Friday, July 10, 2015

Harvard Complaint Dismissed

Even though the blog is officially on summer break (and, in fact, at the beach), two quick updates, one newsworthy, one not.

The U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights has dismissed a claim by more than sixty Asian-American groups that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants in undergraduate admissions.  The Department of Ed dismissed the claim because a lawsuit making similar charges filed last November by Students for Fair Admissions is pending in Federal District Court.  A recent ECA post discussed the issues surrounding the charges and the lawsuit.

As mentioned at the time, that post was selected for’s “Around the Web” section.  In the past three months four ECA posts have been featured, making Ethical College Admissions the most-mentioned site.  To quote a character portrayed by famed character actor Walter Brennan in a 1960’s western series, “No Brag, Just Fact.”  Except in this case it is a brag.  

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

School's Out for Summer

This is the final post before ECA shuts down for the summer, featuring some news updates and brief comments.

1)    I always appreciate reader feedback, and want to respond to Nola Lynch’s comment posted on the blog yesterday.  She found a distinction I made between consultants and counselors “extraneous,” and objected to my lumping all educational consultants together, including those who are members of IECA and HECA.  The comment may have been extraneous, but I was struck by the fact that the Boston Globe story described those who advise Asian-America students to appear “less Asian” as consultants. 

What I didn’t intend at all was a comment about the independent consultant community at large.  I think of our independent colleagues as being college “counselors,” and had actually forgotten that the C in both IECA and HECA stands for consultant rather than counselor. I plead ignorance rather than malice. My issue was with those whose advice is solely about strategy and gaming the system, a danger about which all of us need to be vigilant, regardless of our title.

2)    Steve LeMenager’s comment alludes to the unhealthy obsession with prestige and branding in college admissions and in our society, and a recent Washington Post story exposes the dangers.  A student at an elite magnet school falsely reported that she had been admitted to a unique program that would allow her to spend two years at Harvard and two years at Stanford.  She also reported that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg had personally called her to encourage her to go to Harvard.  The story received media coverage in her native Korea, referring to her as the “Genius Girl,” only to be exposed as false.  The unfortunate incident followed another Post story about a student from the same school who had earned admission to all eight Ivies.  Is that something worth celebrating or reporting as news?

3)    At the end of a monumental week of decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court announced yesterday that it will take another look at the case of Fisher v. Texas, which it considered two years ago.  At that time the Court sent the case back to the U.S. Court of Appeals Fifth Circuit asking it to consider whether the UT-Austin affirmative action plan satisfies the legal demand for “strict scrutiny.” The Fifth Circuit approved the Texas plan last year by a 2-1 margin.  Will news of the scandal where the President’s Office at UT-Austin ordered students with connections admitted influence the way the Supreme Court reconsiders Fisher?

4)    On Friday the U.S. Department of Education announced that it will back away from its plan to rate colleges.  The Department will produce a website with lots of data for consumers but will not include ratings.  Avoiding the temptation to rate colleges is a good decision.  Today the Federal government; tomorrow U.S. News?

5)    Sweet Briar College in Virginia will remain open for at least another year under the terms of a settlement brokered by Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring between the College’s Board and a group of alumnae that had filed suit arguing that the closing of the college violates the trust that established Sweet Briar.  Saving Sweet Briar, the alumnae group, will contribute $12 million under the terms of the agreement, and the college will get a new Board and administration. I wrote about Sweet Briar’s closing as a case of institutional euthanasia, and I worry that the settlement is only prolonging the college’s demise, but I admire those who have worked to keep Sweet Briar alive and wish them success.

6)    The June 6 administration of the SAT was marred by a printing error that resulted in students having five minutes less on two sections.  The College Board has since announced that neither of the two affected sections will be scored, but that the error won’t impact the validity of student scores.  The College Board and ETS are easy targets, and there are plenty of folks glad to see them squirming after a screw-up.  There have been calls for everything from giving a free summer re-test to refunding part of the test fee because of the fewer questions to cancelling scores for any student who asks. The CB has responded by offering free registration for October for any student who took the June test.

