Coalition Backlash

More than 100 college counselors at Jesuit high schools urge group seeking to reform admissions process to rethink its plans and push back scheduled start for new system.

October 14, 2015

Opposition is growing to a plan by a coalition of more than 80 leading colleges and universities to create a new admissions system and a new way for high school students to collect their academic work and other documentation of their accomplishments.

Many high school guidance counselors spoke out against the plan at this month's annual meeting of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. But that informal if vocal opposition is turning into specific demands that the coalition change and delay its plans. And this is taking place even though many counselors are no fans of the current admissions process or the dominance of the Common Application.

On Tuesday, more than 100 college counselors from Jesuit high schools sent a letter to the coalition detailing serious concerns they have about the new system. Also on Tuesday the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools raised many of the same concerns in a letter to the coalition. The Jesuit letter in particular attracted much praise in online discussions of college admissions. Jesuit high schools are known not only for academic rigor, but for enrolling many low-income students -- just the kind of students the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success says it is trying to help.

While the coalition members have not met to discuss the letters, two board members of the new group said via email that they were paying close attention to the letters and other comments, and were open to ideas on how to improve the coalition plan.

Jeremiah Quinlan of Yale University said via email, “I personally have always thought of this as a multiyear effort that only worked if everyone bought into the idea that a) we can do better b) we can use technology to help us and c) this will of course take lots of time and feedback. While we continue to develop the technology and welcome feedback, the commitment to maintaining the coalition’s outreach to underresourced students is at the center of our work. Making tools available directly to students who have little or no guidance for college is a major focus of the coalition and the work continues with the online platform and the messaging to emphasize this. As with many things in this effort, we are going with ‘the local option’ and encouraging member institutions to work on launching (and announcing) coalition-focused activities with current students, parents and local CBOs. Some may be announced shortly.”

Much of the criticism in the Jesuit high school counselors' letter concerns the “virtual college lockers” (originally called portfolios) that high school students would be encouraged by the coalition to create as early as their first year of high school. The idea is that students could store academic work, nonacademic work, diaries, photos, art or anything that represents their growth as students. In theory, some of the material might be submitted to colleges during the admissions process or shared with counselors and others throughout high school.

The Jesuit high school counselors' letter sees this process as too early, too complicated and very likely to detract from the academic experience of being in high school.

“Based on all adolescent development models, starting to ‘collect items’ and for parents to ‘obsess’ in the ninth grade will most likely produce significant concern/anxiety over the college process at a time when all of our students’ focus should be on the growth of their personal and academic selves. We could, for example, suggest you consider the establishment of a five-piece portfolio that is built in the junior and senior years when the time is appropriate for all parties involved,” the letter says.

“Concern/anxiety over the placement of content that is stored in the locker will detract students from learning for learning’s sake instead of positioning oneself. The heightened scrutiny with which these documents will be assessed will devolve from what a positive high school educational experience can encompass into a competitive ‘stepping-stone’ mentality that will affect every decision within these formative years,” the letter adds.

Additional concerns are raised about privacy protections for students who create a locker, and the ability of students who lack college counselors to understand the process.

And the letter says that coalition members need to consider all the changes currently taking place in admissions. "Please remember that your first-year class of 2017 and their parents are being hit with three major changes in the college application process: the 'new' SAT, prior-prior year financial aid filing [details here] and this coalition application. We, speaking for our counselors and those around the world, need you to supply clarity of purpose and process in your application as we help our families navigate all of these changes."

Based on those concerns, the letter urges the coalition to wait until August 2017 to start its various efforts. (Currently the coalition plans to launch the locker in April, which is a delay from the original plan of January, in response to concerns about the system. The application is currently scheduled to be unveiled in the summer of 2016.)

The Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools letter raised similar concerns, and also urged the coalition to consider delaying the launch of its features. The letter mixed those concerns with more praise for the coalition (or at least its goals), and stressed that private school counselors care deeply about low-income students.

“While our schools serve many underrepresented students, we acknowledge they also serve a large number of students who already have plenty of ‘access,’” the letter says. “We have heard from admission leaders who believe that our members’ concerns serve only the interests of these students. This is untrue. While the new platform, as it is currently conceived, is likely to increase workload, most of our members will happily endure the change if they believe that access for the most needy students will improve. This is why taking sufficient time to maximize success is so important. ACCIS believes that the coalition’s intentions are noble; allowing for further input, counsel and data will spread that belief.”

Zina Evans, a coalition board member from the University of Florida, said via email, “I can’t speak for the board, which has not yet had an opportunity as a group to review and respond to these letters. But from my own perspective, I can tell you that we are listening closely to the many voices both of concern and support. The next several months are an opportunity to broaden engagement with counselors and others, and I believe once we are able to share more specifics it will address most of the questions and concerns that are being raised.”


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