Ethical College Admissions: Our Better Angels

Jim Jump considers the situations where a college counselor’s interests may not entirely overlap with those of students.

October 16, 2017

Classic cartoon characters live in a world without ethical complexity. A moral dilemma for Fred Flintstone is deciding whether or not to tell Wilma about a new bowling ball. Elmer Fudd and Boris Badenov have no moral qualms about doing harm to, respectively, “the wascally wabbit” or “moose and squirrel.”

In cartoons ethical dilemmas play out as a debate between two internal voices, the voice of temptation and the voice of moral conscience, with each voice positioned on a shoulder. The voices are always clear and easy to identify -- the one with the horns and tail is not your better angel.

If only real life were so simple.

Recently I had a conversation with a colleague about one of my seniors. The student has applied to two colleges out West and been admitted to one that he’d be happy to attend, so he may be finished with the application process. The colleague mentioned, however, that the student is thinking about applying to one other college.

My colleague wanted to know why my eyes lit up with that news. What sparked my interest was geography. Over the past 10 years, my students have been accepted to colleges and universities in close to 40 states and six foreign countries, and the university being considered by my senior is in one of the states not on that list.

There is no question that I would like my student to apply to that institution, but I found myself questioning how pure my motives are. Do I want it for his benefit, for the benefit of the school or for my own selfish reasons? I couldn’t detect whether the voices whispering in my ear were angelic or demonic.

Immanuel Kant is supposed to have said that “Ethics begins where self-interest ends.” I say “supposed” because while I clearly remember that quote from graduate school and have used it in speeches and writings, when you google the quote you will find it, at the top of the results, attributed to me. So now I wonder if I made it up, but in any case I believe it’s true -- and true to Kant.

As college counselors our job is to serve our students as trail guide, consigliere, strategist and advocate. College counseling is about helping them figure out who they are and what they want from life, not imposing our vision of what they should choose. That’s central to giving them respect as young adults and moral agents. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever express our own opinions or challenge their beliefs. It does mean that we have to be careful not to abuse our trust and authority to push them in a certain direction for our own reasons.

That’s also not to say that we have to be objective, at least as traditionally understood. Pure objectivity probably doesn’t exist in human beings. We all have views and biases informed by our experience and perspective, and those are by nature subjective. Objectivity should be defined not as the absence of subjectivity but rather being aware of our subjective biases.

So in this particular case, what might those subjective biases have been for me? The primary one is the assumption that adding another state to the list of college acceptances is desirable and beneficial for my school. That assumption may beg the question about whether college counseling is part of the educational function of a school or the marketing function. I see myself as an educator and hope the counseling decisions I make are grounded in what is best educationally, but I also can’t ignore that the public makes assumptions about the school based on where our students are admitted and enroll.

Even if that is the case, does adding a little geographic diversity make any difference? Probably not. Just as a college doesn’t become better because it has students from all 50 states, adding a state or two to a school’s college acceptance list doesn’t change the school or its college counseling program. At the same time, geographic diversity sends a message to those who assume that my office encourages students to apply to the tried and true and not expand their horizons geographically or in other ways.

The struggle between student interest and self-interest plays out on any number of fronts. There are colleges I have always wanted to have one of my students attend, colleges I know might happen only once in my career, and it is deflating when a student applies and is accepted yet chooses not to enroll. I can’t fault families for deciding that three years at a good in-state public is a better value than one year at a prestigious out-of-state private, because I’m not writing the check.

This year I have two seniors who are talented football players and students. One was my best Ivy candidate but received a full scholarship to a top Football Championship Subdivision university, where he’ll get a great education paid for and have the chance to compete for a national championship. The other would be a great candidate for a New England Small College Athletic Conference college but wants to try to walk on at a big-time academic program. Both are fully cognizant of their options and are choosing what is best for them, and that is my goal for every student. That doesn’t mean I don’t catch myself occasionally playing the what-if game.

So how did I deal with my senior considering the college from a state not on our recent college list? I chose transparency as the ultimate ethical value. I had a conversation with him about what he’s thinking, and when he mentioned the additional college, was up front about the fact that neither it nor its state had drawn recent interest from students at my school. I made it clear that there was marginal benefit to the school, but my advice was that he should apply only if he has legitimate interest and wants another option.

Now I just have to figure out if the inner voice advising me had a halo or horns.


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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