Thursday, June 5, 2014

Play It to Beat It: An Ethical Analysis of Independent College Counseling

(Gloria Breck / Mr. Nguyen / AP Language and Composition P7 / 20 May 2014)

Note: To make sense of the whirlwind that is college admissions, I wrote an ethical research paper on an issue that I've been pondering all year: independent college counseling. I was a staunch opponent of the practice until I began to really research the topic. In this essay, I neither heartily support nor condemn independent counseling; instead I seek to qualify several points of view, bring to light the dilemma faced by my peers and their parents, and apply several philosophies studied in AP Lang to a relevant issue. While this paper may seem at times to be full of factoids (generalizations about Yale's admissions process, Katherine Cohen's characterizations of competition), I sifted carefully through studies conducted by credible counseling organizations for information that they deemed to be truth.

The admissions process is much like a business deal: to the best-marketed student goes the seal. Cavemen use to battle over berries, and modern students engage in a variation of the ancient fight, clawing for slots at schools that have been shown to equip students with the most potential for acquiring those same local, organic berries. To cope, communities turn to the expertise of college counseling “academies” to maximize their chances. Like fungi, these centers spring up in bunches on Bay Area boulevards, subsisting on the fertile “brain market.” For a certain sum, parents can conquer the college admissions quandary. Thus, a debate emerges between aggressive students on either side of the academy door: those who pay for assistance, and those who clobber together shanty-applications without third-party support. However, even members of The Resistance cannot deny that times have necessitated independent college counseling for applicants seeking to maneuver, and eventually mold, their competition.

A New Need for Counseling
In decades past, the college applications process was a simpler animal. But as the population balloons, so does competition. Saul Lelchuk, director of HS2 Academy’s Northern California branch, emphasizes that “the admissions landscape has changed, drastically and dramatically. To feel nostalgia for an earlier, simpler time is fine, provided one is willing to acknowledge that that era is behind us, for good and for bad.” Acknowledging a new era means equipping oneself for the impending task, using all available resources, including independent counseling services. Confounded with increased competition are factors such as affirmative action and legacy: having a parent attend Stanford is equivalent to a 45.1-point bump on the SAT (Lee). Yale judges three-quarters of its applicants qualified for admission, and relies on the litmus tests of legacy and affirmative action to separate the 8% percent from the rejected. These twists ensure that students have no power in controlling college outcomes, despite their qualifications.
What to do, then, if admissions officers follow no formulas? Applicants with advisors squash soloists with ease. At HS2 Academy, counselors begin grooming applicants as early as their eighth grade year, for “from the moment a student enters high school, everything they do—or fail to do—affects their likelihood of making it into a good college,” writes HS2’s founder, Ann Lee. Counselors arrange four years’ worth of course loads, summer schedules, and extra-curricular activities, all catered to the student’s unique background, goals, and propensities (Lee). The modern college application process no longer consists of simply filling out forms before deadlines; counselors seek to cultivate persons that completely close the gap between potential and performance, and to eliminate as many variables as possible in the success equation.
Katherine Cohen, empress of Manhattan college counselors, summarizes the current climate of college admissions by remarking that "[applicants] can't just wing an application and get in; [they] might have been able to do that twenty years ago if [they] had the grades and the scores.” Getting a student into a school that he would have been overqualified to attend twenty years ago is, in her words, “a feat roughly equivalent to resurrecting the dead.” Generation X is convinced that they would not have been accepted by their alma maters as applicants today (Finkel). Because the line that separates admits from rejects is “necessarily arbitrary,” only independent college counselors, most of them ex-admissions officers, are fit to maneuver the dizzying marketplace that is the college admissions process.

Not All Counselors Are Created Equal
Both private and public schools offer college counselors that have the power to vie via phone call for their students, while independent counselors are denied college contact. However, independent counselors are preferable to both, for reasons specific to each.
Public-school counselors, drowning in seas of 300-1000 students each, are simply too overwhelmed to be of much aid to an applicant. Thus, phoning colleges is a privilege wasted on inundated school counselors. With this in mind, Lelchuk finds the contempt for independent counselors illogical: “[public-school counselors] can be trusted to fill out a recommendation for a student (even if they have only met that student for the requisite ½ hour or hour throughout four years of high school) while we [independent counselors] should not be allowed within ten miles of an application even if we’ve been meeting with the student multiple times a month for the last six months or year.” Truly, independent counselors paint more honest portraits of their client, yet their interference -- if discovered by admissions officers -- renders applications suspicious.
On the other hand, private-school counselors charge exorbitant tuition for the same quality of services offered by independent counselors. Lelchuk notes that his “counterparts at the best private schools can, and do, pick up the phone – except the catch is that to attend these selective institutions you can often count on paying upwards of $30,000 per year to do so.” Harker Academy Upper School, which charges $40,500 per term, sends significantly more students to elite schools than the local public schools do (Lee). The distinction does not lie in their quality of academics, but rather in their low student-to-counselor ratio. HS2, C2, and Flex Academies, which serve the South Bay, offer comparable services for an average of $2500 per year (HS2). The astronomical price of a private-school education confirms that students do “buy their way into a meritocracy,” as told by Katherine Cohen. While independent services are also costly, they are far worthier investments for communities that can afford them.
With potholes marking both public and private pathways, independent counseling is the applicant’s “golden mean,” Aristotle’s middling of two extremes (Aristotle). Lelchuk confirms: “as for private counselors, we’re caught between the two.” Third-party counselors save students both their tuition and their chances. The regret described by Columbia University student Carla Buccino plagues private-schoolers: “We like to think we’re all here because we earned it. But many of us are here because we could pay the price of admission.” Public-schooled students who endured applications alone oft wonder what could have been had they counseled independently. The most moderate solution lies in those sterile, testimony-plastered office buildings along De Anza Boulevard.