The College Board’s confident assurance that the validity of a student’s scores are unaffected by the two missing sections begs the question, Why is the test so long?  If scores are unaffected by those two sections, then why do we need those two sections to begin with? The answer may be for PR reasons.  Nearly thirty years ago an admissions dean friend who was active with the College Board told me that it had the technology to give the SAT on a computer with the ability to produce accurate scores with only three questions (how you answered the first question would determine what your next question was).  What kept them from introducing the new test were concerns that the public would lose confidence in the SAT (that would never happen).  So is making the SAT long and arduous tied to building the brand?

7)    This morning’s “Around the Web” section of lists the most recent post as one of its two selections, the sixth time ECA has been included.

ECA is headed off to summer vacation, remembering the wisdom of Alice Cooper (“School’s Out for Summer”) and Porky Pig (“That’s All, Folks”).  We’ll be back in September.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Less Asian?

“Do Asian American applicants face an unlevel playing field?” was the opening question posed to me by NPR All Things Considered weekend host Arun Rath in an interview about the “landscape” of college admissions.

It was not a question I was expecting, and for a moment I hoped I was having a version of that dream where you realize that the final exam is tomorrow and you’ve somehow forgotten to go to class for the entire semester.  The issue had come up in passing in a pre-interview the previous day with a producer from the show, but I didn’t expect it to be the focus of the interview.

I shouldn’t have been surprised.  I had somehow missed a news story a couple of days earlier that a coalition of 64 organizations filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights alleging that Harvard’s holistic admissions process deliberately discriminates against Asian-American applicants.  A lawsuit making the same claim was filed last November in federal district court by the group Students for Fair Admissions.  And within a couple of days after the NPR story ran the Boston Globe reported that college admissions “consultants” (not the same thing as college counselors) are advising Asian-American students to appear less “Asian” when applying to elite colleges.

I answered Rath’s question by explaining (but not defending) the nature of highly-selective college admissions.  In an environment where only 5% or 10% of applicants will be offered admission, there are lots of exceptionally qualified students who won’t get in. To borrow a phrase from logic, merit is necessary but not sufficient.   Selectivity, the desire to build a well-rounded class, and the belief in holistic admission all frustrate students and parents who want to understand what it takes to get in.  I also expressed my view that the hidden currency of selective admissions is uniqueness (that may not be the right word), in that the more there is of any quality or talent the less valuable it is, and vice versa.

As a college counselor (rather than a “consultant”), I sit down with every student who aspires to attend an Ivy or similarly selective college or university and explain that earning admission requires both a superb record and luck.  That is especially the case for students without a hook (recruited athlete, diversity, legacy).  The odds for unhooked applicants are much lower, probably less than 1%.  Of the thirteen students in this year’s senior class who were admitted to a national highly-selective school, only one didn’t have some combination of hooks (if you count a couple of Early Decision full pays).  All had superb credentials, but without the hooks they probably wouldn’t have been admitted.

So are Asian-American applicants intentionally discriminated against or just unhooked?  They are not currently underrepresented in the Harvard student body.  Asian-Americans make up 20% of Harvard’s student body, compared with 5% of the general population in the United States.  That doesn’t mean they’re not discriminated against, of course, if they “deserve” an even larger percentage. Affirmative action cases such as Fisher v. Texas refer to the concept of “critical mass,” an imprecise term, given that a precise numerical definition of critical mass looks a lot like a quota. Critical mass is normally thought of as a minimum number, but might it entail a maximum as well?

The plaintiff in the court challenge, Students for Fair Admissions, is an offshoot of the Project for Fair Representation, an advocacy group headed by Edward Blum devoted to ending race-conscious admission.  The group’s concern for the plight of Asian-Americans may be more a matter of convenience than conviction, as it has also filed a lawsuit against UNC-Chapel Hill with no mention of Asian-American applicants. Questionable motives do not automatically mean that the suit is without merit.

