Ethical College Admissions: The Adults in the Room

Staying connected to students has never been more important, writes Jim Jump.

March 23, 2020

Nearly 40 summers ago, I took a cross-country trip with my girlfriend (now wife) and another couple. We spent seven weeks on the road and traveled nearly 11,000 miles, and there were a lot of special moments.

We stood in line at the NBC Studios in Burbank for what we thought was a tour, only to end up sitting in the second row of the Tonight Show studio audience on a night when David Letterman was the guest host. In San Francisco we rode on a cable car where for promotional purposes the gripman (driver) was Clyde, the orangutan from the Clint Eastwood Every Which Way movies. And in Chicago we climbed to the top of what was then the Sears Tower, where the first thing we saw from the observation deck was the Blue Angels flying below us as part of an air show.

As of last Friday, all three cities are shut down to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

There were also less glamorous moments that have nevertheless remained entrenched in my memory. Driving across rural Mississippi, we saw road signs that stated, “No shooting guns from moving cars.” Why would someone need to be told that, I wondered, until I noticed that the sign was riddled with bullet holes.

I once worked at a school that had a faculty-staff handbook with elaborate policies and procedures for every conceivable situation. The handbook was aspirational, with no connection to how things were actually done, but one of the statements that has stuck with me was “In every interaction between a student and a staff member, someone needs to be the adult.” Just as in Mississippi, I wondered why that needed to be stated. It did.

I’ve been thinking a lot this past week about what it means to be the adult in the room during a crisis like the one we currently face. On Friday evening I received an email from one of my seniors reporting a couple of college acceptances. In every one of my interactions with students and colleagues over the past week I have tried to ask, “How are you doing?” but in this case I didn’t need to ask. The senior talked about his sadness and disappointment at losing much or all of his last semester with his classmates, but also reflected on the importance of his faith and his appreciation for his community, and he acknowledged that going through this experience teaches us not to take anything for granted. He closed inquiring about my welfare.

Who is the adult in the room in any given situation may have nothing to do with age or experience, and that is particularly true as we live through the COVID-19 pandemic. Several of my students have remarked that they have never lived through anything like this, but that is true of almost all of us. The world hasn’t faced this kind of threat since the “Spanish” flu outbreak of 1918, which probably should have been called the American flu, since most research suggests the first cases showed up in Fort Riley, Kans. Of course the name and origin are irrelevant, because viruses pay no attention to national borders.

What does it mean to be the adult in the room? It means first of all coming to grips with our own uncertainty, anxiety, even fear. Life is going to be different, at least for the short term. Last Monday after a day of meetings at school to plan for distance learning, I thought I would get takeout from our favorite Italian place, but I was already too late. Not being able to eat out will be worse than not eating out.

I am in or close to the age group labeled at risk, and so I’ve taken to washing hands enough that I will probably have OCD by the time the threat passes. I’m also hypersensitive to coughs and sneezes, having watched enough episodes of House to know that any minor character who coughs or sneezes before the first commercial break will be deathly ill before the second.

Teachers and counselors are first responders. That is not an attempt to equate us to the doctors and nurses who are on the front lines in battling the pandemic, but rather to recognize that we have a duty to help the young people we work with cope and adapt to the situation. For them we need to be the adults in the room, helping them focus on what they control rather than what they don’t. That’s easier said than done.

In this era of social distancing, we will need to stay connected with our students and with each other. College counseling and college admission can be lonely jobs, and yet compared to our colleagues at school and on campus, we are blessed with a network of fellow professionals. Never will that be more important than in the coming weeks.

For those of us who work with high school and college students, being the adult in the room doesn’t mean that we have to have definitive answers or that we have to agree on what the answers are. We all want to relieve stress and do what’s best for students, but may legitimately disagree about what that means. That became clear this week in debates over a couple of issues.

The first was whether colleges should move the deadline for depositing from May 1 to June 1. Early in the week there were several calls, largely from the high school side, for all colleges to do that, but as of yesterday morning the National Association for College Admission Counseling website reported that only a third of the institutions responding to NACAC’s survey (222 of 664) had made the decision to move the deadline.

What is interesting is that both sides are using the same rationale. Those calling for a deadline extension see it as a way to relieve stress for seniors who don’t have the opportunity to visit campuses before making the final decision and families whose financial situation has been turned upside down the economic consequences of the pandemic. But in an article last week in The Chronicle of Higher Education, several admission officers argued that a delay would not only have ripple effects on campus in areas ranging from housing to orientation but also “create more angst for families.”

The second issue is whether schools and colleges should move to pass/fail grades for the rest of the year. That is attached to a broader question, which is whether we ought to strive to maintain a sense of normalcy or whether that train has already left the station.

I have mixed feelings. I don’t think grades are a big deal for graduating seniors, except as a vaccine against early-onset senior slump. It’s a more profound issue for juniors. Moving to pass/fail grades may actually increase stress for students who care about their work. Arguing that those students should give in for the greater good, as one op-ed last week did, doesn’t seem to be the right message. Giving up grades will make scores on the SAT, ACT and AP exams have more power in the college admissions process for the Class of 2021, and that worries me, especially given the issues with testing this spring.

We can’t all be Anthony Fauci, but we can be the adults in the room during this crisis. That requires calm, empathy and a willingness to be flexible, and most of all a recommitment to help and empower students to make life-changing decisions both small and large.

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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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