The Admissions Industry Owes Students an Apology

Or maybe I should say a second apology.  And there will probably be more to come.

I had previously written an apology about how well-meaning admissions officers of my era contributed to the collective angst of a generation by using and repeating the phrase “choosing a college is one of the most important choices you’ll ever make.”  It sounds nice, and may wake up a kid or two, but it’s really not true.  Certainly choosing a college will affect friends, relationships, jobs, and untold other things; but there is no way to tell which choice is the best, no way to tell how things might have been if you’d chosen otherwise, and no reason to agonize over it at age 17.

But in the past few weeks  a couple of things happened.  Kent Barnds at Augustana wrote a blog post that talked about college admissions and big data and compared recent coverage of the NSA issue to college admissions.  In that post was a comment about how colleges can use FAFSA data to determine what college in a student’s list is “top of mind” based on the order the student or parent lists the colleges.

On a Facebook group for College Admissions Officers and Counselors and the NACAC e-list, Independent College Consultant Nancy Griesemer objected strongly.  I responded with a reminder that this is not new (it’s at least 30 years old and probably older) and that it can only be used against students at 50 or so colleges, although they are the 50 or so everyone obsesses over.  Still, I can see that it might add to student and parent stress.

Then, the Chronicle of Higher Education posted an excellent piece about measuring merit in college admissions, and referenced the term “black box” of selective college admission.  The Chronicl article is worth a read: I’ve long believed that the basis of much of our legal difficulty lies in the premise that “Qualified for Admission” means just GPA and test scores.

And finally I was asked to speak to the Common Application Board of Directors about issues in College Admission, and offered a few opinions about how they might make things better for colleges and applicants at the same time.  It’s a good group of thoughtful, future-focused people, and I had a nice time.  If I were King of Admissions, I said, we’d have a central application clearing house.  Every high school would have the same transcript and profile.  And we’d have the Coca-Cola National College Fairs, because for-profit companies know how to get messages to poor kids better than we do.

But during my talk, I uttered an off-the-cuff comment: “We all have to admit that complexity in our profession is good for business. A lot of people would be unemployed if college admission were more transparent and easier to understand and less stressful.”

There you have it.  As much as people like to complain about the stress and strain the complexity of the admissions process imposes on students, it’s a form of job security.  And this is true for admissions officers at colleges, high school counselors, and independent counselors as well.  It’s true for people who write about it; true for people who run websites to commiserate about the process.   Things are unlikely to change from inside the profession: As Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his job depends on not understanding it.”

So, students, if you want change, I fear it might have to start with you.  I’m sorry about the reality, and sorry about having to be the one to break it to you.  But maybe one of you or some of you will be at the forefront of change in how we think about and do college admissions.


2 thoughts on “The Admissions Industry Owes Students an Apology

  1. I’m sorry it took me so long to read this entry, Jon. But it comes after I’ve just finished James Rosenbaum’s book, “Beyond College for All,” which focuses on the extreme lack of articulation between high schools and the world after high school. That seems to be in line with your observations here.


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