Most of the evidence of discrimination presented in the Students for Fair Admissions suit is prima facie, circumstantial in nature.  A 2009 study by Princeton professor Thomas Espenshade and Alexandra Radford concluded that Asian-Americans needed SAT scores 140 points higher than white students to get into elite colleges at the same rates.  The consistency in percentage of Harvard students from various ethnic groups over a long period of time is cited as evidence of racial balancing, as is the discrepancy in the percentage of Asian-Americans at Harvard (20%) compared with the percentage at Cal Tech (40%), which doesn’t take race into consideration in admission.

Then there is the historical argument against holistic admission.  Holistic admission, including such application staples as the personal essay, extracurricular activities, and letters of recommendation, traces its origins back to the 1920s, as documented in Jerome Karabel’s dense but fascinating history of admissions at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, The Chosen.  Holistic admission was part of a move from the “best student” paradigm to the “best graduate” paradigm, ultimately replaced by today’s “best class” paradigm.  Karabel’s contention is that holistic admission was a tool to limit the Jewish enrollment at Harvard, and the lawsuit argues that today holistic admissions limits the number of Asian-Americans.

I don’t want to believe that holistic admission is being used to unfairly discriminate today, even if it’s clear that in the past terms such as “character” and “leadership” were defined in a narrow, even racist, way.  I believe in holistic admission and regret that the Common Application has moved away from it as a pillar of its mission, but also recognize that holistic admission can be a veil of secrecy over the admissions process.

If Asian-American applicants are being disadvantaged in the selective admissions process, it’s less due to holistic admission than other factors.  One is the increasing international nature of the student bodies at highly-selective schools.  Why admit Chinese-Americans when you can admit students from China? 

The other is the “class full of differences” paradigm, which values and rewards spike talents and compelling personal narratives rather than the superb resume pursued by many Asian-American students.  At a counselors’ breakfast I attended last fall sponsored by five highly-selective colleges, the consensus among the admissions officers present was that 90% or more of applicants were qualified, even superbly qualified, but very few were “interesting.”

I was annoyed by that attitude, because I think that a college education should help young people become “interesting,” but in this case it’s also instructive.  Asian-American applicants don’t have to be advised to be less Asian, but rather more interesting, more individual.  In the same way that independent schools had to come to grips that what might be best for a student educationally, being a well-rounded individual, was no longer the best way to earn admission to a highly-selective college or university, the path pursued by many Asian-American applicants, superb grades and scores supplemented by a menu of activities like tennis and violin, is no longer the sure path to Harvard or other schools.


P.S.  My hope is to do one more post next week before the blog goes on summer break.      

Friday, June 5, 2015

A Few Things Considered

HEADLINE:  Ethical College Admissions Mentioned on NPR All Things Considered!

Several weeks ago I was interviewed for a story on the weekend version of NPR’s signature program, All Things Considered. If you by chance missed it, you’re not alone.  It aired on Saturday, May 23, in the midst of the Memorial Day holiday weekend, meaning that the listening audience numbered around 41. Even I missed it, because I wasn’t sure if and when the story would be reported.  Anyway, here’s a link.

How did this come about?  On the previous Wednesday afternoon, I received an e-mail from a producer at NPR.  She said that they were looking to talk with someone about “the current landscape of how colleges choose their incoming class” and that she had read an article I had written a couple of years ago for Eric Hoover’s Head Count blog for the Chronicle of Higher Education asking if the college admissions process is measuring the right things.  She mentioned grit and how one assesses it and racial preferences in admission as possible topics, and that they were hoping to do the interview before the end of the week.

The timing was less than ideal.  Our seniors were graduating that Friday, and Thursday marked the beginning of what we affectionately refer to as the “24 hours of hell,” with four major events crammed into a short span.  We have our Awards Assembly at 2, the Baccalaureate service at 5, and the Athletic Banquet at 7, then have Commencement at 10 a.m. the next morning.  For those of us with responsibilities in several of those events, it is exhausting and stressful.

I therefore responded that it was a hectic time, but that I might be able to find a couple of windows either Thursday or Friday.  Within five minutes the producer e-mailed that she would call in fifteen minutes.  During that call we talked about a couple of other possible topics, including how college admissions and higher ed have become a business, and we set the interview for Thursday afternoon, meaning that I would miss Baccalaureate.

