The Center for Community Alternatives’ report on the use of prospective students’ high school disciplinary behavior records in the college admissions review process exposes the wild, wild west that exists with high schools and their disciplinary policies. Both the school-by-school variations in reasons for suspending or expelling students and the differing methods for reporting such information understandably raise concerns about negative implications of the collection and use of such information.
Particularly troubling is the impact that differing disciplinary policies and practices have had on students, primarily underrepresented students, beyond high school. However, CCA’s recommendation that colleges cease any consideration of student discipline as part of the application review process is an irresponsible solution to a problem that requires a more judicious approach. Disciplinary behavior information is important for legal and public safety reasons and is often obtained and used without harming campus diversity.
As an admissions officer at a public four-year institution that serves an urban population, I am always concerned that our admission policies not create barriers for minority students. At my institution, high school applicants are required to provide transcripts and test scores. They also have to indicate whether they have been subject to disciplinary action at their secondary institution and/or have a misdemeanor or felony.
I know the admissions process is often mysterious and daunting, even without requiring supplemental information such as personal essays and recommendation forms, especially for underrepresented students. Requiring criminal history information adds to the fear some applicants have about how they will be viewed during the decision review process. I have spoken with students and parents who are concerned with how disciplinary and/or criminal disclosure information is used in the admissions process, and whether it is necessary, especially if the person has already paid their so-called dues to society. I also have seen a difference between punishments imposed on applicants, and have heard applicants express frustration with biases they have experienced, based on race.
Thus the CCA’s concerns over how this information could come to play in the review are important, but they do not warrant abandoning an often carefully considered process that serves a valid purpose in higher education admissions. Checking a box stating that the student faced disciplinary actions while in high school does not have to be the end of a student’s dream to obtain a college degree.
As a matter of both policy and process, the collection of disciplinary information during the admission process serves an important function in higher education for at least two reasons. First, part of assessing admissibility involves making a determination about character. Students involved in cheating, for instance, may not stack up as favorably as students who have earned their grades honestly.
Second, while some disciplinary disclosures are now required for campus life purposes (and therefore not necessarily used as a factor in admission decisions), there are institutions where the admission process and the enrollment/matriculation process are one and the same. So banning any consideration of disciplinary information in admission presents a procedural obstacle to fulfilling requirements many campuses must meet under state laws and universitywide policies. For instance, changes were made to Indiana law in 2014 restricting the use of expunged criminal history records in the hiring and academic admissions process. This prompted Indiana University to adopt a universal criminal history policy for all campuses.
For reasons such as these, the CCA’s recommendations fall far short of a solution to the problem they rightly identify. I would prefer that higher education focus on CCA’s point about the assessment of disciplinary information by “untrained” professionals, which is something that admissions professionals and their professional associations are well poised to address.
Each institution should adopt its own uniform policy for all applicants requiring the disclosure of any disciplinary action taken against them at another school or college. A collaboration of personnel from admissions, other enrollment services offices and the dean of students/student affairs and legal counsel could be required to write, monitor and review a comprehensive policy, and thereby address concerns related to balancing legal and public safety concerns with diversity recruitment initiatives. Having the same staff responsible for reviewing the disclosures would address the arbitrary decision making by “untrained” staff that CCA notes as a limitation to the review process.
Under well-developed and researched policies, institutional admissions staff could be trained on how to differentiate between those behaviors that would be considered normal teenage behavior versus those actions that, if repeated, would be a potential threat to campus safety. It would be important to emphasize during training the disciplinary review process is not an opportunity for the campus to readjudicate the student for past behavior. Such training would almost assuredly be the subject of ongoing discussion in the professional community that groups like CCA could strongly influence.
Having a policy under which students are asked to disclose information about past behavior and using it in the review process does not automatically guarantee a safer campus. However, the legal ramifications of not collecting information, or receiving it involuntarily and not using it to make an informed decision, should be compelling enough to persuade any institution of the wisdom of an unbiased, uniform and nonjudgmental collection of information about high school disciplinary behavior.
Pamela Brown is associate director of undergraduate admissions at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
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It’s been a little over a year since Michelle Obama brought school counselors and the important work they do into the spotlight as never before. Speaking before the annual meeting of the American School Counselor Association, Mrs. Obama brought attendees to their feet when she recognized the important role school counselors play in the lives of students, and the impossible demands placed on their time.
