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A week or so ago there was an interesting exchange on the e-list for the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools. A counselor was being asked by his or her head of school to include the number of students attending their first-choice college as part of the end-of-year report to the board.  The discussion on the e-list was about how many schools report that statistic and whether it is meaningful.

The consensus was that the first-choice metric is meaningless. Whether or not a student was admitted to his or her first-choice says nothing about the success of the student’s college process.

The absence of failure does not constitute success. A school where 100 percent of the students are admitted to their first-choice college is not necessarily more successful than a school where the percentage is much lower. The more “successful” school may simply have lower ambitions.     

Oscar Wilde said that there are two tragedies in life: not getting what one wants and getting it. There is a school of thought that says every student should be rejected at least once in the college application process. I don’t share that view, but not getting what one wants in the college process is hardly a tragedy, but rather an opportunity for growth. It’s also excellent preparation for adulthood.

It is also the case that one’s first-choice college is a fluid concept.  Each spring I have my seniors complete an evaluation, and one of the questions has to do with first-choice college. Every year a majority of respondents will list the college they are attending as their first choice, regardless of whether that was the case earlier in the application process.

Of course, the real point of the college process is not to have a first choice, but to have choices, multiple colleges that are good fits and where a student would be happy.

The first-choice percentage is an example of what might be called a “false positive,” metrics or data points that seem impressive but are misleading. I’ve been thinking about other “false positives.”

That issue becomes particularly relevant at this time of year at private high schools, when college counseling offices become hostages in the eternal struggle between the educational and advancement sides of the institution. Maybe that battle’s already lost. I know of several schools where college counseling is seen as part of the school’s advancement team.

Last week my school engaged in what is now a tradition (if the first time you do something it’s an experiment and the second time a tradition): placing a newspaper ad honoring our graduates. It’s a practice that was started by another school in town, and of course it has triggered an arms race. 

The ads ostensibly celebrate the accomplishments of our seniors, but in reality serve as promotional devices for the schools. They follow a standard template, containing information about graduating seniors ranging from college acceptances to athletic and artistic accomplishments to millions of hours of community service performed to Nobel Prizes won.

My biggest pet peeve “false positive” is merit scholarship dollars won. Because other schools report that data point, I am asked about it each spring, but out of conscience I refuse to report a figure that is sketchy at best and fraudulent at worst.

As a data point merit scholarship dollars won lacks both precision and context. When I see a merit scholarship dollar figure I have no idea what it includes. Are athletic scholarships merit scholarships? What about tuition discounts under the guise of merit aid? Does the dollar figure represent scholarships accepted or scholarships offered? Is the figure cited a one-year total, or a projection over four-years?

I ask students to report scholarships earned on the same questionnaire that I ask about first-choice college, and I have no confidence that I could come up with an accurate figure. Some students include need-based aid, including loans, as “scholarships,” and many students forget what they were offered, fail to list it, or just bother to turn in the form. I could make up a number and it would be about as accurate.

Like so many data points, including those valued by U.S News and World Report in its college rankings, scholarship dollars won is easily manipulated. One Division I football or basketball prospect with 10 scholarship offers to private universities at $60,000-$70,000 a year adds between two and three million dollars (over four years) alone. Given that the rule of thumb for earning merit money is to apply to less selective schools, I can dramatically increase the figure by having most of my students apply to schools they have little interest in attending but where they will be at the top of the applicant pool.

The ultimate “false positive” is the college list. Two years ago my school’s ad consisted of a number of college pennants with the names of some of the colleges attended by our graduates, with “some” being the operative word. In our haste to celebrate an impressive class with impressive college results, the ad featured only “name-brand” national and regional colleges and universities.

Less than an hour after the ad appeared in the newspaper, I received an e-mail from a father wanting to know why his child’s college choice wasn’t considered “good enough” to make the list.  I had to tell him that the colleges included didn’t come from my office, that I believe that we should be proud of every student’s college choice.

It’s hard to maintain that ideal due to market demands. In independent schools parents applying for kindergarten treat the college list as a more accurate measure of academic quality than any other piece of information. But a college list does not begin to capture the individual journeys of the students in a senior class. Any college list included in an admissions packet for kindergarten applicants should include the disclaimer, “Your results may vary.”

Both colleges and secondary schools will be under increased scrutiny and pressure to show outcomes and added value through data. As we look for new ways to tell our stories, I hope our profession will engage in a continuing conversation about what different data points do -- and don’t -- tell us.


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