'Brown Is Completely Off the Table'

Private counselors report that, since the election, more parents are ruling out their children applying to some colleges, based on political reputations.

June 26, 2017
Protests (l to r) at Brown, Wesleyan and Oberlin
(Getty Images, Wesleyan, Wikipedia)

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- The parents were distraught. Their daughter, a top student, had her heart set on a college that was, in their view, dangerously liberal, an institution to be avoided. They wanted options besides her daughter's choice at the time … Yale University.

This was the situation a private college counselor shared here at the annual meeting of the Higher Education Consultants Association, one of the two national associations for private counselors. Others in the audience nodded their heads in agreement. Parents were vetoing children's choices based on the parents' (not the would-be applicants') perceptions of the campus political climate. The situation has gotten worse, many said, since last year's election.

Counselors discussed the issue only on condition their names not be used, saying they did not want to violate the privacy of the families that hire them or risk losing future business.

To some extent, several said, counselors have long faced questions about the campus political and social climate, but primarily in the past from religious parents who want assurance that if they send their children to a secular institution, there will be space and respect for people of faith. What's taking place now is more political, they said, and is complicated by these parents' desire for a certain level of prestige, regardless of politics.

The counselor facing the "anyplace but Yale" demand from parents said the student wanted a research university, and so she suggested that she consider Baylor University, Pepperdine University or Southern Methodist University -- all universities with student bodies generally viewed as well to the right of that of Yale. The parental response? Anger that these universities were not seen as being from the very top tier. "I had to say to the parents, 'I'm out of options.' "

The student eventually landed at Stanford University, where she is happy and her parents are happy as well. While Stanford has plenty of liberal students, the university's reputation is more entrepreneurial than ideological, the university is home to both Condoleezza Rice and the Hoover Institution and of course the academics are top notch and the prestige hard to beat.

The counselor said that she couldn't complain about a student landing at Stanford, but that she was frustrated by the family distaste for Yale based on, in the counselor's opinion, an uninformed sense of the place. Yale of course has plenty of activists on the left, and has had its share of debates over campus culture and politics -- from free speech to Halloween costumes. But the university has multiple, active groups on the right, has a president who has repeatedly defended free speech and has a storied history of educating Republican politicians. (Four of the five Yale graduates who served as president of the United States were Republicans.)

The reality, the counselor said, is that while the dislike of Yale surprised her, there are other colleges that parents are vetoing. "Many won't consider Oberlin or Wesleyan, and Brown is completely off the table," she said.

At some level, such antipathy toward those and other colleges isn't surprising. Their students are liberal, and conservative publications love to write articles with headlines like "Oberlin Is an Insane Asylum." And those articles attract more attention than articles in conservative publications in which, for example, a conservative student at Brown urges people not to stereotype his institution and praises the way the administration handled a disruption of a speaker by liberal students.

Another counselor said that she had several students and parents -- liberals -- who said that they didn't want to consider colleges that have been in the news for incidents in which some groups were seen as taking positions against free speech.

Yet another counselor, this one based in New York City and serving families who are generally liberal, said she too is hearing more parents ask about colleges' political reputations, only sometimes based on real information.

This counselor laments that these questions shift the focus away from academic fit, where it belongs. But she's not surprised by all the questions.

"Just think of the role models in America today," she said, leaders such as President Trump who don't promote the idea of working with people of a range of views, but who encourage mocking those with whom they disagree.

When the counselors here were talking, most of their concern was about parents, not students themselves. One described a student whose first choice is Williams College. The student is conservative but told her he was excited by the college's tradition of small classes and one-on-one tutorials as ideal ways for him to debate with others and refine and strengthen his ideas.

A counselor at a private high school, who was not at the meeting and who also asked not to be identified, said that the strategy to preventing parents from vetoing good college choices is twofold. First, counselors need to insist on good information, which means moving beyond stereotypes. "If you look hard enough, you can find liberal groups on most conservative campuses and conservative groups on most liberal campuses," she said. And it's important to remind people of this. "A parent's perception of liberal vs conservative frequently has little connection to reality," she said.

Second, she said counselors need to insist that college choices be made by students. "I tell them not to tip the parental hand unless they want to own the result with the kiddo saying, 'you told me to pick this one.' "

Despite the concern here, there isn't much evidence that political vetoes are hurting colleges. Yale hardly lacks for applicants, after all. Neither does Brown.

Middlebury College might be the institution this year that could be most vulnerable to parental vetoes. The furor over the way some students shouted down a speaker came in the spring and criticism of the college was intense during the time students decide whether to accept admissions offers. (Much of the publicity didn't note that Middlebury punished dozens of students found to have violated college rules by disrupting a speech.)

At Middlebury this year, the yield was its highest in the past five years.

But that doesn't mean Middlebury didn't think about the implications of the publicity the college received. In April, the college reached out to some admitted applicants and asked how much the controversy influenced their view of the college. The answer: not much at all.

Nancy Hargrave Meislahn, dean of admission and financial aid at Wesleyan, said via email that "certainly we are aware of this stereotype of Wesleyan and many other Northeastern liberal arts colleges in particular." And she said that, "to some extent it is true (thinking of data on political leaning of students at liberal arts colleges in general)."

But she said it was also true that Wesleyan welcomes students of all political views, and has been working hard to make that known. She noted a recent column in The Wall Street Journal by Michael Roth, Wesleyan's president. In the column (available here to Wall Street Journal subscribers), Roth wrote of efforts such as recruiting military veterans, who have different life experiences and, many times, different politics than others at Wesleyan.

But he also called for a greater diversity of ideas on the campus. "The issue, however, isn’t whether the occasional conservative, libertarian or religious speaker gets a chance to speak," Roth wrote. "That is tolerance, an appeal to civility and fairness, but it doesn’t take us far enough. To create deeper intellectual and political diversity, we need an affirmative-action program for the full range of conservative ideas and traditions, because on too many of our campuses they seldom get the sustained, scholarly attention that they deserve."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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