November 30, 2007
Posted by Sam Jackson
How can we untangle good intentions from invasive tendencies when it comes to college admissions? This is a question that can be asked on many fronts, but has added relevance this year with the addition of a question on the common application about disciplinary and criminal records.
The Boston Globe ran a piece two weeks ago about this tricky issue.
"I want to help the colleges, but I want to make sure we help our students in any way we can . . . Our first allegiance is to the students," said Jim Montague, director of guidance counseling at Boston Latin School, which leaves disciplinary questions blank on the application but will answer them if college officials inquire directly. [...]
Colleges primarily want openness, said Kevin Kelly, director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, which like BU pushes students, but not high schools, to answer the questions if they are left unanswered. "I wish everybody would share everything," Kelly said.
I'm not sure what it means that colleges "want openness." Is this meant to imply that it's some kind of trust game, and suggest that in addition to hopes and dreams we students load up our college applications with dirty secrets so that the admissions offices would take this to be an investment in our trust with the school, like some weird Skull and Bones initiation rite? Still, UMass at least is open to different methodologies from high schools.
Pomona College, a highly selective private college outside of Los Angeles, takes one of the toughest stances: It stops considering a student if a high school leaves questions blank about behavior and then refuses to provide the information when Pomona asks directly.
College officials said they get the most cooperation from private schools, particularly boarding schools that face the same concerns as colleges about students' ability to live among their peers. Officials at Milton Academy and Concord Academy said they have long advised students that disciplinary actions become part of their records and college applications.
Students can even enhance their application if they can show in writing how they grew after getting into trouble, said Peter Jennings, Concord's director of college counseling. "If anything, it gives the colleges a sense of who the kids are, and how they react to a situation," Jennings said. Some counselors from high schools that do provide disciplinary information said they also see the exercise as a way to teach students that they face consequences for bad behavior.
Now, I don't remember what Phillips Exeter's policy was when it came to reporting this kind of thing. Hopefully they, like Boston Latin, looked out for the relationship with the students first. That's what I would imagine, with people like Betsy Dolan in charge (the head of College Counseling at PEA--super awesome!). What I do know is that it's a troubling trend when colleges feel so entitled to these sorts of records that they, like Pomona, will completely disregard a candidacy if people don't cough up the goods.
I personally never got into any kind of trouble that went on any records or could have been problematic if anyone had told colleges about it. Some of you might know that I even had a blog while I was applying to college ; ) ! But I do know people, some of them good friends, who ran into serious issues because of minor transgressions. Once someone was accused of something (essentially) and a trigger-happy teacher called up her first-choice early decision school, at which she would have almost certainly had a great chance of getting in for reasons not worth elaborating here--and she was summarily rejected. That kind of careless disregard for student privacy can have serious implications for the future.
All of this raises good questions about the intersection between this kind of information seeking and the internet, social networks, blogs, etc--but that's a post for another week (some interesting studies came out recently which I'd like to talk about).
I know a lot of this could be colleges strongly reacting to want to know about things which might lead to behavior like that at Virginia Tech this past year and just are looking to cover their bases... but that should not be allowed to come at the expense of a little trust from their side of the equation, either, and a little allowance for experimentation and youthful behavior. Whether someone broke curfew to go play hide and seek in the woods or was arrested by police for trying to conduct a creative senior prank, I worry that the noose-like purview of college admissions may be closing too tight around adolescence, encroaching with renewed vigor.