Ethical College Admissions: May Day, Coalition Exits and More

Jim Jump reflects on discussions with colleagues at a time of year that is either stressful or celebratory (or both) for those in admissions.

May 6, 2019
 

Last week I attended the annual conference of the Potomac and Chesapeake Association for College Admission Counseling, better known as PCACAC (the first C is silent). That meeting is one of the highlights of my year, a chance to recharge, reflect and renew my belief that helping young people figure out who they are and where their journey will take them is a noble calling.

I remember my first PCACAC conference more than 40 years ago when I was a rookie admissions counselor just out of college. I have always been much better at knowing what I don’t want to do than what I want to do, and I saw college admission and counseling as a temporary stop. I remember being impressed by the people on both sides of the desk and thinking that it was too bad I wasn’t going to remain in the field for any length of time. Little did I know.

The friendships and collegiality are still the best part of the job. When my daughter was little, she asked me why I didn’t have any friends. When she was older and met my admissions and counseling friends, she realized that the profession has given me a trove of deep, meaningful friendships.

That network of friendship and support is essential, because college counseling and college admissions can both be lonely jobs. I feel sorry for my colleagues at schools who don’t have the professional network at my disposal.

At the conference there were two big topics of discussion, neither of them the Operation Varsity Blues bribery scandal that appears about to produce a second round of indictments and arrests. Despite all the media coverage of that criminal conspiracy, it has little to do with the reality of college admission for most students and most colleges.

There was obviously a lot of talk about May 1, the National Candidates’ Reply Date, which fell the day before the beginning of the conference. For colleges that have “made their class,” May Day conjures up images of dancing around the maypole or Soviet-bloc military parades, but for many other institutions May 1 is Mayday -- time to place a distress call. It is a mistake to think of May 1 as the end of the college admissions process, as there are many colleges that don’t have the luxury of ending the admission year now. Last week I received an email that a university had extended its deadline for deposits until May 8.

The more interesting discussion was the news that Dartmouth College and the University of Virginia are leaving the Coalition for College (formerly the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success), although there has yet to be a formal announcement from either. Those of us who write about college admission are always seeking significance and trendsetting in seemingly isolated incidents, and there is always the danger of adding two and two and getting five, but there has already been plenty of speculation about what two prominent institutions, both charter members, abandoning the coalition application might signify.

The people I talked to at the conference were surprised by the news, but not shocked, given the short but checkered history of the coalition. The coalition came about as a response to the technical problems that accompanied the rollout of a new version of the Common Application in 2013. Those issues, along with a perception among a number of college leaders that the Common App had become too big and too “common,” led a group of 90-some selective colleges and universities to form the coalition. Many of the original members of the coalition joined in support of its commitment to access and affordability, and some probably joined to be part of an exclusive, elite club to which there was limited access.

The rollout of the application platform itself, supposedly done without student testing, seemed rushed. While several prominent public universities, including the Universities of Florida, Maryland and Washington along with Virginia Tech, have adopted the Coalition Application as their sole application platform, the majority of coalition members were slow to begin using the application.

The adjective most commonly used to describe the Coalition Application by counselors is “clunky,” and several admission officers have reported that reading the application online is hard and physically exhausting. On the other hand, membership in the coalition has increased to 140, the number of students using the Coalition App has increased, and when I informally surveyed my seniors this winter, they generally liked their experience with the platform. An admissions dean friend says that any institution is foolish to rely on a single application platform.

The larger question related to the coalition is what we want the experience of applying to college to be for students. At PCACAC I was part of a panel titled Goldilocks Applies to College. (If you don’t like the title, blame me.)

The idea for the session originated in a column I wrote last November asking whether college admission was devolving. Whereas the Common and Coalition application platforms are based on the idea that a student should be able to apply to multiple colleges without having to do something dramatically different for each college, I felt this fall that there was an increase in colleges and universities doing their own thing on the “back end,” in what they asked for in terms of transcripts, test scores and recommendation letters.

There are more universities following the University of California system’s lead in asking students to self-report grades, from uploading transcripts to completing a Self-Reported Academic Record, or SRAR (how long until we start using SRAR as a verb?). The same is true of allowing students to self-report test scores, which hopefully won’t put the College Board in financial jeopardy. This individualization threatens to change the nature of college counseling. How do we have time to advise students when we’re spending our time figuring out the individual needs of each college to which the student applies?

The essential question underlying the session was how do we make the process of applying to college not too easy, not too hard, but just right. I have a reputation of doing presentations (and perhaps columns) that raise lots of questions but provide few answers, but there were two intriguing ideas raised by panelists.

Rosemary Martin, director of college counseling at St. John’s College High School in D.C., after having previously been an admissions officer at Purdue University and Maryland, questioned whether admission officers understand the demands and stresses on high school students going through the application process. She expressed her wish that all of us could have the opportunity to spend a day or more shadowing our colleagues on the other side of the desk. I think she’s on to something.

Jeannine Lalonde, associate dean of admission at the University of Virginia and a leader within the profession in using social media as a tool for information, talked about something she does at various points during the year, which is invite students to ask questions about admission on Instagram. I have long felt that our profession needs to find new avenues to reach students like Goldilocks, especially those without access to good college counseling resources, with good, accurate information and advice.

Is Instagram the key to access? Is the coalition? I’m not sure, given that I am the target demographic for neither. But I hope we will remain focused on our mission and purpose rather than on scandal and that we won’t fall to the temptation to cry out, “Mayday! Mayday!”

Bio

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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