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The late ethicist Rushworth Kidder posited that there are two kinds of ethical problems.

One is what Kidder called “moral temptations,” where there is a clear right and a clear wrong, or, to use language from a prayer written by William De Witt Hyde, the president of Bowdoin until his death 100 years ago, the “hard right” and the “easy wrong.” (A prayer used by cadets at West Point refers to the “harder right” and the “easier wrong.”)

In moral temptations, there are four tests that will help clarify what is right:

  • The legal test: Is it against the law?
  • The stench test: Does it smell right?
  • The front-page test: How would I feel if this made the 11 p.m. news?
  • The mom test: What would my mother think?

The second type of ethical dilemma is where one has to choose between two options, either good versus good or the lesser of two evils. What’s more important, saving the environment or saving jobs?

Kidder identified four paradigms for understanding ethical dilemmas. There is the tension between what’s best for the individual and what’s best for the community. There is short-term good versus long-term good. There is balancing justice with mercy. And there is navigating the tension between loyalty and truth.

It is the last of these that I have been thinking about from a college counseling perspective. Being a college counselor involves two conflicting roles that involve balancing loyalty and truth. One is being a cheerleader for students, encouraging them to pursue their dreams. The other is serving as adviser, being a voice of reality that makes sure they plan as well as dream.

Recently I met with the top student in my junior class. He has Ivy ambitions, and in a perfect world there would be no question that he would be admitted, but the college admission world, especially at the top of the food chain, is far from perfect. He is unhooked, so I felt obligated to give him the talk I give every one of my students applying to the Ivies and comparably selective colleges and universities.

In a hyperselective environment, where fewer than one in 10 applicants are admitted, no one’s credentials assure admission. Superb grades and scores are, to borrow phrasing from logic, necessary but not sufficient. Colleges and universities use the admission process to help achieve institutional goals and priorities, goals and priorities that may not be publicly stated. As a result an offer of admission is partly merit, partly meeting institutional needs and partly luck.

That message is not easy to hear for a student who’s done everything right and excelled in every environment they have been in. For that matter, it’s still hard for me after 40 years in college counseling, and seeing deserving kids disappointed may be one of the things that drives me to retire sooner than I would like or can afford.

I always worry about whether what I’m trying to say to a student is or approximates what they hear, and I worried that my junior left my office discouraged rather than informed.

What is the proper balance between loyalty and truth for a college counselor? How do you encourage without providing false hope? Where is the equilibrium between too much and too little information?

Of course, loyalty and truth are not necessarily opposing concepts. Respecting a student enough to trust that they can handle the truth may be the ultimate expression of loyalty. Jack Nicholson’s admonition to Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth!” was hardly an expression of loyalty or respect.

Where one falls on the truth/loyalty spectrum depends on two factors -- one’s personal values and the culture of the school where one works. At the first independent school where I worked, the head of school believed that college counselors should never tell students they might not get in to a particular college or university. His rationale was that students and parents might conclude that the college counselor didn’t want the student to get in, and by implication suspect that the counselor sabotaged the student’s application in order to prove their judgment correct.

That head was hardly alone. I know colleagues who work at schools where they are not allowed to comment on a student’s chances for admission for fear that the student will not feel supported.

I am not sure how to unpack all the flawed assumptions underlying those views. The assumption that a college counselor would want a student to fail reflects a worldview I can’t fathom. Even college counselors motivated purely by self-interest would want their students to be successful.

It is also a twisted corollary of a common independent school “suburban legend,” the belief that college counselors are like Hollywood agents cutting deals with colleges. None of the college counselors I know want or believe they have that kind of power, although the conspiracy theorists among us sometimes wonder if others have been inducted into some sort of college counseling secret society with a special handshake and access to the dark web.

As for the view that supporting a student requires not discussing the possibility they may not be admitted, I’m not sure how one does real college counseling operating with that restriction. How do students develop a realistic list of options if they have no idea what is realistic? How does misleading a student through silence constitute support? And does that increase the likelihood that students and parents will be disappointed and even angry at the end of the process?

I decided early in my career to err on the side of truth. I had a student who wasn’t admitted into his first-choice school, and his father called me, not angry but confused. He thought his son’s personal qualities would have counted for more in the admissions process, and I wondered if I had failed to counsel him effectively. The boy was a wonderful young man, but he wasn’t competitive academically. The student most likely to be disappointed in the admissions process is the good school citizen who hopes that his character and niceness will be plus factors. In my experience those qualities are always outweighed by grade point average and SAT/ACT scores.

So I practice reality therapy. Part of being an adult is knowing one’s strengths and limitations, and I want my students to make thoughtful choices based on good information. I always ask my students what they think their chances are, and in most cases they are realistic, but I will give them my best assessment, always making it clear that I’d be glad to be wrong.

At the same time, I wonder if my colleagues in admission offices face the same conflict between loyalty and truth. Do admission counselors do counseling rather than marketing, and how many prospective students these days are advised that admission will be unlikely or that they are wasting their time and money by submitting an application?

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