresh Perspective

Looking at another school's counseling program can provide insights on your own school, and on admissions, writes Jim Jump.

June 4, 2018

I spent most of last week serving on a visiting team at a strong independent school. It’s a good place with a well-deserved reputation for excellence, it does a lot of things right and it is blessed with the resources to bring in fresh sets of eyes to look at various parts of the school in order to enhance what is already a good program.

Spending time at another institution is eye-opening and enriching. I always come away with ideas that make me evaluate my own college counseling approach, and I am reassured that all of us face similar challenges. I leave impressed, and I also return home with a renewed appreciation for my own institution.

I am always amazed at how quickly a visiting team of educators can get a handle on the soul of a school or college. That is not to say that there isn’t a danger of drawing a conclusion that is way off the mark from a couple of random comments, of adding two and two and arriving at five as the answer.

During an accreditation visit to my school a number of years ago, one of the concerns raised by the visiting team had to do with the course scheduling process for students. At good schools there usually aren’t major areas of weakness, increasing the likelihood that some recommendation may come out of left field. “Where did that come from?” the head of school asked me as we left the meeting where the visiting team summarized its findings. We elected not to change anything, and five years later the committee for the interim visit not only commended us for the same process but asked if they could borrow our process and materials.

Last week I found myself thinking about the state of college admission and some of the issues impacting college counseling, many of which I’ve written about before.

One is the volatility and unpredictability of the admissions process. On both sides of the desk we have always relied on inductive reasoning, using past experience to make educated predictions about the future. Admission offices use predictive yield modeling to decide how many students to admit, and college counselors try to help students develop a realistic list of places to apply based on past experience. But what happens when every year is new and unexpected, when past experience no longer predicts future behavior?

Take this year, for instance. Several months ago there was lots of angst on the secondary side about the seemingly record number of students being wait-listed, including some colleges where more students were on the wait list than were admitted. In recent years I have come to believe that the wait list is now a regular part of the admissions process, with 10 to 20 percent of my seniors ending up enrolling at a college or university off the wait list.

Then came this year. After all the talk about the size of wait lists, I’ve seen almost no wait-list action at all among the selective colleges and universities I deal with regularly. In early May I had phone calls from admission dean friends wondering if I was seeing any wait-list movement for my students, and last week several other deans wondered in separate conversations how everyone in the selective tier could seemingly be full.

So what are the implications? Are we seeing a trend, an anomaly or a trend that every year is going to be an anomaly?

And what does it means for college counseling? A big part of our job is serving as a trail guide for students and parents, but what happens when the trail is washed away and no longer recognizable?

That leads into the second issue. How do we effectively prepare students for the realities of the college process? Good college counseling is a tightrope walk, a delicate balancing act between supporting students’ dreams and being the voice of reality in case those dreams don’t work out. We work without a net, and there is danger with every step. Go too heavy on realism and you may be seen as not believing in the student, whereas excessive optimism may lead to shock and anger when reality hits without warning.

How predictable should the college process be? At one end of the spectrum are students and parents who think there must be a formula or “secret handshake.” At the other end are colleges for whom unpredictability is a strategic objective, a sign of success or mystique. I am happy for colleges that have had record numbers of applications or record low admit rates, even if it comes across in my grumpier moments as “we’re so excited that we could turn down so many of your students.”

I suppose that record admission years serve institutions well, but do they serve the public good? Do we want admission to college to seem unpredictable and even random? No college wants to be seen as a safety school, but are we headed for a landscape where no college wants to be seen as a reasonable choice?

I wonder about the long-term impact on our young people. We know there is a rise in anxiety and mental health concerns among college students. To what extent does the college admission process as presently constituted contribute to those issues?

And what does that mean for our country as it prepares to compete with China for 21st-century world leadership? Optimism about the future has always been America’s strength. There are already concerns that today’s students may face reduced expectations for surpassing their parents economically. Is the same thing true educationally? Should college admission be unfair because life is unfair? Or might unpredictability in admission lead to malaise among young people?

I, for one, don’t relish finishing my career as the college counseling version of President Carter (who is probably the best ex-president we’ve ever had), telling students that they must diminish their expectations. So what are we to do?

I hope we will commit to a counseling model that is educational rather than transactional. I hope we will see the college search as first and foremost a process of discernment and self-discovery. I hope we will talk more about college as an experience than as a name brand. I hope we will give attention to the students who most need help to overcome the disadvantages of background. And I hope we will function as college admissions myth busters.

Those core beliefs will allow us to face the moral uncertainty identified by the Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard, who said that life can only be understood backward, but must be lived forward. We must be trail guides even when we’re not sure where the trail is leading.


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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