There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that President Truman once attended an agricultural exposition and referred to fertilizer as “manure.” An observer pulled Bess Truman aside and suggested that the president shouldn’t use a word like “manure.” Her response was brief and to the point -- “For years I’ve been trying to get him to use that word” -- the implication being that “manure” was more polite than the synonyms he might have used instead.
Recently I found myself channeling my inner Truman when I saw a news item online and found myself exclaiming, “Holy [synonym of manure that rhymes with spit].” My colleague in the office next door, hearing me cuss out loud, wondered what was wrong. I shared the news item with him, and he immediately uttered the same words that had just come from my mouth.
What sparked my outburst was the news that a close friend and contemporary, someone with whom I was a rookie admissions roadrunner 40 years ago, had taken a new job. That announcement unleashed a wide array of emotions and reactions that roughly mirrored the stages of grief.
There was shock, because we had lunch a month ago and talked extensively about family, job and impending end of career. I knew she was dealing with a new boss who didn’t understand admissions, but there was no inkling that she might be thinking about leaving a place where she has been an institution.
There was self-pity, because she has worked at a popular destination for my students. Despite being the director at a large state university, she has gotten to know my students as individuals in a way that very few admission officers do anymore. I have joked before that her leaving would be a sign that it’s time for me to pack it in, and now that joke is on me.
I am excited for her and her new institution, a place she can make a difference, and at the same time I hope, but doubt, that her previous employer realizes what it has lost. But most of all I find myself wondering what this says about the future of our profession.
At the risk of being overdramatic, is this a skirmish in the ongoing war for the soul of college admission? Is college admission a profession, a business or both? Are the admissions office and the college counseling office part of an institution’s educational program or part of its advancement/marketing/sales team?
And if it’s a war, is it a war of attrition? Will those of us who believe that helping young people make thoughtful decisions about their futures is a noble calling find, like Jimmy Buffett, that our “occupational hazard is our occupation’s just not around”? Will we become an endangered species or a growth industry?
The answer is far from clear, and there are several components. One that may be beyond our control has to do with our bosses. The new breed of college presidents and provosts and school principals come to their jobs without an understanding of the principles and ethics underlying the practice of college admission and college counseling. Those from business backgrounds or who report to boards with a business mentality may see admission only as a source of revenue for the institution rather than as a life-changing experience for the young people we serve.
Is there anything we can do about that? Our bosses are stakeholders or constituents for our profession, so is there a way to educate them about the values that we profess to believe and practice? Several years ago, after my tenure as president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, I suggested that NACAC develop (perhaps in conjunction with College Board) educational/professional development programming tailored to new college presidents and provosts covering both the philosophical and pragmatic issues impacting college admission. Like so many of my great ideas, nothing came of it, and it may be that there is no market for such a product, but I would argue that the biggest threat to our profession is supervisors who don’t understand what we do and why we do it.
The other issue is how we attract, nurture, grow and retain the next generation of leaders for our profession. College admission is a people business in two different respects -- the core and focus of our jobs is helping young people, and our greatest resource is the quality of the people in the profession.
Where will the next generation of admission/counseling professionals come from, and will they be as “committed” (a euphemism for “neurotic”) as many of us have been? There has been a lot of discussion in our profession and in other workplaces about the millennial generation. They crave work/life balance in a way that I admire and wish I practiced. That’s exceedingly healthy, but it poses challenges for our institutions.
Both admissions offices and college counseling offices are based on an economic model requiring employees who are workaholics and willing to work extra hours to get the job done with little economic reward. Is that staffing model, like the high-tuition/high-aid pricing model, no longer sustainable?
I hope we will think strategically about how we identify and recruit the kind of people who will be the future leaders of the profession. I, like many of the admission officers and college counselors of my generation, came to the work by accident. That won’t cut it in the future.
We need to identify career paths into the profession and into leadership roles, and we need to convince good young professionals that college admission and counseling are a vocation or a calling and not just a job. None of us will become wealthy, but the rewards are many, and there are many young people who seek lives of meaning and significance to make a difference (many of them think they can do that and also make six-figure salaries, and if any figure out how to do that, I hope they’ll let me in on the secret).
Truman is most famous for saying, “The buck stops here.” As we deal with our daily challenges and crises, let us also be mindful of how we might make our profession sustainable. The buck stops with each of us who have given our professional and personal lives to the practice of college admission and college counseling, and let’s make sure we support and mentor each other, share words of appreciation freely, and go out of our way to encourage younger colleagues to consider following in our footsteps.