A Taboo Topic? The Role of Independent Educational Consultants (Part I)

Recently an upper school parent asked if Moses Brown families utilize private college consultants.  Somewhat coincidentally, I attended a lively session examining the role of independent consultants at a recent national conference in Denver.  I have been thinking a lot about the topic.  It’s a complicated one.

A bit of background

The presence of independent consultants is not a new phenomenon.  During the first part of my career at MB, a former Dean of Admission at Brown conducted thoughtful work with some area students. (He was a venerable and respected individual who spoke and wrote with elegance.) As happens in most independent and suburban high schools, a percentage of families at MB have employed a private “coach” or counselor.  Our office has not had reason, however, to study the numbers in detail.

The Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) estimates that approximately 25% of applicants to college currently utilize a non-school based coach or consultant.  (I think this number is a bit high within the current economy, but it is not my intent to dispute an otherwise useful statistic.)

Controversy sometimes surrounds private advisors

During the session I attended at the recent National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) conference in Denver, there was a lot of energy, interest and tension circulating in the function room.  (Dozens of high school and college people turned out for this panel!)

The educational counselors in attendance (who are official members of our national organization) wanted to clarify their backgrounds, goals, credentials and intentions.

*Members of IECA reminded us that they regularly provide valuable service to huge numbers of public school students who reside in districts with shrinking budgets; these teenagers lack access to guidance counselors and assistance with college planning.

*One member of the panel (an experienced private consultant in Manhattan) stressed the fine credentials possessed by many of her peers—including specialized degrees in educational counseling.

* She also noted that many independent counselors help reduce the crazy workloads associated with those who advise college-bound kids in private and public schools.  (She knows that our October days are packed with seniors, parents, college reps and constant deadlines!)  “We like to think of ourselves as taking the burden off counselors,” she stressed.

*Related to the workload issue, the NYC private consultant pointed out that some of her colleagues help students launch an earlier start in the college application process–given that seniors and juniors must be the priority for someone like me.  (For many of us who have been in schools for a long time, this is a somewhat thorny issue.  While getting on task is important, we are concerned about students who find themselves burned out before the search process starts in earnest!  As I tend to ask parents: “If you had the choice, would you want to conduct a job search for three yearsSimilarly, would you want to plan a wedding or bar mitzvah for the same length of time?  Anticipate the birth of a baby….? )

For families who need a head start, we welcome  sophomores and parents to join our hour-long workshops on Junior Class College Day after the keynote—including the popular Athletics and Admission session.  Tenth graders and parents are also invited to participate in our Providence Independent School College Fair in April.  Visiting a couple of campuses on an exploratory basis sophomore year (or first semester junior year) is appropriate for students who are eager and ready to explore.  (For other students, this can feel premature and stressful.) Getting acquainted with Naviance is also quite valuable.  (Please see our planning calendar in the MB College Guide for more extensive advice about tenth and eleventh grade.)

Guidance personnel and college deans express their views

During the animated panel discussion (followed by Q & A), high school guidance personnel and college admission officers shared their queries and concerns.

*Many worry about the limited experience of some independent consultants.  The best members of the field have actually worked as admission deans and high school guidance counselors; they understand the changing climate and intricacies of the selective college process from start to finish.  But not all private consultants possess this degree of experience.  Could they potentially offer mistaken or unrealistic suggestions to students?  Might they unintentionally “muddle” the advice that students receive from seasoned guidance counselors and admission deans?

*Guidance counselors and college deans also ponder the involvement of private advisors in the actual application.  Do they edit essays far too heavily and liberally?  Are they engaged, in part, to actively help seniors craft resumes and co-curricular lists? Do students lose their own voices and integrity when consultants assume too prominent a role? (Please see my September 30 entry for more musings about adults and editing in the college process.)

*Students may be placed in an awkward position when a family chooses to employ an independent college advisor.  Here’s where the taboo dimension enters.  Most parents and kids hesitate to disclose their interaction with a private consultant.  They may fear that someone like me will be insulted or alienated—or feel my credentials are called into question.  There is also the matter of what my mother would have called the “too many cooks in the kitchen” syndrome.  Simply put, how is a senior to determine which professional adult to follow?  (I’ll come back to these queries a little later.)

*Finally, school and college people take note of the constantly evolving “cottage industries” surrounding our students–bombarding them at every turn. Paying for campus visits and applications—let alone tuition, room and board—is already through the roof.  We also worry about the level of privilege associated with selective college admissions.  Some families can afford everything (including a private consultant)—while many others struggle to pay for application fees and CSS reports to financial aid offices.  Does the addition of educational consultants make the ground even less level during the application sequence?

To be continued next week in Part II……

A View from The Rockies

Last week I left the Ocean State behind and traveled to the foothills of the Colorado Rockies.  Arriving in Denver the day before the presidential debate was exciting (except for the traffic snarls), but witnessing the magnificent mountain vistas was even more thrilling.

My first destination was Colorado College in Colorado Springs—a campus I have long wanted to visit.  I have always been intrigued with CC’s Block Plan from afar.  In the words of the Vice President for Enrollment, the Block Plan “gives students permission to commit fully to a subject.”

