May 7, 2012

Exploring Tough Questions in College Admissions and Beyond

Wes Moore addressing the IECA
To do the best possible job, it’s important for counselors—independent and school-based—to attend regular conferences and workshops on colleges and admissions.
Even the most experienced among us need updates to keep current on the thousands of moving parts driving a process that frequently defies logic.  And sometimes, we simply need a little inspiration or retooling to keep the engines running.
This year’s IECA Spring Conference brought together educational consultants from every corner of the country and across the globe.  They toured colleges, attended seminars, and deepened their understanding by networking with friends and colleagues.

And as the week wore on, a few sub themes emerged focused on issues relating to the "haves" and "have-nots" in the college admissions process.
Here is a little of what was covered at the IECA conference in Boston:
Test Prep
In their workshop titled, “Do Green-Eyed Children Score Higher on the ACT,” a group from Pinnacle Prep presented evidence that students with enough financial resources to support long-term test preparation can improve standardized test scores. 
Using data generated from their own clients, Pinnacle Prep showed that students who begin preparing the summer prior to junior year and those who were not only open to both the ACT and SAT but also willing to take tests multiple times could raise scores significantly.  Happily, students don’t have to spend much time or money prepping for each test independently—there’s enough of a crossover to suggest that preparing for one largely supports preparing for the other.  But predicting how relatively well a student will do on either test is a dicey proposition and only can be determined by repeated test-taking and more investment in test prep. 
The ‘New’ College Student
Ted Fiske, former education editor of the New York Times and author of The Fiske Guide to Colleges, took a look at the “Shifting Sands in College Admission.”  In his session, Fiske combined knowledge gained through his ongoing research on education and school reform with what he’s learned commenting on colleges to consider “trends” in higher education.
Predictably, Fiske bemoaned the rising cost of college—a trend that will continue as long as “people are willing to pay.”  At the same time, he noted the dual impact of globalization and changes in demographics, both of which have resulted in a scarcity of “traditional” students.  College-bound students are increasingly first generation and minority—groups that colleges have not done all that well serving. 
In his talk, Fiske took exception to what he calls an organized and escalating “gas war” among institutions using financial aid to fight over the “same kids.”  In this war, he predicts greater great “polarization between the haves and have-nots," as merit scholarship distribution becomes increasingly geared to those already in the system and not to new or nontraditional students.  Access programs and creative “service delivery systems” may offer solutions, but it remains to be seen how colleges will interpret the need and respond.
While accommodations on standardized tests are theoretically available to all students, the workshop entitled “The Ins and Outs of SAT/ACT Accommodations” proved just how difficult the process can be. To obtain one of many accommodations offered by both testing agencies, applications must be completed, and they must be completed accurately and with intentionality.  Students without financial resources, strong advisors, or those without an articulate voice are left at a very clear disadvantage.
Since the College Board switched over to a computerized application system two years ago, much of the burden for making the case and submitting proper documentation has fallen to the schools.  Those school systems with overburdened counselors or those with inadequately trained staff place students in need of accommodations at further disadvantage.  Students wealthy enough to find clinical experts or to pay for expensive testing have a much easier time navigating the system and/or appealing negative decisions.
Many counselors attending the session were surprised to learn that students with disabilities are not limited to filing through the computerized system.  Forms may be obtained by calling the College Board and having information sent through the mail.  These forms may not be downloaded from the internet.  And note that even the telephone call will cost.  The College Board does not have a toll-free line installed for this purpose or for any other communication with the office of Services for Students with Disabilities.
Expectations, Intervention, and Education
By now the story is familiar: two young boys named Wes Moore, raised by single mothers within blocks of one another on the bad side of Baltimore, set out on a journey.  One grew up a graduate of Johns Hopkins—a Rhodes Scholar, decorated combat veteran, White House Fellow, and noted author.  The other is serving a life sentence for felony murder.  What made the difference?
In his talk, Wes Moore explored the importance of expectations—if those around you expect you to do well and you expect it of yourself, the likelihood of success is much greater.  But it’s not just about expectations.  Family matters.  Not only parents and grandparents, but also those people who by "stepping up" become like family:  teachers, mentors, and role models.  And most importantly, education matters. 
The Other Wes Moore is not about Wes Moore, as he is quick to point out.  It’s about the importance of intervention, of “being there,” and of providing a quality education regardless of zip code or family history.  And it’s also about finding constructive ways to address the creeping polarization Ted Fiske described a day earlier between the “haves” and “have-nots.”  It’s not so much a “feel good” story as a true call to action.

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