In sharing her Reach Higher initiative, Mrs. Obama also announced a new directive from the Department of Education, encouraging school administrators to offer more relevant professional development to counselors immediately, because “our secretary of education knows that every school counselor in this country should have quality, relevant professional development opportunities, end of story.”
Other components of the Reach Higher initiative -- College Decision Day and the Counselor of the Year celebration at the White House -- are off to an impressive start, but efforts to create new course work and professional development have stalled. No state met Secretary Arne Duncan’s call for increased professional development for current school counselors by last September.
In addition, a 2012 report from Harvard University states “Although graduate course work varies by state … specific course work in higher education or college counseling is rarely required, if even offered.” Less than 10 percent of counselor graduate programs currently offer specific course work in college counseling, as identified by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and the number of new programs adding such a course in the last year is less than a dozen.
Some counselor educators -- those charged with training school counselors -- have responded to this call by insisting a course focused on college counseling is unnecessary. As long as the essential college counseling skills are taught at some point in graduate school, they argue, what’s the value of a focused course?
Those making this argument are unaware of the pressures school counselors are facing in today’s high schools, and in today’s job market. To begin with, a good number of counselor training programs aren’t teaching essential skills in college counseling at any point in their programs. College Board surveys show a clear majority of school counselors report the college counseling training they received in graduate school was inadequate. Combined with surveys of recent high school graduates showing deep dissatisfaction with the college advice their counselors had to offer, the time is now for graduate programs to find ways to emphasize the importance of college counseling in counselor training, since more is being expected from school counselors in this vital area.
Counselors feel particularly undertrained in essential areas such as advising students on how to pay for college, prepare for college tests like the ACT and SAT, develop a rigorous high school schedule that builds college readiness, and complete the basic elements of a college application, including college essays. They also want a greater awareness of the wide array of college options available to students, such as colleges where students take one class at a time, colleges that don’t require any test scores as part of the admission process and colleges that have a proven track record of supporting students with unique talents and needs. Given the increased competition for entrance into many colleges, and the increased financial resources families are devoting to college completion, a graduate course for counselors focused on the rudimentary components of college counseling is no longer a luxury -- it is a must.
An additional consideration for a required course in college counseling lies with the new importance of a credential in this field. More school administrators are looking at alternative ways of offering college advising to students and families, including hiring independent college counselors and college success coaches as independent contractors. Many of these college experts do not have the credentials necessary to be school counselors, but do have transcripts and certificates of completion in college counseling programs to verify their training in college counseling -- something most high school counselors don’t have. In some cases, they also have a track record of success in turning around college counseling programs at private or charter schools.
It’s certainly true that certified school counselors generally have more training in the mental health aspects of school counseling than do college coaches. But when demand for help with college advising is at an all-time high, how can school counselors with no evidence of training in college counseling hope to compete for jobs with independent contractors whose college advising credentials are stronger, and whose services often come at a significantly lower price? These factors almost require school administrators consider reassigning the role of college advising to an independent contractor, reducing the number of school counselors available to assist students with noncollege needs. That change not only hurts a potential school counselor; it hurts the profession.
Far beyond the arguments for a professional credential, a focused course offers particular benefits to counselors working with low-income students in urban and rural areas. Often the only counselor in the building, these professionals lack access to the professional development their suburban counselors are more likely to enjoy, and their higher caseloads leave them even less time to learn the essentials of effective college advising on the job. If for no other reason, a foundation course in college counseling is essential in advancing the efforts of school counselors to advance the college dreams of low-income students, advancing society’s goal of greater social justice.
The goals of the Reach Higher initiative, combined with the demands of students and parents and the realities of the college counseling marketplace, make it clear that an unfocused approach to training school counselors in college counseling is no longer the answer, if in fact it ever was. As Mrs. Obama’s celebration of school counselors reaches its one-year anniversary, it’s time for policy makers and counselor educators to join the party, and give school counselors the skills, and credentials, they desperately need and deserve.
Patrick O’Connor is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and associate dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Kingswood School, in Michigan.