It’s been an incredibly wet spring here in Michigan, so bad that I’ve had three students ask me about colleges that offer dual degrees in shipbuilding and animal husbandry. To make matters worse, the cloudy atmosphere outside seems to have influenced what’s going on inside the world of college admissions, at least as far as media coverage is concerned.
For reasons that are hard to explain, the usual torrent of Colleges See Record Application Year stories has been replaced by an addiction to three story lines that have held the public’s attention longer than fidget spinners. What’s especially puzzling about the focus on these trio of topics is that, at least in the quietude of their offices behind closed doors, most admissions personnel and college counselors respond to them by asking, “What’s the big deal?”
While articles abound offering insights on what these Big Three could mean to the future of college counseling, it might be important to understand how long these issues have already been with us, before we offer any conjecture on what should be influencing the field come this fall.
Story Line 1: Rich People Use Their Money to Get Special Treatment
When it comes to themes the media jumps on, what more could you ask for than a story that involves money, movies stars, and college admissions? This could explain the lingering fascination with the Varsity Blues/Aunt Becky story, but the real issue behind the story isn’t really news at all. From opening night tickets on Broadway to neighborhoods with the best schools to the best time and tables at Michelin restaurants, the wealthy and famous are always using their leverage and reputation to get advantages the rest of us simply can’t access.
This has been just as true in college admissions for years, and that’s not even close to being the secret the media is suggesting it is. When explaining how his alma mater builds an admissions class, an alumnus admissions representative unabashedly told me about twenty percent of the seats at his school automatically goes to children of alumni, “children of US Senators, and (people like) Tom Hanks’s son (NOTE—no, this is not the college attended by any of Tom Hanks’s sons). We do this, because we can.” Having recently paid many times more than the face value for Hamilton tickets, the effect of the wealthy on limited resources isn’t lost on me, and any college that has more applicants than seats is a limited resource.
Story Line 2: Colleges Think About Where Their Applicants Come From
The fallout of the Aunt Becky story had mercifully faded from the public’s radar right around the time College Board announced it has been developing an additional measure for colleges to use that aims to provide context about applicants’ backgrounds. Labelled as an “adversity index”, the score uses public data based on things like zip codes and crime rates to offer insights into where students were raised, and where they went to high school.
Once again, the response of most veteran admission officers to this news was “been there, done that, and have the spreadsheets to prove it.” College admissions officers have used socioeconomic factors for years when dealing with the tricky issue of evaluating applicants across different schools, including intangible factors that defy measurement. Since this has long been part of the art of college admissions, the notion that this is a new addition to the soup of decision making is specious. Adopting the College Board scale may lead to some changes in admissions decisions, but that’s more of a rearrangement of data than incorporation of new data. Not much to see here.
Story Line 3: Students Who Do Dumb Things Can Get Kicked Out of College
The only real question raised by Harvard’s removal of Kyle Kashov from next year’s freshman class for racist remarks on social media is how much the media would have covered this story if a) Kyle wasn’t a survivor of the Parkland shooting, or b) if this action had been taken by Southeast Michigan Tech rather than Harvard.
The admissions offer of every college—that’s every college—reminds the student that the offer is tentative, and can be revoked for any number of reasons. If your last semester as a high school senior shows your A-B average is now in the D-F range, we’ll wish you well. If it turns out you didn’t really write those admissions essays and we find out two years after you’ve been with us as a student, you’ll finish college somewhere else. If you make public remarks questioning the right of some of your fellow students to simply exist, that just won’t sit well with us. This really, really, isn’t news.
Real Issues for Next Fall
My hope is that the two months of sunshine will melt away America’s fascination over the last three months with admissions stories obsessed with the obvious, and we can move on to tackle issues that can move our profession, and our society, forward. Do highly selective colleges really spend less time recruiting urban and rural schools, simply because they’re harder to get to? Since there is no such thing as “free” college, what can really be done to get more students into and through college without a mountain of debt? How in the world does any student qualify for full cost of attendance aid and still have to choose between buying books and eating? These may not make for the most tranquil topics to consider whiling away a summer’s day in a hammock, but they remind us our work has ample purpose beyond board reports, yield ratios, and social media hits.