Ethical College Admissions: Process, Experience or Journey?

We need better language for describing the college admissions process, writes Jim Jump.

February 25, 2019

Several weeks ago I had a phone interview with an educational researcher interested in how student readiness for college has changed over time. We had a wide-ranging discussion talking about changes in students, changes in parents and changes in the admission process.

At the end of the conversation, she had an interesting observation. “I’ve talked to lots of people about this issue,” she said, “and you are the only person who has mentioned the social/emotional dimension of college readiness.”

I wasn’t surprised to learn that, for two reasons. I long ago recognized that despite my best efforts I have crossed the line from iconoclast to grumpy old man and that my views on lots of issues are less likely to be labeled “mainstream” than “out in left field.” But the more important reason is that there is far too little attention paid to the developmental nature of the college search process.

Is our language part of the problem? Last week Rick Clark from Georgia Tech came to my school to do a presentation on selective admission for students and parents. I am tempted to label Rick as a “rising star” in our profession, except that the adjective “rising” may no longer apply. He was thoughtful and funny, both qualities I strive for and rarely achieve.

The most interesting part of his presentation was that we should think of admission to college not as a process but as an experience (he credits Matt Hyde from Lafayette College for that distinction). He argues that the use of “process” as a noun increases student stress by making admission seem industrial and transactional, something that happens to a student.

Why is “experience” a better descriptor? Rick pointed out the difference when one searches Google images for “experience” compared with a similar search for “process.” “Process” returns images that are largely mechanical, gears and such. “Experience,” on the other hand, produces images of rivers and trails. One suggests a prescribed formula; the other suggests adventure and possibilities and choices to be made.

Does use of the term “process” influence the way students and parents see college admission and their behavior? It’s certainly an interesting argument, one I hadn’t considered. But I’m not at all sure that calling college admission an “experience” and not a “process” is a quick fix. “Experience” is a neutral term. Going to Hawaii on vacation qualifies as an experience, but having a root canal or a colonoscopy are experiences as well.

I think the focus on the word “experience” is more important in a different context. One of the clashes of worldviews in college admission is between prestige and fit. The prestige view that underlies the U.S. News college rankings assumes that college choice is objective, that the “best” college can be measured by factors like selectivity, alumni giving and per-student spending. In its most extreme form, that can translate to “the harder a place is to get in, the better it must be.” That worldview drives a lot of institutional admission behavior.

What the prestige worldview ignores is the college experience itself. Why? It is hard to measure. There are no easy metrics that reveal how a college education transforms an individual, even though that is the point of going to college. It is also intensely personal. What is right for me may not be right for you. I wish we would spend more time talking about college as an experience and less as a brand, a name on a diploma.

I’d like to suggest a third word to consider along with “process” and “experience” when thinking about college admission.

The college search and applications processes/experiences are ultimately a journey. It is a journey that is internal rather than external, a journey of self-discovery. The college journey is one phase of a larger journey that extends throughout one’s life, a journey trying to figure out who you are, what you care about and what your purpose is.

In choosing where to go to college, the journey may be more important than the destination. How you make the decision may have more long-term benefit than where you ultimately enroll, setting a tone for future life decisions.

The problem with that construct is that our culture and our educational system do a poor job of preparing young people to make decisions. There is no place in the curriculum where students learn how to articulate their values, weigh options and evaluate evidence. How do you learn to make choices if all choices are made for you, and how do you develop persistence if you never have to persist?

The issue is not tied to nurture alone. Research into adolescent brain development shows that one of the last parts of the brain to develop fully is the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that regulates judgment and long-term thinking.

So are we fighting a losing battle? Is the increase in mental-health concerns on college campuses tied to asking young people to make decisions they are not ready to make?

I’m not ready to accept that. Admission to college may not be the rite of passage that killing a lion with a spear was in Masai culture, but it can nevertheless be an important part of a young person’s journey from adolescence to adulthood.

Our role as college counselors is to serve as trail guides. We help those leading the journey to identify goals and set plans. We preview the landscape and offer advice on the safest and most advantageous routes to follow. We act not out of self-interest but rather the best interest of our clients. We ensure that they don’t miss their exit or their destination, but also make sure they aren’t so fixed on the destination that they fail to appreciate the scenery.

It’s noble work if you can find it.

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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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