The Coalition Application, perspective for professionals

Since the Coalition Application was announced in September, it has spurred significant press, healthy debate, and at times, heated criticism.  Let me be clear: I do not work for The Coalition Application.  So just as much as we tell students not to take one tour guide’s voice as gospel, please know this is not intended to be inclusive of all members, nor is it the “party line.”

What It Is (always wanted to be able to use that phrase in an article, so we’re off to a good start):

1) The Coalition Application is an alternative to The Common Application. It is not meant to replace The Common App, nor will it. It is another application option which provides relief for some schools that previously had a “single point of failure with only one application (which, as you may recall, created difficulty in 2013 when Common App struggled in initial launch).

2) It is a platform that brings together a significant number of colleges and universities, rather than proliferating disparate applications for individual institutions. That union is positive because it creates a larger college landscape for students and encourages breadth of consideration. Whether you work at a private or a public school, whether urban or rural, whether elite or Title I, we all want our students to look beyond the places they’ve always known. Isn’t that partially what college is all about: vision, options, and expanding horizons?

3) It is a group of schools that have had success on many levels in the landscape of American higher education. These places have some of our nation’s best support networks, internship programs, and retention rates. In the South specifically, it includes schools like Clemson, NC State, and UGA (who previously were not members of the Common Application); all schools that have made phenomenal commitments to student access, diversity, support, and success consistently throughout their histories.

My high school alma mater, like many urban public schools, had an abysmal counselor: student ratio. Counselors had a only a few minutes during a student’s entire high school career to discuss post-secondary options. Talented low SES students were often told to look at the local community college or the military, and perhaps college later. Today that’s still happening. It takes approximately 10 seconds to tell a student: “If you apply to one of these schools, you may not get in, but if you do, you will have access to the help you need, likely graduate on time, and will not be burdened by debt when you finish.” I realize a myriad of societal forces encroach between that advice and college matriculation, but the “elevator speech” is practical.

What It is Not:

1) I wrote this upon the initial announcement:  “The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success is not a panacea. Not all low SES students will even hear of this platform and option, let alone successfully use it to be admitted to a top tier school.” Some of the most passionate ire surrounds incorporating the word “access.” This is a goal. It is aspirational. And it’s very public. That’s all positive, because it motivates member schools to produce classes that reflect their participation.

2) It is not going to completely transform our nation’s socio-economic strata. However, what if, between adjustments The Common Application makes due to increased pressure, and the gravity, influence, and investment of Coalition Schools in this new platform, more Pell-eligible students graduate with lower average debt? What if more students from rural communities apply to and ultimately attend schools where they’re now noticeably absent? That would be a successful shift. That would be a step toward transforming the demographic picture of higher education in America. And that is a step worth attempting.

3) It is not going to going to ruin a student’s high school experience. I’ve read hyperbolic phrases like “landmine,” “catastrophic” or “tossing a grenade.” The ability for a student to save some of their best work during high school in a central place that can be pulled into a college application is potentially fatal? Many feel that informing freshman (and their parents) they can do these things will elongate the admission process; that it will “strip” them of their high school career; that it will overwhelm counselors in schools who have high demand parents and communities.  I don’t doubt some of those scenarios could play out.  But those manifestations are due to culture. In “college preparatory schools” and “college going cultures,” educators educate. You put parameters in place that help your community navigate and thrive in the college admission process. Continue to set the rules, provide the insight, and be the expert. Tell your headmaster or principal or superintendent what you need to succeed. Sound hopeless? Sound impossible? Sound unlikely?  Culture is big. Shifting it takes leadership and unified community commitment… and time. But who has a better chance of doing that: A school focused almost exclusively on sending students to college or one with a 450:1 counselor to student ratio where most parents did not attend college and things are the same way now as they were 20 years ago? If creating a platform, rather than merely an application, can help move the needle on college awareness, yet creates some turbulence, I’d contend we’re all better off.

What I Don’t Know:  Lots. Seriously, lots. Not sure how Donald Trump can still be viable in election discussion; not sure how to respond when my four year-old daughter tells me she is going to move to California if I keep saying I love her; not sure about a lot acronyms I see on Twitter; so, again…lots.