All for One, Not One for All
Independent counseling, as a service industry, ought to have the best interests of its clients in mind. But as with all businesses, profit is the primary goal; a happy college outcome is a pleasant side effect. This exchange is most successful under a few conditions laid out by Eli Finkel and Grainne M. Fitzsimons in The New York Times: “When the recipient clearly needs it, when help complements rather than replaces the recipient’s own efforts, and when it makes recipients feel that we’re comfortable having them depend on us.” If the act of counseling fulfils these requirements, then the transaction is considered fair.
But profit, as an incentive, is an impurity. It prevents hired counselors from exercising goodness without qualification (Kant), and taints their good-will, which in fact extends beyond success-security into what Lelchuk calls “the eternal Sisyphusian struggle of convincing families to look past the rankings, past the glossy brochures, at which colleges are actually right for their children.” Counselors intend to influence not only admissions decisions for the better, but also worldviews. Still, this good-will is disqualified by monetary compensation.
Also, college counseling does not satisfy Kant’s categorical imperative, because its effectiveness hinges on its exclusivity (Kant). If the practice were adopted by all, then private counselors would be as available as their public-school equivalents. With every student is marketed to perfection by a counselor, admissions officers would not be able to identify the best buy (Gardner).
Aligned with Kantian ethics, however, is a dedication to the integrity of the “means,” no matter the “ends.” In The Foundation for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant writes that “the good will is not good because of what it effects or accomplishes.” Counselors are as powerless as their clients at effecting certain results. Lelchuk admits: “Sometimes I’m successful in these efforts; many times I am not.” Despite the odds, counselors proceed with the gamble that is college admissions, aware of potential lawsuits filed by dismayed parents come springtime.

Not All Counselors Are Created Equal II
To dispel rumors of deceit, the Independent Educational Consultants Association released a set of ethical guidelines: “A member’s primary obligation is to assess, make recommendations for, and represent each student accurately and fairly based upon a professional evaluation of the circumstances.” Interpretations of this code vary by counselor, depending on their geographic location (Jaschik).
Critics are most skeptical of essay-editing services. IvyWise, a high end counseling service in Manhattan, affirms that “while we do not write essays for students, we do make detailed suggestions for content, structure, style, tone, vocabulary and spelling. We review, comment and correct subsequent revisions until the student and counselor agree the essays are in optimal shape for submission." Most would agree that aforementioned process would result in a voice not entirely belonging to the applicant; indeed, IvyWise essays are the children of combined minds.
Across the country, HS2 displays fewer tendencies to hoodwink. Their tactics aim to calibrate an essay to a single authoritative taste. Ann Lee, founder of HS2, finds that first drafts “careen like pinballs, sent one way by the casual comment of a teacher, another way by the stern direction of a friend’s older sister who goes to college somewhere and is therefore an unmitigated expert on all things collegiate.” Students wavering between conflicting criticisms would benefit from a single, solid assessment by a knowledgeable counselor. Such an approach leaves fewer opportunities for artificiating personal statements.

By-Products Justify Practice
The fruits of independent counseling are not at all limited to admission. In every essay-editing session, counselors see opportunities to apply the old maxim of teaching a man how to fish, instead of giving him one to eat (Lelchuk). Instead of penning essays for their clients, counselors teach the art of writing. Mastering clear communication, especially on a subject as elusive as the self, will serve students at every stage.
Also, counselors open avenues for the development of latent talent. Virtues, after all, are honed through learning and practice (Andre), two tools passed from counselor to client. Yes, a neuroscience internship handsomely accessorizes an application, but also contains immaterial worth. Counselors mine for these experiences: “I guided [a client] into an opportunity that she wanted but might not have known was out there. So, no, I don’t think that I obscure character. I like to think, rather, that I help display what already exists in a nascent stage,” writes Lelchuk. To focus a college education, counselors advocate early exposure to programs that correspond to one’s passions.

Cumulative Leaps
In an interview, Katherine Cohen noted tersely that “it’s never going to be a level playing field.” Growth and interaction of populations shift peaks of prosperity and redistribute equality constantly. To cope, virtue ethicists draw “certain ideals, such as excellence or dedication to the common good, toward which we should strive and which allow the full development of our humanity.” Ethical college counselors act in accordance with this framework. Also, in weighing the net positives and negatives of the practice (Mill), one concludes that college counseling increases accessibility to education more than it does eliminate opportunities for others, and therefore receives the utilitarian stamp of approval.
Ultimately, colleges admit those whose applications confirm their “pre-destination.” Lelchuk writes that “the gratification lies not in getting an undeserving slacker in... it stems from seeing the system of higher education working the way it was designed to work, accepting students who will – given the right resources, instruction, and environment – prove a credit to their college both on campus and beyond.” College counseling propels driven students to positions from which they are poised to optimize humanity’s well-being.
An admission is legitimized by the actions that follow it. What a student makes of their undergraduate admission, and every admission that follows--to graduate school, a company, a relationship--is what truly matters.

Works Cited:

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