The next morning she called again to confirm that they would send a radio producer to my office to record the phone interview with Arun Rath, the weekend host for All Things Considered.  That made me wonder if this might be different from the interviews I’ve done with newspaper reporters, where a fifteen minute conversation shows up in the story as a one-line quote.  She also asked an interesting question.  How do you know anything about college admissions when you don’t work at a college?  That question, usually unstated, is not unfamiliar to those of us who work at the secondary level, and it raises an interesting larger question. Does someone who works in the admissions office at one institution understand the landscape of college admissions better than someone who deals with lots of institutions? I cringe when I think about how little I knew during my admissions days, but that may be me.  In any case, I answered by citing my years of experience, NACAC leadership, and work with the blog, but wondered if they were looking for a perspective different than I could offer.

I tried to prepare for the interview with some notes and talking points regarding the admissions landscape.  One point I especially wanted to make was that there is not a single college admissions landscape.  There are at least two landscapes in the college admissions universe.  Most media coverage of college admissions focuses on the competition for places at highly-selective colleges and universities, but that landscape includes only 10% of the institutions of higher education in this country.  The other 90% are in a landscape where any qualified student will be admitted, and I have seen statistics that 80% of students are admitted to their first-choice schools.

I never got the chance to make that point, because the interview went down a different path than I expected.  With the exception of one question about “grit,” the rest of the interview was about whether Asians are discriminated against in the college admissions process, a subject I wasn’t prepared to discuss.  To be fair, the producer had mentioned that issue in passing in our pre-interview, but not that it would be the primary focus, and I had also missed a news story several days before that a coalition of 64 organizations had filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights alleging that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants in the admissions process.

So there I was, being interviewed for a national radio audience, asked to comment on Harvard’s treatment of Asian-American applicants.  I knew full-well that I was in a minefield where it would be easy to say something that might easily be misconstrued.  I saw my job as providing context about how admission works rather than defending it.  So I talked about how in my view the hidden currency of selective admissions is uniqueness, that the more of any talent or quality the less valuable it is.  I talked about holistic admission as a way to build a class and how frustrating that can be for students and parents who don’t understand why they don’t get admitted in an environment where most highly-qualified applicants are denied.  And I suggested that fairness is hard to achieve in a process where so many metrics are ultimately measures of socioeconomic privilege.

On the fairness front, one response that was edited out of the interview was my suggestion that the fairest way to admit applicants is using random selection from among those judged qualified.  I first suggested that in a Chronicle of Higher Education article in 1988, and some saw it as satire, akin to Jonathan Swift arguing for eating children.  But if selective admission is an exercise in Distributive Justice, allocating a scarce resource fairly, then random selection achieves fairness even as it prevents shaping the class.  When I originally made that proposal, neither students nor admissions officers found it compelling, and apparently the same is true for NPR.

Throughout the interview I felt off my game, and when I ended I was convinced it would never be used, especially after Arun Rath started to ask a follow-up question, then said “Never mind.”  But thankfully it didn’t sound as bad as I feared.

In the next post I will consider whether Asians are discriminated against and whether Asian students should be encouraged to look “less Asian.”

Wednesday, May 20, 2015


“Which college would you pick for him?” the parents of a junior asked as we wrapped up a parent conference the last week of April.  I gave my standard response, which is that it is not my job to tell a student where they should go but rather to help them figure out what is right for them.

Within a couple of days I was forced to rethink both the sanctity and the strength of that core belief when May 1 arrived with four of my seniors unable to decide where they would deposit.  That’s more than I ever remember, although it is possible I have repressed previous years in order to maintain my sanity.

I’m not sure why more students struggled this year to make a final decision.  Did the weeks I missed this spring after surgery prevent me from having the kinds of post-decision conversations I normally have?  Have we not given this generation the tools and practice in decision-making?  Or is the answer the same found in so many SAT multiple-choice questions, “None of the above”?

