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SAN DIEGO -- In the question period of a session on whether the admissions profession has lost its way, an early question came from a woman who said she had worked in high school counseling and in college admissions, in both cases at institutions that are not famous. She talked about how reform ideas that originate among institutions that don't top the rankings lists have a hard time capturing attention. And she implored the leaders of the most prestigious institutions to push for reform of college admissions. The statement drew applause.

The admissions development with the most buzz here at the annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling was an effort by prestigious institutions to do just what the speaker urged -- to take a stand for a change in admissions. A week ago, 80 institutions, among them many of the most prestigious public and private colleges in the country, unveiled a plan to help high school students build portfolios and to create a new application that would rival the Common Application and be customized by institutions. But the reaction here suggested that, on this issue, many high school counselors and officials of colleges not in the coalition would have preferred something else from the elite colleges.

But by the time representatives of the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success presented their plan for admissions reform on Saturday, the last day of the NACAC gathering, they knew that they would face a largely skeptical audience, and a large one at that, with the association moving the session to a room that seated hundreds. While people waited to get in to the session, attendees started posting photos to social media (at right, photo by Terry Crawford), documenting just how urgently high school counselors and admissions officers wanted to get in to the meeting and share their concerns.

Leaders of the coalition have portrayed their new system as one that will help low-income high school students from ninth grade on prepare for college, help all high school students focus more on learning than on résumé building and end what has increasingly become seen as an overreliance by colleges on the Common Application.

But critics said the system was excessively complicated and would end up favoring both wealthy applicants and wealthy colleges. Many said the new system was tailor-made for those who hire private counselors or attend private high schools with low student-counselor ratios. Others questioned the criteria for membership in the coalition, saying that those rules blocked from membership the colleges most low-income students attend.

Amy Goldin, a private counselor, made a post to Facebook that was being forwarded by coalition critics, in which she imagined what the future might look like under the coalition's plan: "I can help you package your coalition application! Call Coalitions R Us, for the best in portfolio building, creative writing (101 and 102, for you Ivy hopefuls), and special rates on directing and producing your annual videos! Only $10,000 for the full four-year package! Call now! Limited spaces available!"

While Goldin was using humor, many said she wasn't far from reality. In a widely circulated post to a NACAC Listserv, quoted here with the author's permission, David Rion, director of college counseling at Sonoma Academy, wrote, "If this application takes off, I can tell you that at my well-to-do private high school, we'll set up advisory meetings twice a semester, starting freshman year, for students to look through all of their work, talk to me about what should go in their portfolio, and answer the essay prompts (wait, did a ninth grader just write content for their Yale application?). … My kids are going to have shiny, full, beautiful portfolios. It'll take tons of work, but that's my job. Local public school student with counselor to student ratio of 500-1? [sic] … Any tool that is somewhat complicated in the college admissions process automatically advantages those who are already advantaged. And this tool sounds somewhat complicated!"

Shifting Language and Shifting Arguments

The leaders of the coalition who spoke here were clearly aware of these criticisms, and tried a variety of tactics to win over the critics, especially high school counselors.

Audrey Smith (at right), vice president for enrollment at Smith College, began her talk by saying that "we don't have all the answers," and that coalition leaders wanted "to listen to you" and work to respond to concerns. She also said that coalition members know they need to do better about recruiting low-income students, and that they aren't starting this effort out of a sense that they have figured out all the best approaches.

Both the language used and the arguments advanced have shifted in the week since the coalition went public. The speakers aligned with the coalition stopped using the word "portfolio" and referred instead to "virtual college lockers," although the concept seems largely unchanged: a platform where students can save schoolwork or their own writing or projects and, if they wish, share the work with colleges or people who are advising them.

When the coalition was announced, the admissions leaders who created it didn't focus on the Common Application (which almost all coalition members use, and plan to continue to offer as an option). But here, the coalition took care to remind attendees of how angry they were at the Common Application two years ago, when a new software system failed repeatedly, leaving many applicants unable to submit materials on time and colleges without applications to review on the normal schedule.

John F. Latting, assistant vice provost for undergraduate enrollment and dean of admission at Emory University, told the attendees that discussions about creating the coalition started two years ago, just as the Common Application's technical problems were attracting attention. While he said that he is a "huge fan of the leadership [of the Common Application] right now," he also said that colleges had become "spectators" on their applications.

