Ethical College Admissions: Who Benefits From a ‘Million-Dollar Scholar’?

Should any program encourage high school students to apply to 100 or more colleges? Jim Jump considers the issues.

August 14, 2017
 

Being a college counselor in today’s college admissions landscape is like playing Goldilocks in “The Three Bears Apply to College.” How many applications should you advise students to file? What’s too many, what’s too few and what’s “just right”?

With more colleges trying to manipulate admit and yield rates through tools like early decision and demonstrated interest, it’s hard to know. No college wants to be a safety school (a term I don’t use in my counseling) and I get that, but it makes it hard to help students have a reasonable range of options. One strategy is to have students apply to more colleges. I’ve tried to resist that, encouraging students not to apply more places but to apply more thoughtfully, knowing and being able to articulate why each college is on the list.

Most of my students apply to between four and eight colleges, but several years ago one of my seniors walked into my office on a Monday morning and announced that he had applied to 18 colleges the previous afternoon. When I incredulously asked why, he said his father had gone crazy and forced him to apply to all them. Later in the school year, after the student had been accepted by 14 of the 18, I ran into the dad. He sheepishly confirmed his role and begged me, “Please don’t tell anyone we did that.”

Maybe his guilt can be assuaged now with the news that one school system near Memphis routinely encourages some students to apply to 100 colleges. That’s not a misprint.

The story broke after an alumna of the school wrote an article for the education website Chalkbeat (with follow-up coverage from The Chronicle of Higher Education) about the “million-dollar scholar” program, where honor students are pushed by counselors to apply to 100 colleges in hopes of receiving a million dollars in scholarship offers. The student, who transferred after her freshman year in college because the university she originally attended wasn’t a good fit, describes a regimen of five applications per week and being pulled out of class for up to an hour per day to complete applications, with disciplinary action for failing to keep up with expectations.

She states the obvious: “A hundred applications is just ridiculous.” And so it is. The question, therefore, is why didn’t any of the adults recognize that. I’m hoping this was a well-intentioned idea that got out of hand, because the alternative would constitute college-counseling child abuse.

Apparently this started out as a way to install a college-going culture in a school district with a history of low high school graduation rates. It was modeled at some level on the signing days where Division I athletic recruits publicly announce which scholarship offer they will accept. That may be the first problem, for signing days have become spectacles that celebrate college athletics without celebrating college.

The goal of increasing access to higher education for low-income, first-generation students by helping them aspire to college and making them aware of financial aid is laudable, but at some point the means became the end and the definition of success became skewed. Winning scholarship dollars became the goal rather than a means to attending college. The “million-dollar scholar” designation sends a message that anything less is a failure.

But what is indefensible is encouraging/coercing/requiring high school students to apply to 100 colleges. That may help a school or district pad its scholarship total as a presumed metric of educational quality (an issue I have previously written about), but there is no benefit, and plenty of harm, for students applying to so many colleges. That is especially the case if a district is pulling kids out of class to apply to colleges at the expense of preparing academically for college.

Being a senior in high school and applying to college is stress inducing enough when there are five applications to be completed, but the psychic harm from applying to 50 or 100 colleges is likely to be exponential. The Hippocratic Oath applies not only to physicians but also to educators, and the first rule is “Do no harm.”

The “million-dollar scholar” story raises a couple of questions. Did the students fully understand what they were doing? One student quoted in the Chronicle article proudly talked about applying to 160 colleges and being offered $80 million in scholarships. That doesn’t smell right, because if the figures are correct that would be $500,000 per school, or $125,000 for each year of undergraduate study. She also stated that she wasn’t told that the scholarships she won weren’t transferable from one institution to another. Were the students led to believe, or allowed to believe, that being a “million-dollar scholar” was the same thing as being a millionaire?

The other question is what this story says about the state of college counseling for the students who most need information and wisdom about college admission. Back in 2010 the group Public Agenda produced a report for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with the title “Can I Get a Little Advice Here?” The report highlighted dissatisfaction with the quality of college counseling at many public schools.

I was president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling at the time, and was interviewed for an article in The New York Times. I pointed out that the issues are systemic. School counselors are an endangered species in many school districts as budgets are cut, many graduate programs in school counseling don’t include course work on college counseling, and counseling offices are repositories for duties like testing and truancy such that actual college counseling is a low priority. There is therefore a disconnect between public expectations for college advice and the reality of school counseling jobs.

Hopefully the “million-dollar scholar” story will raise awareness of some of those issues, because the news that school counselors cajoled and coerced students to apply to 100 colleges doesn’t inspire confidence in the profession. Access to higher education benefits young people hoping to have a successful life and citizens hoping to have a flourishing society. Let’s focus on giving students the tools and knowledge to find and afford the right college fit, and let’s celebrate a college education itself as the prize.

Bio

Jim Jump is the academic dean and director of college counseling at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, Va. He has been at St. Christopher’s since 1990 and was previously an admissions officer, women’s basketball coach and philosophy professor at the college level. Jim is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

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