The last three sessions of the conference happened today.
I started my morning at a session about letters of recommendation at highly selective colleges. The presenters gave insight as to what information is most useful and general guidelines for writing effective letters. The theme was mainly to emphasize that the role of a letter of recommendation is to place the student in context and help the reader understand how the student operates in comparison to their peers. This doesn’t only mean repeating how their grades stack up compared to the rest of the class. It means giving background on things that might not already be included on the application. For example, one of the panelists shared that she was having an issue with a student who was late for a meeting with her. When she went to go find him, she discovered that he was in the cafeteria tutoring a peer in AP Calculus. This anecdote gives context beyond the fact that he is a strong math student, but that he is also someone willing to sacrifice his own timeliness to help a peer understand complex coursework. There was also an emphasis on keeping letters to one page (something, with over 100 letters to write per year, I already do). There was also some discussion of helping put the the student in context compared to the rest of the state/nation. This might mean pointing out that a student is in the top quartile band of test takers for males in the state, etc.
Perhaps the most buzzed about session of the conference this year though was the session I went to next: The Coalition For Access, Affordability, and Success. For those that haven’t seen the press release from earlier this week, there is a group of about 80 colleges (all of whom graduate at least 70% of their students in six years and who are either private and meet full demonstrated financial need or are public and have affordable in-state tuition for residents of their state) who are rolling out a new approach to the college search and application process called the Coalition Application. In full disclosure, I also feel obligated to share that I have been asked to join the Coalition Counselor Community (CCC), a group of 46 high school counselors and CBO representatives from around the nation to serve as an advisory board to the Coalition, so I have a bit of a unique perspective. For the purposes of this blog, I’m going to present the comments that were brought up in the session with limited personal comments of my own. I do this partially because I’m in a fortunate position to have a way to directly comment to the Coalition Board via the CCC and partially because this has been a highly volatile topic of discussion in the counseling community over the past week and I don’t think a blog post is the most productive forum to use as a soapbox.
Some background: two years ago, the Common Application 4 went live and there were admittedly some major bumps in the road. Students were frustrated, school counselors were putting out fires left and right, and colleges felt betrayed by the roll out of an application that clearly hadn’t been well tested and wasn’t technologically sound. Reading schedules were impacted, hours of overtime was put in, and many colleges felt they needed to take action. Discussions turned from the theoretical to the concrete when the Coalition was founded in June of 2015 and this group has now made public their plan to roll out a brand new way to reach students: using technology and reflection to serve as an alternative to the Common Application for these 80+ partner schools.
The session opened with a transparent disclosure that the Coalition is a work in progress. They have lofty goals and they know it. They want to level the playing field in admissions, giving low income students the chance to better understand how to be matched with high quality colleges that will reduce their debt burden. They feel that technology, and this Coalition site, can help to do that by giving students a virtual locker. This locker will be a place to store academic achievements, upload video, write reflective essays, and keep track of their high school involvement both inside and outside of the classroom. Students will have the ability to share their locker contents with the influential adults in their lives, and even its been proposed with the colleges themselves, to get feedback in the years leading up to the fall of senior year. These locker items can then be utilized in the 12th grade to include in their Coalition Application. The locker will be rolled out in January of 2016 and the application is proposed to go live in the summer of 2016. This is a pretty major power play from some of the most selective colleges in the country. They are taking a bold stance in saying that the college application process should welcome innovation and that the market share of the Common App was turning into a monopoly. They believe there is room for more than one option for students. Coalition schools want more autonomy in their application design than the Common App was giving and they feel that the transactional nature of applying to college during one semester of senior year is missing a chance for innovation and creativity. The aim is make the application to college more reflective—a chance for, in their words, self-discovery.
Before opening up for questions, the presenters commented on the three themes of repeated concerns they have already heard this week.
1) Concern: This will feed the frenzy. Response: They hear us. They reiterated that colleges will not have access to the student locker contents and will not be viewing anything in advance. If a student puts a paper there in the 9th grade, it won’t be shared with anyone unless the student chooses to share it. The locker can be used by any student, even students not planning to file a Coalition Application.
2) Concern: Feedback was that the word "portfolio" was bad - it sounds evaluative. Response: They are calling it a locker now. It is not evaluative. Aim is to help student see their own progress and connect their work in high school with their path to college.
3) Concern: This will create additional work for students and counselors. Response: For some students/counselors this will be less work because colleges that used to have their own separate non-Common App application will now all be able to be submitted on one platform. (Example Given: a student can apply to Maryland, Clemson, Emory, and Smith on one site. The current system would require three sites).
The following topics were brought up during the discussion. Again, I’m listing them here without my own comments. I’ll leave it to you as the reader to ponder:
- If the goal of Coalition is to help not overburden the school counselor, but this is rolled out without segmented communication to the different stakeholders, the questions will be directed to the school counselor who now has to serve as the liaison to explain what this is, what it means, and how to use it.
- Instead having essays on the Coalition Application, call them reflections
- Won’t this longer process favor wealthier students who have the ability to get better and higher quality feedback? Is there going to be a surge in demand for independent college consultants?
- Will students be so busy preparing for their college application that they miss out on high school? Are we pushing kids toward goals they aren’t developmentally ready for? Are educational psychologists and mental health professionals being consulted to keep cognitive development in mind?
- Is having that feature of getting feedback on the locker contents letting everyone play college counselor, even if they may not be qualified to do so? Perhaps an answer to this could be that there would be transparency to show who exactly has given feedback and what their relation is to the student.
- From a college admission perspective, who is going to be evaluating the Coalition Applications? How will this change the reading/committee process?
- If this was born from the ill-conceived and rushed roll out of Common App 4, is this roll out also being rushed? Is there a risk that the speedy timeline will result in the same kind of difficulty for everyone involved? People feel they need hard deadlines with lots of advance notice.
- If the mission is access, why are some colleges excluded?
- If the aim of this initiative is college access, why isn’t this application only for low income students? (Many of these comments/questions got applause from the audience – think of it like Congress clapping at the State of the Union-- but this comment/question got, by far, the longest and loudest sustained response from the room)
- How will student privacy issues be addressed? How can the feedback feature maintain confidentiality and privacy?
- Colleges, even with the best of intentions, might think they know what it is like on the high school side of the desk, but they have no idea. Is involving school counselors this late in the game, three months before the locker goes live, a problem?
Frankly, we ran out of time. I’m certain these issues are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the thoughts that counselors and colleges had in the room. I’m eager to continue the dialogue via the CCC and will sit back and watch, like everyone, how the Coalition’s first year goes.
My final session of NACAC 2015 was about the redesigned CSS Profile. Frankly, the best thing I took from this session was a helpful analogy to help families understand the purpose of the Profile. If a GPA gives you an overview and a full transcript gives the details, a FAFSA gives you an overview and the CSS Profile gives the more nuanced details.
Just like every year, I leave NACAC feeling energized and renewed. Working as a college counselor alone in school with 560 college bound students is a lonely job. I'm fortunate to have a network of New York City colleagues that proactively meet together every few months, but being lucky enough to be supported by the PTA and my administration to attend a national conference of this scale every year is something I value deeply. I recognize the privilege I have and take this time to reflect on the thousands of other counselors that work in the trenches and don't have the chance to participate in this yearly gathering. Until next year-- in Columbus, Ohio!