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. 

Coalition Application

Solace in Uncertainty

Rick Clark
Director of Undergraduate Admission

Recently, as I was en route to visit a high school, the counselor called my office to let me know their AV system was down. She was concerned the malfunction would jeopardize my slide presentation. My assistant assured her, “Don’t worry. He’ll just speak from the heart.” That’s what I’m hoping to do today regarding The Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success.
If you are skeptical:

Understandably, there has been a good bit of speculation about whether this aspirational new platform will accomplish its goal of helping a more diverse population of students enroll in thriving universities across the nation. At this point, nobody can make that guarantee; however, the effort is noble, well-intentioned, and worth striving for, especially given the need to enhance socio-economic and geographic diversity on campuses and, ultimately, in the workforce.

If you’ve been walking around with one eyebrow raised since this press release, then kudos to you. Skepticism is part of what brings about excellence, innovation, and improvement. The people of St. Louis in the 1870s would not walk over the first steel bridge across the Mississippi until an elephant did.  Still, let’s commit to “benefit of the doubt” support and check back after a year — or better yet after three or four years (given that the platform aims to bring students into the process earlier in their high school experience) to see if participating schools have indeed been able to enroll more Pell-eligible or first-generation students.
I’m excited…

If you are in the college counseling or admission field, you believe in competition. We tell students all the time to compete against the curriculum: to push themselves and try new things, even if they sometimes fail, in order to be stronger, better, faster, smarter, and more successful long term.

So one reason I’m glad to see “The Coalition” option emerge is because it introduces a new mechanism for college search and entry, forcing those of us in the marketplace to respond, review, revise, and ultimately consider how we can make our product, communication, and results better. And who wins in that? Students.
I’m nervous…

Sure, I have some reservations about installing a new application system. What will this mean for staff training and multi-app file review? How can we effectively communicate to high school freshmen and sophomores through this platform and develop logical and distinct messaging based on grade, stage, etc.?

How about practical questions such as: What’s the schedule for application release, review, launch? How will we upload documents and which ones? When will students create accounts and who needs to be involved to help them do that successfully? What will be required for initial set up and maintenance? Even writing all this makes me sweat a little. So, yes, there’s concern on the college side about what this will mean for our processes.

But here’s what I keep coming back to as it pertains to change: Progress in history has always demanded disruption. And for me personally, when fear of a new process trumps the potential to provide access to currently underserved students and enhance institutional diversity, I’ll know it’s time to quit my job.
We’ve seen this before…

A few years ago, Georgia Tech migrated to The Common Application. That announcement was met internally and externally with skepticism, some heavy breathing, and a good bit of caffeine consumption. Many in Georgia and beyond felt the Common App was simply a ploy to increase applications or raise selectivity. Many on our staff accurately foresaw the work this would necessitate from IT, as well as  Institute Communications.Our goal, however, was to diversify geographically, in gender, in ethnicity, in curriculum, etc.

Two years later, those goals have been met — this year’s freshman class boasts the most women and African-American students in Tech history. Our first generation population is up, and our Tech Promise scholars are thriving. And the truth is, the collective and at times herculean effort required to implement the Common App bonded staff in our office and around campus. This is my hope for The Coalition too.

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. Yes, it will create more work, and yes, it will create some confusion. But I believe it will all be worthwhile in our collective effort to serve students, improve the college academic environment, and ultimately serve our nation in producing a diverse workforce for the future.