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Same Boat, Different Missions

Same Boat, Different Missions

Last weekend our daughter spent the night out, which meant our 11-year-old got to pick the movie without having to compromise (the first three syllable word he was forced to learn).

He immediately began scrolling through superhero movies and ultimately landed on Captain America- The Winter Soldier. Highlights include seeing Robert Redford and Samuel L. Jackson share the screen, as well as a few truly incredible chase and fight scenes. The trade-off is you end up having to explain to a rising 5th grader that winning WWII took a lot more than an amazing ricocheting shield.

Photo credit: Microsoft.com

In one of the first scenes, Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) are sent to free hostages aboard a ship. During the battle, Rogers realizes Romanoff has diverged to complete another mission– extracting data onto a jump drive from the ship’s computers for S.H.I.E.L.D boss, Nick Fury.

This scene not only sets the stage for the entire plot (and encapsulates the complex relationship between Rogers and Romanoff), but also illustrates the differing missions and motivations of high school counselors and college admission officers. Let me explain…

High school counselors are Captain America.

If you know Steve Rogers’ background, you’ll recall he volunteered to give his life and body to his country. He was transformed through an experiment into a super soldier. His quest is always to serve, protect, and advocate. There is no second mission or ulterior motive. He’s always going to choose and focus on people.

The same is true for high school counselors. This is why they spend countless hours at school, wear far too many hats for too little pay, and still find, or make, time to go to games, dances, performances, and graduation celebrations. Like Captain America they are uniquely made and fully committed.

Admission officers, deans, and directors are Black Widow.

Still a super hero… but it gets complicated.  They care about people. They want students to be happy, healthy, and successful, and they spend a lot of time in Hampton Inns eating extremely questionable breakfasts to prove it. Their direction comes from S.H.I.E.L.D. (read: an institution). They are not independent agents. Their measurement of success and ultimate objective is getting that jump drive. Save as many people as  you can along the way, but the data and numbers are the supreme mission.

For many years, people have described admission officers and school counselors as working on either “side of the desk.” Frankly, I think it’s time to Marvelize the dynamic to “same boat: different missions.”

Over the last two years, I’ve co-authored a book to guide families through the college admission experience with my friend and colleague Brennan Barnard, a school counselor who is also the college admission program manager for Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common Project. As a result, we talk regularly about various components of this intersection between high school and college, and have written before on the varying perspectives on our field and work. He has helped me appreciate and consider how admission messages, decisions, and policies play out “on the ground” in school communities.

To Serve and Protect

He may not wield a shield, but you can hear his Captain America serve and protect mentality in our email exchange about UVA’s recent announcement to reinstate a binding Early Decision application plan with a deadline of October 15.

“October 15th for a seventeen-year-old student to decide where they want to go to college? I feel the same way about this as I do about back to school sales at the end of June, snow blowers for sale in August,” (he’s from New Hampshire, so this one was kind of lost on me), “or Halloween decorations in stores before Labor Day.”

When the UVA made their announcement, he talked at length about issues surrounding access and equity, rightly pointing out that under-resourced students often do not know about early deadlines, nor do they have the ability to visit multiple colleges to appropriately weigh their options.

He also pointed out the anxiety he and his colleagues on the secondary side observe in their schools and how he sees the move to earlier applications as part of the problem. Frankly, he’s a better writer than me, so I’m just going to hand it off here:

“It is no secret that mental health is a huge concern on college campuses and in high schools as well. In a recent NPR interview, the authors of “The Stressed Years of the Lives” identify college admission as one of the primary stressors for young people. It aligns with evidence found at Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common project about achievement pressure and concern for others and the common good in college admission. While Early Decision is not the singular cause of stress, it certainly contributes to the arms race and students feeling that they need to game the process.

Increasingly students are asking “where” they will go to college before they even answer “why” they are going, because they know the reality of acceptance rates. All we have been learning about brain development and decision-making suggests that, if anything, we should be giving them more time! We need further national research on retention rates, freshman year GPAs, mental health struggles and other indicators, split out by students who came in through early and regular application, including demographic information.

