Viewpoints

Here’s how to help even the field in college admissions process

University Village area of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, which has been at the center of a college admissions scandal.
University Village area of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, which has been at the center of a college admissions scandal. AP

Preferential treatment for both donors and legacy students has long allowed for inherent biases within the college admissions system.

Now, in addition to these inequities, we are faced with unprincipled behavior on the part of many, as we learned from last week’s expose of the egregious behavior of a Newport Beach consultant, multiple athletic coaches and an athletic director at USC.

Even in our little bubble here on the Central Coast of California, as a college consultant I have observed potentially disastrous consequences for students led astray by unscrupulous parents and college advisers. We have severed ties with families when we have not seen eye-to-eye on how this process should be approached.

Now, more than ever, we must model the values of hard work and integrity. The college application process is neither a level playing field, nor is it a free-for-all where acceptances are routinely obtained with a bribe. Rather, the situation is more nuanced.

There are many dedicated high school counselors, admissions personnel and independent consultants across the country who help students from all backgrounds ethically gain access to higher education.

Granted, many families cannot afford the services of college consultants or test-prep tutors. Our office does some pro bono work with students every year, but this is an inadequate solution to a systemic problem. Substantial resources need to be dedicated to training and supporting high school-based counselors to make the process equitable.

Across the nation, high school counselors are responsible for advising, on average, 482 students. Days are spent tackling scheduling and disciplinary problems with little time left for one-on-one college advising. Surprisingly, graduate programs for school counselors do not normally include coursework specifically addressing college admissions.

The path forward is different for each student and merits exploration.

Our goal is to encourage high school students to consider how they best learn; what their values, aptitudes and interests are so they can explore their options and create a list of best “fit” colleges. Sometimes a gap year, vocational program or community college is the best path forward.

Students need to be at the forefront of this process, embodying the personal responsibility that will stand them in good stead.

Parents should resist touting only highly ranked, prestigious colleges to their children. Parents and students often hang their hat on a highly selective school and are devastated when not admitted. After working so hard, students are made to feel they have let us down. What a travesty — especially when so many exemplary alternatives exist.

It is what students do over the course of their four years at college — rather than the specific college they attend — that plays a decisive role in determining their options moving forward.

Life isn’t always fair, which is one of the valuable lessons students learn during this process. We encourage them to take the helm and land at a campus that best meets their needs.

Though well intentioned, we cannot always clear the path ahead of potential obstacles students are likely to face. Learning to overcome challenges will help them thrive in college and beyond.

In the interim, we adults must work toward building equal access to higher education by substantially shoring up the resources available at the high school level to all students.

Erin Ogren, a graduate of UC Berkeley, is the owner of Central Coast College Consultants. She has worked with students from throughout the country for the past 10 years. She is a member of NACAC, WACAC and HECA and has a college counseling certificate from UCLA.

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