How the Block Plan works

CC students take one class at a time.  Each course meets for three and a half weeks, from 9:00-12:00 each day.  (Some classes adjust the schedule slightly and meet between  9:30 and 12:30.)  There are 8 “blocks” per academic year, and about 100 courses to choose from each term.  The conclusion of each block is followed by a four day long weekend.  (Many students visit family or friends, others head off to ski or climb, some just kick back and relax on campus.)

The Block Plan offers a tremendous amount of flexibility and helps build community on campus.  Since all classes meet in the a.m., afternoon athletic practices, play rehearsals, study groups and club gatherings are easier to plan.  Students can meet to take a run, walk into town, or stroll through the Garden of the Gods.   Many get a head start on homework and reading while the day is still fresh, or return to the lab or studio to continue a project.

CC undergraduates tend to be adventuresome.   Professors regularly plan courses that take place in another setting for three and a half weeks: the study of Shakespeare in London, an exploration of film in Hollywood, or an examination of Native American religion, philosophy and anthropology in New Mexico.  Not surprisingly, study abroad is extremely popular on campus.  It is even possible to study four terms (the equivalent of a semester) in one country—and then shift to four different capitals or continents for the remaining four blocks.   (Colorado College makes generous amounts of financial aid available for travel/study.)

College advisors tackle homework

For some MB students, seventy minute extend periods can feel long in duration.  So what would it be like to sit through a three hour class?  The CC Admission Office arranged for two professors to demonstrate the block format for the 35 visiting college advisors.

My group focused on several scenes from The Tempest by William Shakespeare.  (We were assigned extensive homework to complete before arriving on campus!)  The time in class flew by.  First we discussed the social and political context of the play.  Then, quite spontaneously, we performed Act 1, Scene 1 aboard an imaginary ship during the violent storm.  (MB’s college counselor played the role of a lowly citizen  who becomes seasick.  I confess it was not pretty.  Don’t ask for details.)   Next we broke into smaller groups to scrutinize relationships among characters in the play.  My circle studied Miranda’s interaction with Prospero, her father.  We searched for key lines that revealed the nature of their relationship and read the passages aloud.  Finally (and perhaps most fun!), we pretended to be directors and selected a contemporary setting to stage The Tempest and current actors to cast in roles.  My group decided Goat Island in Newport would be perfect with Vineyard Vines costuming–and that we would offer Miranda’s part to Emma Watson.  When the professors announced the end of the class, we were gravely disappointed.  Only the prospect of a full tour of the CC campus in 74 degree sunny weather cheered us onward.

Was The Bard a college counselor? 

Shakespeare, of course, crafted many a phrase still in use and offered sage observations and advice about life.  What I did not guess—until CC Professor Steve Hayward cleverly informed us—is that The Bard may have anticipated modern dilemmas associated with college application.  Professor Hayward underscored a famous line to bring back to our seniors: “To thine own self be true.”

 Next stop: Mile High City

Just as I was processing all I had learned about the Block Plan at Colorado College, it was time to move on to the University of Denver.  The presidential candidates and security units had departed, but the campus was still abuzz with guidance counselors on tour prior to the start of our national conference in downtown Denver.

During the years since I last visited, the University of Denver has grown and changed enormously.  The range of new buildings and dorms is gorgeous—and construction continues in many quarters (including a stunning expansion of the library).  The curriculum is quite versatile—including engineering majors and a music school.

What particularly struck me during my visit, however, was U. of Denver’s calendar. (Perhaps my head was still immersed in CC’s single course approach?)  DU operates on the quarter system.  Students take 4 classes during each of 3 terms within the academic year.  Undergraduates arrive on campus in early September, break for six weeks at Thanksgiving, and conclude the third quarter in early June.   (Students regularly use the long break during the holidays for internships or to work and earn money.)   Relatively few DU undergraduates study during the summer.  (This is the case at many schools with a quarter system.)

A semester model joins the mix

The calendar at Regis University is based on our familiar semester system.  Similar to CC and DU, Regis boasts lovely views of distant peaks, handsome facilities, friendly students and faculty, and strong athletic programs.  A Jesuit institution, Regis makes a vibrant commitment to the personal, academic and spiritual growth of students and believes strongly in community service.  They have many offerings in the health sciences, including nursing, physical therapy, pharmacy and exercise science; education and communications are also noteworthy.  Many of us on tour agreed that the size of the campus is substantial given the population of 2400 students.  There is plenty of room to roam.

Summary: contrasting calendars and individual learning styles

When we discuss college criteria with MB students starting the college search, my colleague David and I regularly invite conversation about size, scale, distance, setting, cost, mission, academic offerings and co-curriculars.  These criteria are all relevant and significant.  Yet my Colorado travels highlighted the importance of considering the schedule that works best for each student’s learning style—and balance of work and play.

The motto at Colorado College is “Breathe deeply; Learn deeply.”  The block system is perfect for the college applicant who is eager to focus, streamline time management, delve into a discipline, bond with fellow students and professors—and perhaps study in different locales.  The quarter arrangement at the University of Denver allows students to sample the widest range of disciplines across three terms—with six weeks built into every late fall for internships or employment.  Regis University provides the pace and range associated with four or five classes per semester and conventional vacation periods.

Generated at 6000 feet above sea level, here are some questions for MB students to consider.  How do you best learn and study within the scope of the academic year?  Do you prefer concentrated exploration– or broader sampling?  Looking ahead, how do you want to structure your campus routine in order to learn productively, get your assignments done, and still have time for other pursuits?

By Helen Scotte Gordon