What I Know: Students take their cues from us. We owe them sound advice, vision, and an example that is worth following. We owe them a commitment to trying new things, to not being content with the status quo, and to finding solutions to problems that are worth solving. None of that happens alone.  There has been far too much negative dialogue in our profession over the last year. Admit rates at selective schools are down, tuition rates nationally are up, and caseloads for everyone continue to escalate, so certainly there are quantitative factors. I implore everyone to consider how we interact in online forums; examine how the implications of phrases we use fan the flames of anxiety; and minimize common terms like “other side of the desk,” which, wrongly construed, can be unnecessarily divisive. Ultimately, we control the tone, the narrative, and the relationships. Let’s recommit to modeling for students, families, and the press that our field is committed to serving students with authenticity through professionalism.

 

 

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A Family Affair, Part Deux (For Parents)

Let’s go for a ride together. Not a driverless car or a Bactrian camel. Let’s go out on the sea for a bit. Winds, squalls… rudders… you know, sailing.

When you first have kids, you are undeniably the captain of the boat. At the helm you grip white knuckled even when the skies are clear and the seas are calm because you are so sleep deprived you don’t even see the blue or feel the warmth of the sun.

As kids get a bit older, you start to loosen your grip. You let out the sail and occasionally gaze at the horizon. But make no mistake- you are the captain. You are dictating the “ports” (where to go to school, which neighborhood to live in), and when to “come about.”

As your son or daughter enters adolescence, you let them hold the wheel (granted, you still remain within arm’s length). You may even go up on deck to sun yourself and they take the helm (but you never actually shut both eyes).

If you have a high school senior, I implore you to start climbing the ladder to the crow’s nest. This means taking both hands off the wheel to let your son or daughter try theirs. This means occasionally leaving town with no groceries in the fridge to be sure they’re still nourished when you return. This means letting them do their own laundry, even if only for a month.

Climb up to the crow’s nest for the college admission process. Let your student write their own essay (but call out from your perch a reminder to edit, so they don’t include the name of another school before submission.) Let them be the ones that meet deadlines and get their resume to their recommenders well in advance. Climb up to the crow’s nest and yell down a week before the deadline to check on progress. “Iceberg!” “Shoal!” “You can apply to that school honey, but if you are admitted, we are going to need $20,000 in aid.” Or “The prospects for employment in that major are slim. If you decide to pursue that, you have to get an internship every summer.”

Climb up to the crow’s nest. If you do that now, the conversations you have this year will be far more empowering and mutually enjoyable. More importantly when your son or daughter does select a college and begins freshman year, you will have already positioned yourself appropriately (and they won’t mix colors and whites in warm water.)

After all, you cannot captain from 50 or 500 miles away. Climb up to the crow’s nest. You’ll enjoy the view and will be proud and impressed with the captain below.

See you next week as we round out A Family Affair.

A Family Affair, Part 1

It’s taken me over fifteen years working in college admission to realize a basic human truth:  People love their kids. Profound, right? But it’s an extremely important lesson and a statement I continue to tell myself and our staff each year.

People love their kids. That’s why a mother might call pretending to be her daughter in hopes of receiving a password or an admission decision. That’s why a father will be in the lobby at 7:30 a.m. after his son was deferred admission or waitlisted the day before. People love their kids. You’ve been holding them up literally since they were born and even now at 120 lbs or 250 lbs, you’re figuratively still doing just that.

This is why this excerpt from Jay Mathews’ article in the Washington Post a few years ago is so disconcerting to me: “There are few experiences short of death, disease, injury or divorce that have as much potential for trauma for American families as the college admissions process. The first great rite of passage for young humans once was killing a wild animal. That was replaced by getting married, or getting a job. These days it is getting into college.”

Now I realize this is hyperbolic journalism. Regardless, nobody wants to be part of an industry that breeds that kind of angst. However each year we see strained family dynamics, so his sentiments are somewhat true.  I believe there is a different solution– a better way forward. So here is a practical tip for helping your family thrive in the admission process, rather than allowing it to be divisive.