The four situations had little in common.  One student had a choice between an Ivy and a full scholarship at one of the nation’s best liberal-arts colleges.  A second was trying to parse the differences between the business programs at comparable institutions.  A third was trying to resolve the conflict between what his gut was telling him and what his family and friends were telling him.  And the last was mourning the reality of the choices available to him, a reality that shouldn’t have surprised him but nevertheless did.

Making the final choice is the hardest part of the college process for many students.  Up to that point it is all about possibilities and options, but on May 1 choosing one door means closing others permanently.

One of the major factors contributing to difficulty in choosing is the myth (I prefer the term “Suburban Legend”) that says a student will have that moment when they fall in love with a particular school.  That myth can be paralyzing for students who haven’t had that experience, and I am quick to point out that the “fall in love” moment is far from universal and that those blinded by love may actually make worse college decisions.

One of the negative consequences of the growth of college admissions as an industry is that we have lost focus on the college search and admissions processes as essential developmental steps in the transition from adolescence to adulthood.  Choosing where to go to college is not an end in itself, but part of a student’s journey of self-discovery.  As such how one chooses is ultimately more important than where one chooses.  College selection should be transformational in the same way that a college education should be transformational.

Deciding where to attend college might qualify as the first adult decision for many young people.  Adult decisions are important rather than trivial, and they have significant long-term consequences.  They also don’t have easy, obvious answers.  There is no perfect or obvious choice, so you make the best choice you can, weighing and balancing the pros and cons of each option.

Several years ago the Wall Street Journal ran an article with the intriguing title, “What’s Wrong With the Teenage Mind?”  What indeed?  The article argues that there is a widening gap between the onset of adolescence and the onset of adulthood, resulting in “teenage weirdness.”  The causes are complex (or else I’m not smart enough to understand them).  There are two different neural systems that interact in the development into adults, and they don’t work as well in sync as they once did.  One system has to do with emotion and motivation, and the other with judgment and control.  The first is tied to the changes that occur at puberty, while the second is tied to the development of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that inhibits impulses and allows long-term thinking and planning.  The key ingredient in the development of sound decision-making is experience.  It is only by practice in making decisions that one learns how to make decisions.

At one time in history children prepared for adulthood through formal and informal apprenticeships, practicing the skills they would need as adults with supervision.  Today in our zeal to protect our children, we don’t give them the opportunity to practice making decisions.  I would like to see us have a discussion about how the college search and application processes might function as preparation for the major life decisions students will make the rest of their lives.

That probably marks me as clueless—I prefer the descriptor “idealist.”  Certainly the college admissions process as currently practiced would have to change, and it is not clear that colleges see anything wrong with the current process.

That’s the meta-issue.  But how do you help a student decide when it’s May 1, a deposit is due by the end of the day, and you’ve made clear that double-depositing is not an option?

I try to focus on being an asker of questions rather than a provider of answers.  Why would you pick college A over university B?  What would prevent you from choosing it?  Is there any information that might help you make the choice?  When those fail, my default question is, Which one will you regret not choosing?  That question helped two of my four identify their leanings. 

I also use the counseling technique of reflecting back to them what I am hearing them say, either validating or challenging their perceptions.  In doing so I have to be careful not to let my own personal agenda get in the way, i.e. what is the impact on the college list (a topic I hope to address in my next post).  I tell students that there is not a bad choice to be made, but rather a choice between good and good, and sometimes even point to Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Less Travelled,” which makes the point that the act of choice itself makes a decision right or good.

All four of my students made a choice by the end of the day, but within a week two of them had other options, one getting off a Wait List and the other successfully appealing a denial at a school which uses the appeal process like a Wait List.

Why is it that I end the college admissions year feeling like a reality-show contestant, relieved not to have been voted off the island for another episode?  Why indeed?


P.S.  The previous post was also selected by as one of two daily selections for its Around the Web feature, the fifth time that’s happened.


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Where Else Are You Applying?

Last week a minor furor erupted following an announcement by The Common Application that member schools can add a question asking students to list the colleges to which they are applying.  Todd Rinehart, Associate Vice Chancellor for Enrollment and Director of Admission at the University of Denver (a Common App member) as well as Chair of the NACAC Admission Practices Committee, wrote an op-ed for last week’s NACAC Bulletin laying out his personal (rather than official) views on the topic, and a number of people, mostly from the secondary side, have posted on the NACAC Exchange regarding the decision.

