The Conversation: Embracing Change in the College Process

Spring 2019

By Rebecca Scherr

In 2017, Emmi Harward, executive director of the Association of College Counselors in Independent Schools (ACCIS), attended a site directors’ meeting for the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC). Various groups discussed defining possible mastery credits, measuring achievement, and finding more student-centered approaches to representing knowledge. But what would be their go/no-go benchmark when deciding whether they’d be able to move forward with a mastery transcript in their schools? Harward, who is also on the advisory council of the MTC, overheard several groups—including those without a college counselor—say their schools would need to know that the college list would not be negatively impacted. There was this disconnect, she recalls, between a great interest in change yet only so much that was willing to be risked in the pursuit of change. In this edited exchange, Harward and Aaron Fulk, director of college counseling at Marin Academy (CA) and ACCIS board member, tackle the question: When it comes to the college process, how can we embrace change without overpromising unpredictable and uncontrollable external outcomes?
Harward: In many cases, major school transitions are much more difficult for faculty and staff than they are for students. When a school changes to a new daily schedule, the students are usually able to pick it up by the end of the first week. But, when you have changes that impact the whole school community and the marketplace—from admission to college advising—how can we get to a place where we can change?
Fulk: Every school has differences in their school culture, particularly around change. There’s this continuum from embracing change to being averse to change, but so much of that has to do with several factors: How old the school is, what was the original mission, and how has it evolved? Those are just some of the disclaimers as we approach this question.
Harward: If the school is interested in embracing change, then you know there’s also this expression of “return on investment” that families are looking for. Is the change more about the process and the educational experience? Is it experiential, or is it based on outcomes? Is it based on how many kids got into the most selective colleges the year before? How are we reflecting success in our schools and in college counseling offices, and what message does that send to students and families? How is that portrayed in marketing materials about the school?

Fulk: Those are the big questions. At my current school, a grade 9–12 school, we’ve made a very deliberate decision that we’d only roll out significant programmatic changes in a long-term method. We don’t want a family to sign up knowing the current experience and then it changes halfway through their time. There’s a level of transparency that needs to happen; every school is going to be a little bit different.
Harward: Many independent schools have been assessing their relationship with the College Board’s Advanced Placement curriculum; this is a brand that serves as a proxy for curricular rigor. Many schools have started moving away from the AP curriculum, so it’s not a risk anymore. But from a marketplace perspective, is it a risk in presenting your school to incoming families and even current families who don’t necessarily know that yet? Are you making decisions about what’s going to be best for students experientially in your school, something that is mission-driven, based on these external factors?
Fulk: The good news is most of the colleges to which independent school students apply, with some exceptions, tend to have holistic review and super-selective colleges can seem less transparent. Oftentimes, the beauty of holistic review is that you can have different grading systems and different curriculum. And if we look systemwide, I think in a general sense, that holistic approach works well and effectively.

Harward: Over the past five to 10 years, the colleges’ admission landscape has changed quite a bit; how colleges review, and the information that college counselors have to share with families, has changed.
Fulk: I don’t think college counseling offices have the resources or support oftentimes to determine their own definition of success, let alone choose metrics, and say that our offices and our students have control over those definitions. I think when students choose to apply to the most selective schools, they are immediately forfeiting any sense of control or agency. We need to think more about how we define success as schools, and then how we measure that success within our college offices.

Harward: One of the reasons why admission stats are so great is that it’s easy to quantify applications, and boards love seeing those stats. It’s hard to quantify these subjective factors. What would stand in as a better representation of success in the college process if you’re looking at more of a developmental process rather than trophy collecting?
Fulk: Right, if you figure that out, let me know. I can think of two things for us as college counselors: self-reporting surveys and new platforms. I survey our students at the end of the process, asking them to rate what level of anxiety they had at different points in the process as well as overall satisfaction with the process. Note the process used, not the outcomes. It’s not a perfect tool, but it displays a student’s growth and arc in this process just like any other class they might take.
There’s also this huge explosion of new platforms right now—Naviance, Maia, or SCOIR. In some of them, you can get reports of engagement, or track the iterations of students’ lists. Was having too many of the most selective schools on the student’s list likely what set them up for disappointment? Or was it finding the best schools that fit their needs and desires that are perhaps more realistic?
Harward: Another change in independent schools in the past 10 years is the student demographics. Many schools had these barbell populations of full-pay families and high-need families, and not a whole lot in between. And now that our student populations aren’t quite as stratified on the extreme, the role for college counselors has changed. An independent school education is more of an investment and more of a sacrifice for those middle-income families to be making, and therefore, their desire for return on investment is higher.
We’re also seeing the process shift earlier and earlier, to fall of junior year but also something that’s equally substantive for sophomores and freshmen. We have members who are doing presentations for middle school families, which in some ways is likely to improve retention in the upper school.
That’s a big change, because there’s this implied trust that it’s all going to work out. Students and families want to apply to these highly selective institutions that are denying 90 percent of the students who apply, and there’s all of this anxiety. We’ve seen significant increases in social-emotional counseling and student stress that tend to be an undercurrent and coming to a head in so many cases. Is this something you’ve seen as well?
Fulk: As college counselors, we need to talk about some things earlier, including mental health and anxiety. I’ll use MTC as an example. I think some people are focusing on the actual transcript when the exciting part is about getting to the point where a school can adopt or not adopt the transcript. Can we identify competencies? How do we rethink assessments? And for us, at Marin Academy, what are the competencies for our college counseling office? How has a student’s self-awareness increased? How can they communicate their goals? Do they have interpersonal skills? Can they pick up a phone and talk to an adult?
When anxiety spikes for college counseling, it’s because students often feel like they don’t have control or agency. Maybe parents are pushing schools on students they just don’t like, or students are looking at schools that they were exposed to earlier in their life and feel like they have to go there. Those are the things that spike anxiety. If independent schools are really thinking hard about what we celebrate in the college process, we should try to celebrate when our students submit their applications, not when they receive acceptances. And our board reports certainly should not be filled with numbers on the most selective colleges.

Harward: That reminds me of something that I would often tell anxious students in the process: There’s so much that’s out of their control, but it can be broken down to three major decision points: the student has the opportunity to decide what college(s) to which they’ll apply, the college makes the decision on which students they’ll admit, and then the student gets to decide where they’ll ultimately enroll. Of those three decisions, two-thirds of them are in the hands of the students.
Fulk: As college counselors in school leadership, we need to reimagine how can we define success and how can we measure that differently when we think of our outputs or the statistics we share with prospective families. What dictates a valuable independent school experience? It’s slightly lazy just to point at a college list rather than to dig in to the more nuanced, complicated, and challenging measurements that are a little more noncognitive or competency-based.
Harward: Colleges are guilty of it as well, looking at SAT or ACT averages, looking at the percent of a graduating class going onto a four-year college, looking at the college list to see if their peer institutions are on it, so we’re all making judgments. So, is there a way that as a school community we can embrace mission-driven change that will benefit students within the community in the long-term? I think enabling and empowering people to help communicate change brings feedback and puts a spotlight on the reason for a change—it’s best for our students and our community.

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Rebecca Scherr

Rebecca Scherr is senior editor/writer at NAIS.