Safe place-safe space

Starting in the junior year of high school and gaining momentum in the senior year, the “college conversation” can seem like THE ONLY topic. So whether you are on the way to church or coming home from a tennis match, or driving two states over to visit relatives, the talk is always about college. “Have you considered applying to University X?” “I hear Brandon is really happy at Y College. You remember Brandon, right sweetie?” “Have you finished your essay?” “Where is your friend Sarah going to go for college next year?” And on and on and on…

If this is your pattern, then the quality of the conversation simply cannot be sustained. Nobody can talk about one subject all of the time and expect everyone else to continue to be interested or engaged.

I propose your family set aside two hours on a specified night each week or perhaps on Sunday afternoons and agree that the conversation will be about college. It’s in this time you open college mail, discuss deadlines that are coming up, look over essays to be edited, or discuss upcoming trips and the logistics of all of this. Everybody agrees to come to that meeting open, potentially even smiling (snacks help) with a willingness to ask and answer questions in the spirit of unity.

If this sounds cheesy or utopian or Pollyanna, then good. We all need a bit more of that in life in general, and certainly in the college admission process (Again, your alternative is what Mathews proposes). Also, no cell phones, no petting the cat, no staring longingly out the window. Just a defined period of time and a “safe place” where these necessary (and hopefully now more intentional) conversations can take place. Outside of that time and place, the college conversation is forboden (a great and all too infrequently used word). So if mom asks about a scholarship deadline on Wednesday at 7:30 a.m.- you can simply reply, “Safe place- safe space.”

At the end of the day, people love their kids. Students- remember that when mom and dad are on your case about this. Parents- remember that when your voice raises or when your patience wanes.

Tune in next week for tip 2 of A Family Affair. 

Change the question. Turn the Table.

“We thought we had all the answers/It was the questions we had wrong” U2 11 O’clock Tick Tock

My 4-year old daughter is very shy, but quite cute. I know I’m biased but honestly, she’s pretty darn cute. When we go out to eat or play on the playground, people always ask how she’s doing or say they like her dress. She hates it. She buries her face in my thigh and won’t turn around until they leave.

I keep telling her to simply answer quickly, and then ask the same question in return. If they ask how her day is going, just ask that right back. Turn the table. When she’s done that, it’s worked well—and frankly we’ve learned a lot and heard some interesting responses to “Where did you get that dress,” or “what did you have for breakfast?”

How does this relate to college admission? Because fundamentally we learn through curiosity and listening, thus my advice to you is to keep asking questions. Just be sure they’re the right ones.

If you are a junior or a senior in high school, the six words you likely dread hearing are: “Where are you going to college?” I’m sure “I am breaking up with you” is unwelcome as well, but let’s stick with college advice for today. The simple question of “where are you going” brings up anxiety and uncertainty around where to apply and what you really want to study. Not to mention the concern of not getting into a particular school. Fielding these questions from friends is tolerable, but when you’re asked the same question by extended family at every holiday dinner, it can become….well… annoying.

So instead of prerecording a response on your phone or faking a coughing fit to leave the room when asked “where,” I suggest you start by first asking yourself, “why am I going to college?” Unfortunately, too few students ask and answer this question. And if you go to a college preparatory school or are in a college prep curriculum, it’s rarely asked, because going to college is a foregone conclusion. But I believe answering “why” first is critical because it forces you to answer other questions: Why should I bother spending the time and money? What do I want the experience to look like? What do I hope to happen after I graduate?

Why will then lead you to where. “I’m looking at this university because they offer this major, or because I can build a strong network there, or the setting makes it easy for me to do xyz while on campus.” Listen, I don’t mean to say that by answering “why” you won’t still be annoyed when crazy Uncle Tony asks “where” four times during Thanksgiving dinner, but answering with your “why” provides a way for you to change and improve the conversation.

So when he asks you “where,” give him your “why” and then lead into your thoughtful “wheres.” Then, as I tell my daughter, turn the table. Ask him where he went and why. And looking back if he’d make the same choice now knowing what he does at this point. Then you can go back to eating your dinner and just listen and learn.