It remains to be seen whether this is a minor border skirmish in the battle between institutional interest and student sovereignty or a major attack designed to further erode the principles that have guided college admission and counseling.  It also remains to be seen if this is another sign of the morphing of the Common App as it becomes a bigger player in the college admissions landscape representing a broader spectrum of member colleges.  Last fall the organization announced that it would no longer require members to use holistic review of applicants, previously one of the bedrock principles underlying the Common Application.  Is the next change the current Common App requirement that members schools be NACAC members in good standing?

The change potentially puts Common App members at odds with the Statement of Principles of Good Practice. The SPGP does not prohibit schools from asking students where else they have applied.  The Mandatory section of the document prohibits colleges from asking students to rank their preferences and also states that students may not be required to respond. The Best Practices section of the document recommends that colleges not ask.

So colleges may ask the question, but should they?  In a recent post, I wrote about the Naturalistic Fallacy, which states that just because you have ability to do something doesn’t mean you should.  This blog’s conception of what is ethical extends beyond what is or isn’t permitted by the SPGP, so let’s examine the ethical issues.

In a post a couple of years ago regarding the University of Iowa’s decision to add a question on its application tied to sexual orientation, I argued that while I applauded Iowa’s desire to send a message about its openness to the LGBT community, the application should include only questions relevant and necessary to determining an individual’s merit or fit for admission. Does the “Where else are you applying?” question meet that test? 

Unless I’m missing something (always possible), there are two possible reasons for colleges asking that question, only one of which might be related to the admissions process itself. Colleges and universities have a legitimate interest in knowing what their overlap schools are, but there are more efficient ways than asking students on the application.  The best way would be for Common App to provide that aggregate information to its members after the completion of the admissions year.  If students must be asked, survey them after decisions have been made rather than as part of the application.

The more likely reason for asking the question is yield management, and it is here that we land on shaky ethical ground.  First of all, asking a student to report where he or she is applying is an infringement of privacy.  That information is owned by the student, and is not the college’s business.  Even when the question is optional, it is still coercive. Does optional mean truly optional or NFL off-season workout “optional”?  As a counselor, I generally advise students to answer optional questions.  This one will be different.

That’s due to the potential for inappropriate use of the information.  In a post two years ago, I detailed the case of a college wanting to Wait List one of my students because “we won’t get him.”  They were aware of the other colleges on his list through an alumni interview, and falsely assumed he wasn’t seriously interested because of the other places he was applying and because he hadn’t applied for their merit scholarship, which they were obviously using as a measure of Demonstrated Interest.  In fact he had scheduled the alumni interview as a way to demonstrate interest and chose not to apply for the scholarship so that they wouldn’t assume he had no interest if he didn’t receive one.  We protested and the college relented, but not before letting us know how offended they were that we would question their judgment.

I get that yield is an important enrollment management metric, and that it is harder to predict than ever before.  What bothers me, though, is that a number of institutions are trying to predict yield not to stabilize enrollment, but as a metric of prestige, as a way to keep admit rate as low as possible.  The only thing worse than asking a student to rank their choices is to make assumptions about a student’s interest without them knowing, whether based on the application list or the student’s FAFSA rank order.  Both are unethical because they turn students into pawns in a chess game they don’t know is being played.     

There are two larger issues that this discussion identifies.  The first is a growing chasm between high schools and colleges regarding how the college admissions process should be conducted.  That is not news, but one of the things that make college admission counseling a profession rather than a business is a shared set of core values and conventions based on what is best for young people in a crucial developmental process.  I fear we are losing that.

The other issue is that the current admissions/application process has become a vicious circle that serves none of us well.  This is the time of year when we will read stories about how this is the toughest admissions year in history.  Students and parents (and counselors) respond by submitting more applications, especially given that no college wants to be a safety school.  The increase in apps makes yield hard to predict and increases use of yield tools such as Early Decision and Wait Lists.  What’s wrong with this picture?  Is it time to rethink college admission?