High School Counseling Policies

February 3, 2012

by Howard and Matthew Greene

As if college admission wasn’t stressful (or confusing, or complicated…) enough…

Imagine you are a high school student or parent. You have read the guidebooks. Looked at college websites. Followed the instructions. Done everything right. If you’re really dedicated, maybe you even learned about the standards of good practice from NACAC. You have prepared your list, made a spreadsheet of each college’s admission plans and deadlines, and registered on the College Board, ACT, Naviance, and Common Application websites. And then…

Few families expect that an additional, unintentionally frustrating and confusing source of college admissions rules, limitations, and requirements will be…Can you guess? Their own high school.

In a profession where one constantly has to expect the unexpected, we are continually surprised by the decisions of high schools, both public and private, in relation to the admission process. Perhaps with the best of intentions, many schools initiate new policies that can cause significant angst among families, or maintain counseling practices that are outdated and problematic. As we have written many times, when families consider the success of their college counseling experience at their school, they focus on the process to a much greater extent than the outcome. Of course we know that good process tends to lead to good outcomes, especially in terms of the most desirable result of matching students to the colleges that fit them best and where they will persist, succeed, and graduate.

There is often a great deal of emphasis on the policies, plans, and practices that colleges put into place around admissions, and whether they are helpful, harmful, logical, and so forth. We’d like to focus here on the additional layer of demands that some high schools insert into the process, seemingly with very little regard for the effects of their decisions on families. Such effects include impacts on both the process and outcomes of admissions.

Here is a sampling of actual policies to illustrate what we mean:

• A competitive independent boarding school prevents a student from applying to regular decision colleges if they have been admitted Early Action (restrictive or non-restrictive) at a college that admits fewer than ten percent of applicants. Does this not go directly against the decisions of Yale, Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford, which have decided to adopt Restrictive Early Action, rather than Early Decision or standard Early Action, in order to take some pressure off students and allow those needing significant financial assistance to apply to other selective colleges through regular decision?

• Another competitive boarding school limits students to a list of ten colleges and universities. Students are allowed to add a public university in their own state in addition to the ten, but must go through an appeal process to expand the list further. Students are also limited in terms of the number and combination of Early Action and Decision applications they may file, regardless of what colleges allow. Keeping the size of college lists in check is a goal most counselors share, but this arbitrary number is not found anywhere among the colleges themselves and affects students differently depending on their particular interests, background, home state or country, and needs in the admission process.

• An independent day school limits students to one Early Action or Decision application. If admitted to an Early Action college, the student may apply to only two additional colleges, again regardless of what the colleges say. What about the student seeking to balance the college list by applying to a few more and less competitive, non-restrictive early plans? What about priority dates for merit scholarships? What about the number of public universities that have adopted Early Action in place of less formal Early Notification or Rolling Admission?

• A selective public high school limited students to seven applications total, excepting international, California, and local and in-state institutions, but had to withdraw the policy when shown that state law prohibits schools from limiting the number of applications to colleges and universities.

• Many high schools – public and private – set various deadlines and other internal practice restrictions involving such areas as securing letters of recommendation, working with outside counselors, setting up interviews, or filing applications online or through the school counseling office, which differ from college policies or add further requirements for students.

• Other restrictions are less focused on admissions procedures but can impact admissions nonetheless. These include limiting the number of Advanced Placement classes a student may take, requiring students to take the SAT or ACT at certain times, or requiring or discouraging test preparation.

To be frank, we find many of these policies misguided. As well-intentioned as they might be, aiming to lessen admission competition and “application creep”, to de-emphasize casual early applications, to lower the overall workload and increase the ability to focus and advocate in the counseling office, to discourage “trophy hunting” in the regular admissions round, or to serve any number of other rationales, often they have the effect of confusing and frustrating students, parents, counselors forced to defend them, and, perhaps, colleges that do not know about or understand them. In an age when the college admissions process is confusing and complicated enough, students do not need additional things to worry about. It will typically be much clearer and simpler for schools to stick to the NACAC principles of good practice, individual college admission policies as published each year, and a cogent counseling-oriented approach that guides students toward appropriate early and regular decision choices but is flexible enough to work individually with each student and his or her unique needs and situation. Here are some questions and guidelines we encourage schools to consider when considering or reviewing their particular policies about college counseling:

When do families learn about the policies and any restrictions they entail? Is there an appeal process and logical review for exceptions that should be made? If not, why not? If so, is it reasonable?

Is the policy made clear upfront to prospective families when they are considering your school? Do you publish the policy on your website, in your college handbook if you have one, and as part of your school profile? How much transparency is there?

Who gains and loses from the policies? The highly prepared student who needs no aid? The middle income student looking to apply broadly for need- and merit-based assistance? The lower income family that might not know “how to play the game”? The recruited athlete? The international student?

Does the policy fit with the mission of your school and are you comfortable explaining it in public and to prospective ninth graders, as well as current seniors and college recruiters? Does the policy serve the interest of your school, more than the interest of individual students?

Do colleges know your rules? Are they explained clearly in your profile and/or counselor reports? Are colleges asked for feedback about the policies and how they might impact admission decisions?

Do you study the impact of your policies if they supposedly “help” students in one way or another? Are admissions decisions and results improved? Is the process “better”? How do current and past parents and students feel about it?

Is the policy “reasonable” and “fair”? What are your peer schools doing? Why?

How fully are the policies considered? Whom do they serve? Do your head of school or principal, and board of trustees or board of education, know about, understand, and support your approach?

Are such policies legal, or ethical? Do they fit within the framework of NACAC’s principles of good practice and the student’s rights and responsibilities in the admission process? Does your state have anything to say about the legitimacy of such practices?

A version of this article appeared in the October, 2011 issue of "College Bound"

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