Ethical College Admissions: Marshall McLuhan and the Counselor Call

Jim Jump consider counselor calls to colleges.

April 13, 2020

Just over a month ago, right before the pandemic shut down the country and social distancing became our routine, I had a Marshall McLuhan moment. That refers not to the Canadian philosopher’s seminal work in media theory, captured in the famous quote “the medium is the message,” but rather his cameo appearance in the Woody Allen movie Annie Hall.

Allen’s controversial memoir, Apropos of Nothing, was just released by Arcade Publishing shortly after the original publisher, Hachette, canceled publication in the wake of a protest and walkout by its staff and criticism from Allen’s children by actress Mia Farrow. Larry David has praised the memoir as perfect quarantine reading, while a New York Post columnist found its publication during the pandemic ironic, even apropos, given that death is the most pervasive theme in Allen’s work.

Annie Hall was Woody Allen’s masterpiece back when he was still funny and before the #MeToo era rendered him creepy rather than neurotic. It won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1977, beating out Star Wars, something incomprehensible for today’s audiences. Last week I stumbled across a showing on Turner Classic Movies, but I tuned in too late to see my two favorite scenes.

The first is when Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, meets Annie Hall’s family for the first time. He has a private moment with her brother, Duane, played by a young Christopher Walken, who confesses that he has the urge when driving at night to pull into oncoming traffic, describing in detail the explosion, the broken glass and the flames. Allen responds that he has to get back to planet Earth. I have used that line to describe the more bizarre moments in my college counseling life. Of course in the very next scene, Duane is driving Alvy and Annie to the airport in exactly the circumstances outlined in his confession.

Then there is the Marshall McLuhan “if life were only like this” scene. Standing in line at the movies in front of a Columbia University professor who pontificates about the films of Fellini, the plays of Samuel Beckett and Marshall McLuhan on “hot media,” Allen reaches over and pulls in McLuhan from outside the camera angle and McLuhan tells the professor, “You know nothing of my work.”

My McLuhan moment came when I received an email from a college counselor friend who was frustrated because she had run into multiple colleges refusing to provide any information about her students who had applied to those colleges. One admissions officer told her that university policy prohibited the admissions office from revealing any information about decisions due to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

It so happens that the president of the university in question is a former student of mine, and at the very moment I received the email, we were in the same room attending a planning retreat. During the lunch break, I went over to ask him about the university policy and FERPA. At first he thought I was asking a rhetorical question, and he responded that FERPA only applies once a student enrolls and that it sounded like the admissions counselor was blowing off the counselor. He then realized that the example I was citing was his own institution. I don’t know that he took any action once he returned to campus, but several days later the counselor reported that the issued was resolved.

Is the counselor call where admissions officers discuss applicants with school college counselors an endangered species? That ended up being the major topic of conversation at a recent get-together of independent school counselors in one major urban area. There are plenty of colleges that continue to share information with counselors, but my sense is that there are fewer willing to engage in conversation. Is that a good or bad thing?

How you answer that question depends on your answer or assumptions about some broader questions. Do counselors have a right to information about admission decisions for their students? Do colleges have an obligation to provide that information? Is providing access to decisions on Slate enough? Does the counselor call improve communication and understanding about the admissions process, or is the counselor call another college admissions convention that benefits the already privileged?

The counselor call predates my 40-plus-year career, and may in fact predate the college counseling profession. It probably had its origins in the days when heads of boarding schools would call colleges to announce that a certain student was “ready” to matriculate. Can you imagine the response from a selective college admission dean today to that call?

The counselor call is most commonly attached to independent schools that have marketed themselves, sometimes implicitly and sometimes overtly, as having “relationships” with college admission offices. I have heard colleagues at other independent schools talk about an expectation that the college counselors are calling every college where they have a student applying. I have never liked that approach personally, because it reinforces the belief in some parents that our job is not about counseling kids how to navigate a process that is confusing but rather serving as a lobbyist or Hollywood agent.

Does advocacy from college counselors work in getting students admitted? For a NACAC panel several years ago, I asked counselors around the country that question. The consensus was that at best a counselor might get a college to take another look at a student, and that credibility was more important than sales ability, but many of us also expressed a fear that there might be a “secret society” into which we had not been inducted.

At its best the counselor call serves the principle of transparency, providing insight into the nuances of the selection process. What trends is the college seeing? Did the student not demonstrate interest sufficiently? I am always appreciative of admission colleagues whose comments reflect an honest yet caring reading of a student’s application. The other side is the counselor call as infomercial, an opportunity for the college to brag about record application numbers and the strength of the pool. Whether intended for not, sometimes the message seems to be “We’re so excited that we could deny so many of your students.”

The argument against the counselor call is the principle of equity. If colleges can’t have a conversation with all counselors, should they have conversations with any? And is the counselor call one more part of an admissions process that benefits those who are privileged at the expense of those who are not?

The bigger issue underlying the debate over the counselor call is what is the proper relationship between admission officers and school counselors. Are we colleagues working together from different perspectives to benefit students, or are we adversaries? 

One of the best things about spending my career in this profession is having colleagues on both sides of the desk that I know I can trust. I worry that is eroding along with our profession’s ethical common ground. Certainly one possible takeaway of the DOJ investigation into the NACAC Code of Ethics is that collegiality is anticompetitive.

If that is in fact the case, allow me to quote Marshall McLuhan and paraphrase Alvy Singer. “You know nothing of my work,” and I have to get back to planet Earth.

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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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