Ethical College Admissions: College Counseling in Interesting Times

The coronavirus has added to the complications, writes Jim Jump.

March 16, 2020

During and since my tenure as president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, I have made reference to an ancient Chinese proverb, “May you live in interesting times,” in speeches and articles (and probably in this column). Not too long ago on late-night cable I ran across the 1994 movie Disclosure, starring Michael Douglas and Demi Moore, based on the novel of the same name by Michael Crichton, and there is a scene where Donald Sutherland’s character quotes that proverb.

After I had referred to it several times, I tried to find the source, thinking it might have originated with Confucius. To my surprise, I learned that: a) it’s not ancient, b) it’s not Chinese and c) it’s not a proverb but a curse. Whatever the origin and whatever the intent, there is no question that all of us are living in interesting times right now as we face a viral threat unprecedented in our lifetimes.

I spent several days of my spring break last week at the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I much prefer the beach during the off-season, and last week it was quiet, almost desolate. It was easy to convince myself that I was not just taking a break from school but also a psychic and spiritual retreat from the world, an illusion that ended each morning when the first thing I did was check email.

Early in the week, I texted several friends that the only Corona I wanted to think about was one with a lime sticking out of it. My daughter described it as “such a dad joke” (translation: not funny). But it was hard not to be consumed by news about the spread of COVID-19 in this country and its collateral damage.

First there was the stock market collapse, a stark reminder that retirement is farther away than I might have planned. Then there was the shocking realization that there would be no March Madness this March, at least on the basketball floor. By the time I arrived home at the end of the week, the governor of Virginia had mandated that all schools close for at least two weeks, and there was a toilet paper shortage in stores.

I always find that returning from being away, whether vacation or attending a conference, is a culture shock. That will be more the case than ever in the next few weeks as we deal both personally and professionally with the disruption to normal life, including education and the college admissions process.

My focus is on serving my students, even if through social distancing. Seniors are about to receive the last batch of college decisions, and there will be good news to celebrate and disappointments to deal with. They will have to make final college choices without the ability to attend accepted-student programs. I have noticed that several colleges and universities have already moved deposit dates back to June 1.

I may be more concerned about juniors. The college search is ramping up for many of them, and this is a time of year when I am conducting individual meetings with juniors. COVID-19 has resulted in many test centers closing for this past Saturday’s administration of the SAT, putting testing plans for many students on hold, and the spring college fair that brings admission officers from 200 colleges to town is in jeopardy of being canceled.

I hope I’m not being overconfident, but I think distance college counseling during the disruption will be easier than overseeing distance learning will be for teachers. College counselors don’t have to worry about lesson plans, assessments or synchronous versus asynchronous learning opportunities.

My sense is that many of us will rely on email or telephone to connect with students and parents, utilizing Zoom or Google Hangouts when there is a need for virtual face time. The broader challenge will be how to dispense information in an effective way. We don’t have an office Facebook page or Instagram or Twitter accounts, so we will use our student information system to post announcements.

The broader question is what to say. It’s hard to be a trail guide when you don’t know where the trail leads. This is a time when the counseling part of college counseling takes center stage. We must be less concerned with the transactional parts of the job and more sensitive to the stress and anxiety produced by the uncertainty and threat posed by the virus. As college counselors we must help our students do what needs to be done while supporting them in how they process this experience.

There are two places I will turn to for wisdom in addition to the support I will seek from colleagues throughout the profession.

One is the Serenity Prayer, credited to the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and used by a number of 12-step recovery groups. The Serenity Prayer asks for the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can change and the wisdom to know the difference. I find that prayer to be particularly relevant in my work as a college counselor, as it calls on us to focus on the things over which we have control rather than those we can’t control. I’m certain I will be referring to the Serenity Prayer with students and parents in the coming weeks.

The other is the movie Apollo 13. That movie, about the ill-fated moon mission and the heroic efforts to bring the astronauts home safely, starred Tom Hanks, whose diagnosis with COVID-19 last week is another step in his role as Hollywood’s and America’s Everyman. At one point in the movie, flight director Gene Kranz (played by Ed Harris) tells the staff at Mission Control to “work the problem.” Working the problem is a reminder to focus on what is most pressing in a given situation or crisis.

I was proud of America’s colleges and universities and their leadership last week. They were among the first to step up and act decisively to cancel large-group gatherings and then close down campuses in anticipation of the spread of the virus.

They did so voluntarily and out of concern for the public interest. It is too early to know how widespread and serious the pandemic will be in this country, but their actions have protected and served the public.

I hope that concern for doing what is right and serving the public interest will extend beyond COVID-19. Lost in the news about the coronavirus late last week was an announcement by NACAC that it will change its Code of Ethics and Professional Practices from a mandatory code to a statement of best practices. That change, of course, is fallout from the antitrust investigation conducted by the Department of Justice into NACAC and a subsequent consent decree.

The change means that NACAC will no longer enforce the code. That doesn’t mean that the provisions of the CEPP should no longer guide us and protect students from the worst instincts of colleges. It certainly doesn’t mean that the ethical principles underlying the code are any less essential for the profession. Colleges have shown the ability to act voluntarily in the public interest to help combat COVID-19. I hope they will continue that commitment to the public interest in voluntarily acting ethically in recruitment and admission as we live in interesting times.

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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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