Simplicity: For the Sake of Our Future, If Nothing Else
Arlene Wesley Cash
Vice President for Enrollment Management
A great marketing expert once told me to hold my opinion until the end when developing marketing materials for prospective students. He reminded me that most of the people I was hoping to attract to my school with these materials would not be looking at them from my point of view. In considering the complexity of the college application and enrollment process, this appears to be sound advice to heed.
Consider the fact that when I applied to college almost 40 years ago, it was a time when life came at you in small and manageable doses. If you wanted to watch television, you had three, maybe five, choices of channels and, at the end of the day, most of these channels signed off, the test pattern came on and TV watching was finished for the night. The traditional student of the 21st century has not only unlimited access to this media but is not confined to a television set at the time of its showing to watch his or her favorite show. Limiting access to certain stations at certain hours in specific venues would be tremendously frustrating and possibly quite confusing to today’s student. Similarly, trying to simplify the college application process may actually cause as much frustration and confusion as we seek to eliminate. It may not seem so from my perspective, but I am holding to the advice that my point of view may not matter.
Open admission, rolling admission, selective or portfolio admission, early decisions that are binding, early action with no infractions, need based, need blind, need sensitive at a certain time, being put on a waiting list, spring admits, provisional and conditional options — there are more ways to apply to, get into and enroll in colleges than there are HBO channels on my current cable lineup.
And it doesn’t stop there. If the applicant requires financial assistance there is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to conquer, the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE® to consider, national scholarship programs that have very different requirements, need aid versus merit aid, state grants that may or may not exist by the time the applications are completed, federal loans, private loans, institutional loans, work-study, a questionable Extended Family Contribution and the national media reminding you at every turn that there is no way you will be able to afford it all.
Yet students and their families are more likely to begin the college search process on their own via their computers than to wait to get a notification from the counselor’s office for the college counseling appointment or the school-wide fair. Just as they juggle their iPods with their laptops while talking and facebooking to keep up with and maintain social and academic connections, our students do not seem to be phased by the plethora of applications, or the many essay questions and recommendation requirements of the dozens of institutions they are exploring. Indeed, they may even thrive on it.
In A Message to a Community of Educational Leaders: An Open Letter to Professionals in Admissions, Financial Aid and Counseling, the College Board’s Task Force on Admissions in the 21st Century offers “A Declaration of Values to Guide a Profession.” Value IV reads: “The school-to-college transition should be seen as a learning opportunity. … [The admission profession] encourages student exploration, autonomy, responsibility and maturity.”
With so much access to the nuts and bolts of college admission through the Internet and other media, there should be no surprise that the professionals are among the last to be invited to support the process, with little regard to demographic differences.
If we in admission want to guide students and their families through this process, if we want to give them the space to explore, the freedom to be autonomous, and the responsibility to act and decide with maturity, then we must step outside of our personal realms of reference and meet our students and their families where they are. Regrettably, there is little time to get this done. Every day, students and their families are exploring the college admission process, and perhaps encountering potholes and mountains and barriers when they least expect it. The danger signs are hidden behind those that may seem to say “welcome,” and there is no compass with a common north. This is the challenge, and this is the opportunity.
In our search for the answers to questions around college access, it is our tendency to look for the roadblocks over which students and their families may stumble rather than explore unopened doors of opportunities that we may be able to unlock.
We do not need to wait to take important steps that will help every student navigate the college application stream with less stress and complexity (whether it is perceived to be so or not). Let us support efforts to have high schools align their curricula with the entrance requirements colleges are using. Let us find a way to get colleges and universities at all levels to adopt a language and calendar that is common to all, even if this is just for a few aspects of the admission process. Let us support local and federal legislation that will encourage the government and higher education to join together to figure out how one form can include all the information needed by those seeking higher education. Let us simply collaborate with private industries that thrive off of the anxiety that rankings can produce to find a way to get helpful and meaningful information to families. And finally, let us be certain that we are proactive in making sure that the road to college goes through every community, every high school, every home, every place of worship and every support center — and that there are entryways onto that road with welcome signs in every language with no dangerous motives or consequences behind them.
If we think of ourselves first and foremost as teachers, and present this process as a learning opportunity, we may make some headway toward ensuring that the majority of the adult population has a college degree in the next 20 years. Bertrand Russell once said that “No man can be a good teacher unless he has feelings of warm affection toward his pupils and a genuine desire to impart to them what he himself believes to be of value.” I urge and implore you to accept the Task Force’s Declaration of Values and impart these values to your students.
For better or worse, we are not always seen as the best or first source of information or guidance for the college-going population. That does not mean though that our skills are not wanted or needed. In my opinion, it just means that we have to be better at clearing the roads and revealing that our students and their families need access for the sake of our future, if nothing else.
From my perspective, it is clear that TV does not sign off at the end of the day anymore. There is no playing of the national anthem to reassure us that the American dream still offers opportunity, community and security. And the TV stations no longer all broadcast the same test pattern at the end of the day. Preserving the American dream is our responsibility. Let’s unify the information we impart and communicate the same message!
We can make a difference.
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Admissions Insights is a series brought to you by the College Board Task Force on Admissions in the 21st Century. The opinions, interpretations and conclusions of the author are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the College Board. Nothing contained herein should be assumed to represent an official position of the College Board or any of its members.