Early Decision has the unintended consequence of pushing everything earlier in high school and is rendering the senior year impotent. Not only do we see students obsessing over college in 9th and 10th grades, but the second half of senior year looks really different when more than half a class is already into college by December.”

Same Boat, Different Mission

As an admission director (aka Black Widow), I join in his concern about equity, stress, and senioritis. I absolutely care. My colleagues on other college campuses care as well. We want to save everyone on the boat. But ultimately S.H.I.E.L.D. is telling us to get that jump drive. Our job is to bring in a class of students who will succeed academically, proliferate the brand of the college, and ensure the revenue generated by tuition is in line with the overall budget.

Note guy in back right. Told you someone always has an eye on the data.

This is an unprecedented time in college admission (and I’m not referring to the Varsity Blues scandal). As author Jeff Selingo discusses in “How the Great Recession Changed Higher Education Forever,” state appropriations for public universities have continually been reduced. As a result, publics with the regional and national brand to attract non-residents made up for their budget shortfall by looking out of state for more students. The population is declining and will continue to do so in the Midwest and New England. In response, population dense California now has almost 200 representatives from institutions outside the state who live and recruit there, including regional admission directors.

A growing number of colleges are closing their doors or re-examining their mission and viability. In “The Higher Education Apocalypse,” Lauren Camera outlines these challenges and highlights specific cases. She also cites Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen who predicts that as many as half of all universities will close or go bankrupt in the next decade.

One way to protect your class (and tuition revenue) is to install a binding ED plan. Is it a perfect or fair solution? No. Are there sometimes other motivations for having an ED process? Yes, of course. It can serve to lower admit rate, increase yield, and could have implications for some of the methodology within US News rankings. (Why do all of those caveats feel like the end of a commercial for pills combating the other type of ED?)

Is UVA in danger of closing? No. They have a different challenge. Since 2008 applications for first-year admission have more than doubled. You know what hasn’t mirrored that growth? Their staff size. As the director of admission at Georgia Tech, I can relate, because over the last decade our story has been similar.

Running a holistic admission process demands time, and a lot of it. Understanding the differences between school grading scales and curriculum takes time. Reading essays and understanding how a student’s high school experience has prepared them for college takes time. If we were just plugging test scores and GPAs into a formula, we could turn decisions around in a day. But, in a simplistic example, that would mean a student with a 1400 and no demonstrated impact on his community edges out the team captain, hospital volunteer, all-around good person with a 1390. Nobody wants that (except the uninvolved 1400 kid).

Ultimately, we set a deadline. Whether that be November 15 or October 15, basically nobody applies until three days before that date. In fact, there are typically more applications submitted four hours before the deadline than four days ahead of it. Once those applications are in, we are on the clock. Financial Aid is breathing down our neck so they can package students. Academic departments want to contact students. And there is a constant concern (particularly among the board, administration, or boisterous alumni) that other institutions are moving faster, releasing decisions more quickly, and taking our applicants.

If staff size is not changing, and application volume is increasing, what can we change? The timeline. Spread out the submission of applications. One solution is to move the deadline up. One solution is to employ ED. In the case of UVA, it was both.

Do I see the challenges this may present? Absolutely. As an institution with an October 15 deadline, I hear them every year.

Agree to Disagree

Brennan’s take is this, “Let’s face it, early deadlines for college admission really are designed to benefit colleges not students. Sure, it is nice for some kids to know early in their senior year that they have a college acceptance locked in. But that nicety is far outweighed by the myriad reasons why the creep of early applications is detrimental–Early Decision being the worst of these evils.” (He expounds on our conversation in Forbes.)

My response?

Black Widow: The truth is a matter of circumstances, it’s not all things to all people all the time. And neither am I.

Captain AmericaThat’s a tough way to live.

Black WidowIt’s a good way not to die, though.

I told you it was complicated.

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