The red flag was a call from the parents of a student she was being hired to help get into a top college.
“The first thing this dad says is that the kid’s grandmother was born in Colombia, and he asks, ‘How can we use this to our son’s advantage?’”
In her admissions work, the counselor (who asked that her name not be used since she is talking about a client) said that she has discussed affirmative action and racial and ethnic identity issues with students and their parents. But it's never been the first question asked. And both the family background (wealthy, able to afford private school for their son) and the son's academic record (mediocre for one applying to top colleges) added to the counselor's discomfort.
Then more facts: the student had never been to Colombia, never met his grandmother and -- aside from his parents' coaching to play up his connections with Latin America -- didn't have any thoughts about being Latino (on one side of his family). But he wanted to check the Latino box in his applications.
So the counselor started sharing her experience online with other private counselors -- and the response she got was intense. Some sympathized with her dilemma of whether she should be helping such a student. Others said it was not her place to question a student's identity or how he planned to use that identity in the admissions process. Others saw her as potentially complicit in helping a student game the system.
"Yes, it is my job to get this kid into college, but he was taking advantage," the counselor recalled.
The question of whether people with some minority heritage use that to win college admission is politically charged. An Indian-American man wrote a book in 2016 about pretending to be black to earn admission to medical schools that wouldn't have given him the time of day with his college grades (and an Asian background). But, the book recounts, he had no problem getting interest from top medical schools as a (faux) black American.
It's also the case that many Americans have family trees that include people of different backgrounds -- and many find themselves criticized for noting these connections. Just look at President Trump's taunts of U.S. senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts over her statement, years ago, of having Native American heritage on one side of her family.
Also the subject of intense debate is the relative role of race, ethnicity and class in college admissions policies. In the 2008 presidential election campaign, Barack Obama famously said that his daughters, "who have had a pretty good deal” in life, shouldn't benefit from affirmative action in college admissions, especially if competing for slots with low-income students.
Obama was a supporter of affirmative action. Many times, the people who raise concerns over others using minority status that may not entirely reflect their identity are people who are critical of affirmative action. To such critics, these incidents are examples of the flaws of admissions policies that give any advantage to some people over others because of race or ethnicity.
But the counselor who shared this story supports affirmative action, and that's in fact why she raised the issue.
"Technically he wasn't lying," she said. But that doesn't mean he was being truthful either, she said. And with more and more Americans who have multiracial or multiethnic backgrounds, how can a counselor decide when an applicant is legitimately asserting minority status, she wondered.
What bothered her most was the possibility that this student might take the place of another.
"He's potentially taking the spot of a Latino student who has no money and is not going to get in," she said. After all, her client can check the Latino box and benefit from doing so at many colleges, and he need not check the box about needing aid, which may help him at many colleges.
The counselor said she hoped to find guidance on the ethics of her situation. (She decided to urge the student, with some success, to dial back the portion of his essay focused on his Latin American background, and talked at length with the parents about how diversity considerations work in higher education and their importance to disadvantaged students. But she said that the basic claim of minority status remained.)
Ethics documents of admissions groups stress the importance of honesty, while not describing exactly this situation. The National Association for College Admission Counseling's Statement of Principles of Good Practice states that "counseling professionals must provide their students and colleges with complete, truthful, and factual information that will allow them to make informed decisions."
Mark H. Sklarow, chief executive officer of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, said his association's ethics code has a provision that states, "A member’s primary obligation is to assess, make recommendations for, and represent each student accurately and fairly based upon a personal evaluation of the circumstances."
But what does that mean? He said that "members cannot inflate a student’s record, nor may they make claims that are judged to be false."
But Sklarow added that "things are rarely black-and-white." He said that a counselor or college admissions office would be making "judgment calls" on the individual's ethnic status and how much the student faced real disadvantages. He said that the counselor's example resonates with him personally, because one of his grandsons has a Bolivian father.
He predicted the issues raised by this case would become more common. "This will become murkier and murkier as increasingly our population is more diverse," he said.
And there is a nondemographic trend at play, too: parents pushing counselors -- both private counselors and school counselors alike -- to help students frame applications in ways that may or may not reflect the entire truth.
"I often hear consultants and school counselors fret about urging a parent to do the right thing when the issue is gray or unclear," he said.