And he said that the Common Application was "striving" to become a monopoly with pricing systems that were "punishing" colleges that didn't rely on the Common Application exclusively. (Colleges pay per-applicant fees to the Common Application and the rate has been lower for those that do not offer other options for applying.) A spokeswoman for the Common Application did not return an email message seeking a reaction to the charge that the group is becoming monopolistic.

Latting's statements weren't challenged, and many here in informal discussions -- even people who are fairly critical of parts of the coalition's plans -- said they were pleased to see colleges taking on the Common Application. Many said that they viewed it as risky for any individual colleges to simply drop the Common App or to start promoting their own application, but that doing so as a group would strengthen the effort considerably.

Barbara Gill, association vice president for enrollment management at the University of Maryland at College Park, offered another argument for the coalition that is consistent with the views of many at NACAC. She said that applying to colleges has become too "transactional" and that the idea of the virtual lockers was to promote "broader engagement" in high school. But while many here are critical of the transactional nature of admissions, they don't appear to be flocking to the coalition idea.

One sign of the disconnect between the coalition and many outside the coalition (especially counselors) came during the session when the speakers on behalf of the group each cited what they called concerns that were unfounded. As each concern was named (such as that the process will become more complicated), that audience broke out in loud applause indicating that they believed the criticism.

And every time a questioner said something like, as one counselor did, "I can't help but think that more affluent students would have an advantage," those attending broke out in loud applause.

Some college admissions officials are also speaking out against the new portfolio by whatever name. "What this system seems to be is to continue to focus on selectivity rather than on finding the right college for an individual student," said Robert J. Massa, senior vice president for enrollment and institutional planning at Drew University, via email.

"It suggests that a portfolio is the way in, so rather than being a learning tool as my colleagues genuinely intend, it will, by human nature, likely become a competitive tool -- 'Keep that portfolio up to date and impressive; begin working on it as soon as you can but no later than day one of ninth grade; contact colleges early to show interest and get their feedback (how will colleges manage that one?).' It can easily become one more tool to help students demonstrate that they are who the colleges want them to be -- rather than to be themselves. And perhaps worst of all, free or not, the most sophisticated students will likely be the most active -- not those who are currently underserved."

Who Provides Advice? Who Can Get Good Information?

There was considerable back-and-forth on whether the coalition was the solution to a problem that just about everyone at NACAC agrees exists: the vast inequality in access to high-quality advice on college planning.

Critics of the coalition said they believe high-quality counseling is more important than any essay prompts or direct communications from colleges to those students who create the virtual college lockers.

One counselor from a Jesuit high school said that his institution embraces the Jesuit ideal of "care of the whole person" and that the portfolios/virtual lockers were a step in the wrong direction.

If high school freshmen are encouraged to start creating a document about their learning, "I worry very deeply about my ninth graders, 10th graders and 11th graders focusing so much on preparing for college and not the high school experience," he said, to sustained applause.

The counselor went on -- to more applause -- to call on the coalition to consult with educational psychologists and therapists about the stress the plan could create.

And to yet more applause, he questioned whether the various community groups and colleges that would offer advice to all people with portfolios/lockers could possibly be effective without having a personal relationship with students. "Everyone loves to play college counselor but you only have one," he said.

At this point, Emory's Latting interjected "or none."

And that drew attention to an argument coalition supporters made repeatedly: the choice for many low-income students is not between the portfolio and a caring high school counselor with a realistic workload, but between the portfolio and a general lack of information at all about colleges.

Naviance -- the Hobsons database through which students, families and counselors can find information on possible colleges -- was cited repeatedly as an example of the kind of valuable tool available only to those at wealthier high schools, and several speakers said that only a rarified subset of American high schools could afford it. (Among those in the audience was Daniel Obregon, vice president of marketing and user experience at Hobsons, who said after the discussion that Naviance is available to a much broader subset of high schools than speakers suggested, and is currently available to 40 percent of high school students. He said that these high schools include many in urban districts that serve many low-income, minority students, and that contracts in recent years have brought the service to districts of Philadelphia, Houston, Dallas, Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Baltimore.)

At the Common Application's session here, held Thursday, the word "coalition" was not used in any presentations by Common App leaders or by anyone asking a question. But the organization's presentations repeatedly stressed efforts to help disadvantaged students. (The questions, mostly from high school counselors, were almost entirely about ideas for technical improvements, not philosophy.)

Institutional Haves and Have-Nots

At the public session here, many of the counselors lining up to criticize the coalition took care to say they didn't doubt the sincerity of those who created the new system.

