Ethical College Admissions: Declaration of Independents

Issues of money need attention in the admissions world, writes Jim Jump.

September 23, 2019
 
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Later this week the college admissions profession will convene in Louisville, Ky., for the National Association for College Admission Counseling conference. For many of us, NACAC is a must-attend event, a chance to connect with friends and colleagues and recharge before returning home to face the onslaught of the fall and winter, whether that be fall travel, recommendation writing or reading season.

There will be a pall over this year’s NACAC conference as the association and the profession prepare for an uncertain future. The profession has lived through 2019 with the publicity and fallout from the Operation Varsity Blues scandal. That scandal has raised important and still unanswered questions about whether the scandal was an anomaly, a hacking of the college admissions process or a clear sign that the admissions process at elite colleges is a “privilege-ocracy” where family wealth and connections count for more than individual merit.

Furthermore, NACAC itself is reeling from a Department of Justice investigation into its Code of Ethics and Professional Practices (CEPP), the latest iteration of ethical standards that have guided the practice of college admission for 80 years. The DOJ’s Antitrust Division has interpreted several parts of the document as “restraint of trade,” preventing colleges from competing for students and preventing students from having opportunities to pay less for college. On Saturday NACAC will ask its membership to repeal three provisions of the CEPP as part of a good-faith effort to deal with a likely consent degree from the DOJ and avoid litigation that could jeopardize NACAC’s financial health.

Those two issues will receive the bulk of attention in Louisville and will overshadow a couple of other issues just as vital for the future of the profession.

One is ensuring that we are a profession that not only values diversity and multiculturalism, but is itself diverse and multicultural. Admission officers and college counselors have to be engines of access and equity, serving as trail guides helping students on their personal journeys to college and beyond. To do that we need to ensure that we are attracting a diverse group of professionals with backgrounds, voices and experiences that understand and reflect the diversity of the students we will serve.

The other is making sure that our own house is in order. We often talk about NACAC bringing together professionals from “both sides of the desk,” but the reality is that today we need a desk that is multisided. Community-based organizations will continue to assume a larger role in providing college counseling resources for students who most need assistance in navigating the college admissions process. And it’s time to address head-on the uncomfortable tension between school-based professionals and the independent educational consultant community.

I have previously written about the damage from Operation Varsity Blues and different groups victimized by the scandal, and independent counselors certainly belong high on that list. Rick Singer was nominally an independent consultant, as was Lora Georgieva, the mastermind behind the scheme employed by Chicago-area parents who gave up guardianship of their children to enable them to qualify for independent status and more need-based financial aid. Their actions confirm the worst stereotypes about independent consultants as charging high fees for assistance in gaming the system. Our independent counselor colleagues have to overcome the damage done from unscrupulous and criminal behavior exhibited by others who masquerade as independent educational consultants.

They also have to overcome lingering suspicion from those of us on the school-based counseling side of the desk. In a recent column about whether admission officers trust too much and verify too little, I included a throwaway line that in retrospect I should have thrown away, referring to independent consultants who help clients pad résumés. The column attracted comments almost immediately from two independent educational consultants who read the reference as trashing the IEC community. That wasn’t my intent at all, but I could understand their hurt and defensiveness, and so I reached out to them to apologize.

Both responded with thoughtful, lengthy emails. Each had been a school counselor prior to going into private practice, and both of them talked about feeling that their credibility and professionalism were constantly called into question by colleagues on the school counseling or college admissions side of the desk. One said eloquently, “I am honest, dedicated and tireless. To think that crossing the pond diminished my integrity, intellect and value as a professional is a thorn that is constantly accosting me.”

I contacted Mark Sklarow, chief executive officer for the Independent Educational Consultants Association, for his thoughts on what the independent counseling community is facing. He responded, “I think there is a pervasive sense that independent college advisers are not only not needed, but often unworthy … If a student needs extra help in algebra, their teacher embraces the idea of outside tutoring, understanding that students learn differently and require different levels of support, guidance and help. Yet when students seek additional help outside of the college counseling office (where a counselor may have 600 students), too often students are advised not to do it!” He added that the scandals, none of which involved members of IECA, will ultimately help the profession by showing the need for vetting and commitment to ethical standards that is required to become a member of IECA.

The tension between the school and independent counseling communities is not new. When I served as chair of the NACAC Membership Advisory Committee nearly 25 years ago, there was a heated debate about whether independent counselors should be allowed to become members of NACAC.

We’re well past that, but we can’t become satisfied and complacent about how far we’ve come. IECs don’t receive invitations to many of the social receptions held at the NACAC conference, and one of my correspondents commented that “IECs feel like pariahs at the conference.” There are some hopeful signs. The next president of NACAC, my friend Jayne Fonash, recently moved to the independent side after a distinguished career as a public school counselor. I also understand from a source that NACAC will be sitting down with representatives from IECA and the Higher Education Consultants Association later this fall.

This week’s episode of This American Life highlighted the difficulty in our society of communicating honestly with those different from us, and the school-based counseling/independent counseling divide could very well have been an example. It’s time for us as a profession to overcome differences and cede turf.

We have known for some time that school-based college counseling is challenged by the increase in counseling loads and the number of things dumped on public school counselors’ plates. We also know that we are encountering a generation of parents who hired batting, pitching and fielding coaches when their kids were in Little League, so we can’t be surprised or offended when they choose to engage outside help for the college process. In most cases it’s not personal.

My counseling philosophy, easier to offer than to follow, has always been to focus on the things over which we control rather than the things we don’t. We may not have control over how the DOJ inquiry plays out, and there is a risk that we will cease to be a profession committed to shared values. We do have control over avoiding stereotyping each other and petty feuds with our colleagues sitting on a different side of the desk. Let us overcome our differences and commit to the truths we hold to be self-evident about college admission and college counseling.

Bio

Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher's School in Richmond, Virginia. 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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