A Crusade to Save College Admissions

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 13, 2005; 9:33 AM

Most people who complain about the college admissions process are like me. We give angry speeches or write fiery columns or spout off at meetings, but never take any personal risks to change the system.

Lloyd Thacker is not like us. The former college admissions officer and high school guidance counselor quit his job at Jesuit High School in Portland, Ore., to lead a crusade against the commercialization of the admissions system. He is still struggling to put his new organization, The Education Conservancy, on solid ground, but his efforts have already made a difference with the publication of his new book, "College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy" (Harvard University Press, 220 pages).

It is a collection of essays by some of the most thoughtful people working in college admissions today, including current and former officials of Lewis & Clark College, Vanderbilt University, Harvard College, Pomona College, Grinnell College, Reed College, Pace University, Trinity College, Dartmouth College, the University of Chicago, Saint Mary's College of California, Smith College, Dickinson College, Clark University, Loyola Marymount University and the University of Washington, plus one smart high school counselor, Mark Speyer of the Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School in New York City.

Thacker is the most talked-about person in college admissions today. You can get his book for just $11.53 from amazon.com. But first read some of his words from the introduction:

"It used to be that Americans aspired to go to college; now they hire consultants, take expensive classes, and spend countless hours creating the perfect application to the right college. For many high school students today, gaining admission to college has been reduced to a game to be played, and education to a prize that must be won. Their parents, driven by a desire to do the very best by their children, have unwittingly joined the race.

"On the other side of the admissions desk, deans struggle-- often with their own consciences -- to land the most desirable, though not necessarily the most qualified, students using strategies that rival those of corporate recruiters. College presidents, for their part, must balance the integrity of their academic community with the need to craft an image imposed by the 'ranksters.' As a result, what was once a rite of passage for American youth has become a high-stakes competition with too many players.

"Leading this rapid commercialization of college admissions are the rankings of U.S. News & World Report, along with those of several newcomers to the field of college rankings, the billion-dollar marketing and consulting industry servicing students and colleges alike, certain members of the media, and the corporatization of the College Board (a non-profit organization that sponsors the SAT and now offers online test prep, application prep, scholarship services, Advanced Placement (AP) exams, and enrollment management, among other things)."

"Curiosity, self-discipline, effort, imagination, intellectual verve, sense of wonder, willingness to try new things, empathy, open-mindedness, civility, and tolerance for ambiguity are some of the qualities that define and give value to being a student. They are the same qualities that colleges say they seek in admitting prospective students. Yet they are also qualities that have been betrayed and repressed by the business models that now guide much of college admissions."

If I have any complaint about "College Unranked," it is that there is not enough Thacker in it. He has an unusual perspective, an irresistible writing style and a passion to help students. I hope he is working on another book that tells us more of his story, and what he has discovered.

But the admission pros he recruited for this book also have much to say. It is a testament to the impact Thacker has had on their craft that he has persuaded so many busy people to dedicate time and effort to the book and the Education Conservancy. My favorite commentators in this volume include:

*William M. Shain, dean of undergraduate admissions at Vanderbilt. He told me something I did not know, that bond raters make it easier for colleges to borrow if their freshmen have impressive SAT scores. He is also one of the few admissions deans I have ever seen express concern about the gushy search letters that colleges send to high schoolers. "Excessive recruitment, especially if students are not carefully prescreened, can too easily create an inappropriate expectation of admission, and, in so doing, dangerously distort a student's college choice process," he writes.

*Bruce J. Poch, vice president and dean of admissions, Pomona College. Poch is one of the admissions deans least afraid of expressing his views on the excesses of the process. Among many interesting points, I enjoyed his attack on the chat rooms for applicants that have become so popular on the Princeton Review Web site: "From a sociological standpoint, it is a fascinating but sometimes horrifying glimpse into the panic, rumor mongering, and college-obsessed minds of the authors, but it also is gasoline added to an already enormous fire of confusions," he writes.

*Michael Beseda, vice provost for enrollment, Saint Mary's College of California. He tells what may be the best story in the book: An applicant to his school from a large public high school in the Midwest submitted this four-word essay in response to the standard question asking why she wanted to attend that college: "I want to learn." That was all she wrote. Was she being flippant or deep or ridiculous or what? Unable to resist rewarding such chutzpah, Saint Mary's let her in and she graduated at the top of her class.

*Harold Wingood, dean of admission, Clark University. He wins the reality award for noting, amid all the distress about rejection, that according to UCLA's Cooperative Institutional Research Program, at least 70 percent of college freshmen say they enrolled in their first-choice school.

About the book, and about Thacker, I have only one more observation. The scourge of commercialism is real, but who is to blame for it? Thacker and some of his essayists suggest it is the fault of the business executives who are making money off of test prep and college ranking and educational consulting and a dozen other lucrative offshoots of the American obsession for getting into a brand name school. I, on the other hand, think it is the fault of the customers, that is, you and me.

In a free society, people discover they have needs. Some are rational, like the need to improve little Johnnie's atrocious grammar, and some irrational, like the need to impress their neighbors with a famous college name on the sticker in their car's back window. None of us would want to live in a country where people were prohibited from spending their hard-earned money to pursue legal desires, no matter how nutty they might be. I am not sure what we can do, short of martial law, to keep many of us from writing checks to SAT courses and college guidebook publishers and private schools that send many graduates to the Ivy League.

Thacker, however, has made this issue his life and has thought about it more than I have. He has kindly accepted my invitation to discuss this in a future column, and see if there is any way out of this mess.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company