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Is college counseling an endangered species? Do our students, parents and schools want college counseling, or do they want college coaching? Is the aspiration to transform young people’s lives unrealistic, even naïve, in a landscape that is increasingly transactional?

Those questions are at the heart of two panels I participated in last week, one at the College Board Forum in D.C. and the other at the Virginia Association of Independent Schools conference. My co-presenter for both panels was Brian Leipheimer, the director of college counseling at the Collegiate School in Richmond, Va.

The question of whether college coaching is replacing college counseling as a paradigm is among the soul-searching questions raised for all parts of our profession by the Operation Varsity Blues scandal. The families who engaged Rick Singer did so for transactional reasons, for his ability to deliver, for a price, “side-door” admission to “elite” universities. They weren’t concerned with fit or their children’s journey of self-discovery but rather the status supposedly afforded by where your children go to college. But Brian and I were discussing the tension between college counseling and college coaching long before the scandal.

Singer was an independent educational consultant, or a con artist masquerading as one, and it is easy to cast the counseling-versus-coaching issue as a distinction between school counselors and independent consultants. A recent Wall Street Journal article (in which, in the interest of full disclosure, I was quoted) highlighted the efforts of independent schools on the West Coast, ground zero for the scandal, to rein in parental use of outside college consultants.

But describing the battle as between school counselors and independent counselors is simplistic. I have corresponded with independent educational consultants who are angered by Singer’s crimes and offended by the cloud it has placed over their work. The truth is that the college counseling/college coaching paradox exists in each of us.

What is the difference between college counseling and college coaching? College counseling sees the college process as part of a larger quest to help young people figure out who they are and what they care about. Admission to college is the product of that process of discernment. College counseling is developmental, educational, relational and process oriented. It is more about asking questions than providing answers.

College coaching, by contrast, is transactional and results oriented. Admission to college is an end in itself rather than a means to self-discovery, and a coach serves as chief strategist for the student in the application process.

Of course it’s not that simple. If a college counselor’s job is helping students navigate a process that’s complex and confusing, then coaching is part of that job. Hopefully it’s not all we do.

Might college coaching be the next iteration in the evolution of how our profession sees itself?

My first job after college in the 1970s was working in admissions at my alma mater. My title was admissions counselor. Even then there was a clear division among those entering the field. Some of us saw the entry-level job as being in education, and I quickly learned that what I enjoyed most was talking to high school students about the college process in general. There were others who came to the work from a marketing background and saw working in college admissions as sales. Today I wonder how much counseling admissions counselors do. At the College Board Forum, I talked with a friend who has just moved back to the college side after having worked in a high school, and she misses the opportunity to make a difference with individual students at a deeper level.

When I moved to the high school side, I was hired as a “guidance counselor,” a term that is nearly extinct, replaced by “school counselor.” I worry about how little training school counselors receive in college counseling as part of graduate programs, and a 2010 report from Public Agenda commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation exposed the disconnect between public expectations of school counselors with regard to college counseling and the reality of the job.

Nearly 30 years ago, my school went through a strategic planning process, and the board members leading that initiative wanted to call my work college placement rather than college counseling, reflecting the commonly held belief that independent school college counselors are like Hollywood agents, cutting deals to get students admitted. We’ve moved past that, but last year during a self-study, college counseling was lumped in with student services rather than as a part of the academic program. I also know schools where college counseling is considered part of advancement or external affairs.

What are the forces that encourage college coaching at the expense of college counseling? First and foremost is the continuing acceleration and compression of the admissions process. My first child was born in 1986, my second year as a college counselor. He was due right around Feb. 1, which at that time was still a major application deadline at which time a number of my students were submitting their first applications. Today a student who hadn’t yet submitted an application by late January would be cause for panic.

What used to be a three-month process, with waves of deadlines every two weeks, has become largely condensed into the month of October. Nov. 1 is no longer a wave but rather a tsunami, and just this fall I have noticed several colleges that had Nov. 10 or Nov. 15 deadlines move to Nov. 1. I am grateful for all the colleges that still have post-Nov. 1 deadlines. I am also worried that Oct. 15 will become the new Nov. 1.

The consequence of the compressed calendar is that there’s no time to have substantive college counseling conversations during the month of October in the midst of reviewing student essays, writing recommendations and meeting with college representatives. Last month might have the most demanding month of my entire career. I was more disciplined and organized than ever before, so I never became overwhelmed, but I was pretty whelmed. Between now and Thanksgiving, my focus will be meetings with students, especially those who haven’t yet applied.

The second force that pushes us toward coaching rather than counseling is the lack of standardization in what materials colleges want and how they want it. The point of the Common and Coalition Application platforms is to make it easy for students to apply multiple places, but in the past couple of years I’ve detected far more individualization with regard to supporting materials.

Whereas not that long ago a student would submit the application, ask my office to send a transcript and recommendation letters, and request official score reports from the College Board and ACT, now a student may be able to self-report grades in four or five different ways and self-report test scores on the application, the student portal or sometimes both. I think the move toward self-reporting is a good thing, but I spend most of my time helping students figure out exactly what -- and how -- each college wants. I won’t even mention the need for early-decision strategizing and figuring out what “strongly recommend” means.

I refuse to give up my commitment to college counseling, helping students transform their lives, even as I spend more time college coaching, helping them navigate a process that is confusing at best and insane at worst. My compromise position is serving as a trail guide, making sure students and parents don’t miss their destination but also don’t miss the scenery.

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