Don’t Throw the Freshmen Out with the Coalition

As I read article after article, bashing the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success, I find myself hesitant to jump on the bandwagon. Yes, they are rushing it, and there are potentially many issues in the execution. But, as an Independent Educational Consultant (IEC) I often start with families in the freshman year, to work on many of the same things the Coalition is advocating – college awareness in the freshman year, collecting and recording their best work (the locker and resume), and making college affordable and accessible. But where we significantly differ, and will continue to differ, is in the execution.

Let’s start with college awareness for freshmen. It is early to start, but contrary to what the press and people think, IECs are there to ratchet down stress and the craziness, not increase it. I look way beyond just being aware colleges are there and providing a locker. The passive nature of expecting the student to suddenly be college-aware due to a website is naive and unrealistic. There are many other moving parts to college readiness which are best served by high school and independent counselors working with students directly and one on one. Here are some examples:

  • Putting SAT/ACT testing into context. I usually advise families it is OK and preferable to wait until the junior year to take standardized testing. There is rarely a need to rush to do it prior to that and many reasons, including 2 years of additional academics, to delay. And, there is no need to take 3 SATs and 3 ACTs, just because they are there.
  • Career and interest discovery. Occasionally, there are high school freshman who know what they want to do, but more often than not, what they have is a vague idea of what they’d like to do, based on reading a book, or someone telling them they’d be good at something. If college awareness and planning is early enough in the high school years it can include structured testing, career research, job shadowing and even coursework geared towards letting students discover potential careers.
  • Curriculum planning and its connection to college. Many freshmen find it hard to understand why Spanish I and Geometry have anything to do with college. We help students connect their high school curriculum to college. Do they want to be in business, engineering or nursing? Then Calculus should be a part of their high school coursework. There are many paths depending on interest, academic fit, and high school offerings.
  • Supporting high school counselors. High school counselors are great, hard working important resources for high school students. We do as much as possible to ease the stress on them as well. We field those panicked calls from parents, make sure the student comes into their counseling meetings with materials prepared and is considering a balanced college list. We allow the counselor to focus on getting to know the student rather than the checklist and task oriented work.
  • Easing parent stress, especially first-time parents. For many parents, high school years are as stressful and contain as much uncertainty as they had as parents of newborns, but with considerably more options and, in their mind, many more potential landmines. Clear answers to questions like these often bring down the stress and maintain family harmony:
    • Will a B in freshman year destroy the student’s chance of getting into an elite college? Nope
    • What should the student be doing during the summer? Depends on the student, but no one activity is a magic bullet – working, taking classes, volunteering, traveling can all be terrific answers.
    • How many APs are enough? Too many? Again, it depends on the student, how many can they take and still sleep, stay involved in extracurriculars, and get decent grades.
    • What about sports? Music? Art? Absolutely, if that is where their interests lie. One isn’t better than the other, but there is no need just for a check mark on a college application.
    • What about the high cost of college, especially if the family has more than 1 student? See the discussion below.

Hopefully, by now, a picture is emerging. There is so much more to college awareness than just which colleges are out there. And, here again is where I diverge from the Coalition about college awareness. I want students to think beyond the elite schools. A large percentage of the students we work with apply and matriculate to schools they had never even heard of or considered before working with an IEC. While the national average of students who matriculate to a 4 year college end up transferring because of a school/student mismatch is above 30%, only 2% of students who work with me and my partner end up transferring. Why? Not all of them got into their first choice school, but they did get into a college that was a good fit for them. We focus on broadening the college search and teaching the student to research schools based on a number of criteria which we help the student define: location, campus culture, school values, major and course offerings, extracurricular activities, advising, career support, internship and research, affordability and more. We teach them to look beyond the rankings to instead match to schools which will best suit them. Having a portal limited to only 140 schools, and elite schools at that, doesn’t encourage them to search out the other 3400 schools in the US or to create a balanced list of schools.

And, lastly there is affordability. Many of the families I work with are middle class families who make enough money so that they will not qualify for financial aid, but don’t make enough to have put away $60,000+X4 years for each child in their family. Usually, both parents are working. They are often in their late 40’s to 50’s where they are being pressed, not just for college expenses, but for money to help their parents and to save for their own retirement. For these families, the gap between what the college costs and what they can actually afford is often $20,000 to $30,000 annually. The Coalition colleges will not likely fulfill their financial needs, as they are not “needy enough” but are not affordable. These families need to look at schools which provide merit aid, recognizing the hard work their students have done over the last four years.

The first word in the Coalition’s title is Access and this, perhaps, is the area in which I most disagree with their execution. They have decided that a technology platform is the best way to reach underserved students, but most students in truly underserved areas do not have access to technology. These students do not have access to college awareness (which is a whole different blog entry). Therein, lies my most significant dilemma as an IEC, even the pro bono families I work with in the Silicon Valley (and there are plenty of families who are fighting to survive here, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the booming economy), are more college aware than the rest of the country.

As an advocate of higher learning, I would like to say to those already with access, avoid this platform as it is not meant for you. But, as an IEC, it is also my ethical and moral obligation to provide my clients with the best options for the college admissions process, and it is unclear if Coalition colleges, in spite of what they say, will end up being biased toward students who use this platform. So, whether I like this platform or not, it appears, at least for now, the Coalition member colleges are moving forward. I have already received calls and emails from local parents of high school students who have electronic news feeds delivered to their inbox or iPad news with tags like: “college admissions,” “elite colleges” and “higher education,” wondering what their students should be saving now for the locker. These same families are expressing concern over the added complexity of one more application to manage and keep track of, questioning why these schools simply didn’t advocate for change within the Common Application. These savvy families are clearly not the expressed target user base for the Coalition, but as one of my clients’ parent put it, “Like most weapons of mass application, the long term impact is probably a lot different than the inventors imagine it to be.” I am reminded of the days, long ago, when I worked in tech, and watched systems being built to make it easier to sell product, but somehow the designers forgot to take into consideration that systems should be built to make it easier to buy. It appears the Coalition has developed something which serves them better than those they wish to serve.

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