But in private discussions, many counselors and college admissions officials were more critical. "This is about the rich getting richer," was a common refrain. Others said that elite colleges -- having made the Common Application powerful by all joining it -- were moving to abandon it rather than fixing it.

Likewise, some supporters of the coalition had more critical comments, without their names attached, about those doubting the ideas behind the effort. A common refrain was to note that many college leaders (coalition members and many others) have long complained about the Common Application, and are now objecting as some colleges are trying to create an alternative.

Many counselors also said that coalition members are taking advantage of their clout. Even counselors who don't like the new approach will have no choice but to coach students on how to deal with the new application and the portfolio as parents and, in turn, principals, will want to see if the new system helps some students get into elite colleges. Many reported that it took only hours after the coalition announced its existence for parents and principals to demand that they start planning to help students create portfolios, since no one wants to be left out when that many elite colleges announce a new approach.

And then there are the dividing lines over which colleges are eligible to join the coalition. The coalition is open to public institutions with “affordable tuition along with need-based financial aid for in-state residents,” according to an outline provided by the coalition. Private colleges may join if they “provide sufficient financial aid to meet the full, demonstrated financial need of every domestic student they admit.”

That means colleges need not be need blind (in which admissions offers are made without regard to financial need) to participate. And indeed a number of colleges that have joined are “need aware” for some students, meaning that, for some of their slots, they consider only those students who do not have financial need. But colleges that engage in “gapping,” in which some admitted students are not provided enough aid to attend, will not be allowed to join. Gapping is common among private colleges that do not have substantial endowments.

To participate, colleges also must have a six-year federal graduation rate of 70 percent, a threshold that will exclude many public institutions.

Critics are noting that the colleges -- public and private -- that don't meet the criteria are those that admit, educate and graduate far more low-income and minority students than do most coalition members. Privately, critics say the leading colleges in the coalition are trying to make their new application seem morally virtuous by saying it will help low-income students, instead of just admitting that they no longer want to be part of the Common Application.

These critics point to institutions such as Brooklyn College of the City University of New York or California State University at Long Beach, which don't meet the 70 percent graduation rate requirement. But roughly half of their students are Pell Grant eligible and a large majority of students are from minority groups. So even with graduation rates under 70 percent, these are places producing far more low-income, minority graduates than most colleges that have higher graduation rates but far fewer Pell students or nonwhite students.

Jon Boeckenstedt (right), associate vice president of enrollment management for policy and planning at DePaul University, blogged about this issue with regard to the public and private colleges involved. Of the privates, he wrote that "these places are among the very worst offenders when it comes to enrolling low-income students, according to their own data. It’s not surprising that they are also the most selective (at least the privates). But if they’re among the most selective, don’t you think they could find some low-income kids or first-generation students among those they’re already rejecting? I would suspect so."

And of the publics, he wrote: "About a quarter of the public institutions have net prices of over $12,000 for students with family incomes under $30,000. That’s a pretty big chunk of family incomes. It seems to be inconsistent with affordable."

At the session here, coalition supporters repeatedly said that some public members joined only based on the assurance that the new system would promote access for low-income students.

Gill of Maryland said that if, a year from now, "the students using the college locker are the same ones" who have advantages today, "we will have failed," and will lose members.

Amid the criticism of the coalition, Rick Clark, director of undergraduate admission at the Georgia Institute of Technology, a coalition member, blogged that skepticism may be natural, but that people should see what actually happens

"If you've been walking around with one eyebrow raised since this press release, then kudos to you," he wrote. "Skepticism is part of what brings about excellence, innovation and improvement. The people of St. Louis in the 1870s would not walk over the first steel bridge across the Mississippi until an elephant did. Still, let's commit to 'benefit of the doubt' support and check back after a year -- or better yet after three or four years (given that the platform aims to bring students into the process earlier in their high school experience) to see if participating schools have indeed been able to enroll more Pell-eligible or first-generation students."

Clark also noted that how other admissions initiatives -- such as joining the Common Application -- have been met with doubt. "That announcement was met internally and externally with skepticism, some heavy breathing, and a good bit of caffeine consumption. Many in Georgia and beyond felt the Common App was simply a ploy to increase applications or raise selectivity. Many on our staff accurately foresaw the work this would necessitate from IT, as well as Institute Communications. Our goal, however, was to diversify geographically, in gender, in ethnicity, in curriculum, etc.," he wrote. "Two years later, those goals have been met -- this year's freshman class boasts the most women and African-American students in Tech history. Our first-generation population is up, and our Tech Promise scholars are thriving. … This is my hope for the coalition too."

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