The Search Episode Twelve Transcript

The Search
Episode Twelve Transcript

 

Lee Coffin:
From Dartmouth College, I'm Lee Coffin, vice provost for enrollment and dean of admission and financial aid. Welcome to The Search.

As we near the end of this series, it seemed important to pause after all the advice we've given and all of the how to apply and how to explore conversations and go a little broader, maybe take a 30,000-foot perspective on the moment. There is clearly a moment that is unprecedented for all of us. There's coverage in the media that points to a shifting landscape in college admissions. There are questions coming from juniors in high school and their parents about that shift and what it means and how they might prepare the search accordingly. I've invited today three colleagues, longtime friends, from really different points on this admissions cast of characters, and all of them bring something really distinct to the conversation we're going to have. So, let me introduce them and start a conversation which I know is going to be really lively and fun.

Marcia Hunt is the director of college counseling at Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where she's been for many years. How many years Marcia, so far?

Marcia Hunt:
Oh, 35.

Lee:
Oh, 35. I asked her that both because she's got a wealth of wisdom from that seat at Pine Crest, but also, she's the past president of the National Association of College Admission Counseling. She's currently a trustee at the College Board, but personally way back when, when I was a brand-new admission officer, Florida was my territory. I was on my way to visit Pine Crest. I had a gap in my schedule. I pulled into a mall in Boca Raton to have lunch and kill a little time. I locked my keys in my rental car. This is 1990. No one had cell phones. I made my way to mall security in a panic.

Long story short, got myself back in the car, zipped my way over to Pine Crest in such a snit and panic. There was Marcia, who could not have been kinder and more welcoming as this sweaty 20 something admission officer came tumbling into her office on time, but a little harried. That was the beginning of my long friendship with Marcia. She probably doesn't remember that moment, but I vividly do because she recognized in me a little jitters and had a very welcoming presence. So, Marcia, welcome to The Search.

Marcia:
Thank you. It was not hard to identify a rising star, Lee.

Lee:
Oh, that's kind, and hello to Martha Merrill. Martha and I go way back as well. We were colleagues in the early and mid 90's at Connecticut College. I was dean, Martha was director of admission. When I left Conn, Martha became dean of admission, a role she had for 15 years at her alma mater, and that long tenure of distinction for Martha included service as president of the Common Application. So, she brings to this conversation, not just a seat in admissions, although she's been retired for a few years, but also just in awareness of the infrastructure that surrounds the process that we're going to talk about.

Our third guest is Jacques Steinberg. Jacques also wears many hats as he orbits around college admission. He was the national education correspondent for the New York Times in the late 90's and early 2000's, when he wrote what I still think of as one of the best books on college admissions. It's The Gatekeepers, published in 2002, where he went inside the admission office at Wesleyan and spent a year behind the scenes seeing what's what, what counts, and wrote a really wonderful book that, as I reread it in preparation for this conversation, it's still true.

What was spooky to me, Jacques, because I re-read your introduction from the early 2000's was how eerily familiar all of those themes still are. So, we'll plug for The Gatekeepers, where recently Jacques has been an executive senior executive of a college access organization which partners with urban school districts around the country. Jacques, truth in advertising, is a Dartmouth alum and recently served a term as president of the Dartmouth Alumni Association. So, Jacques, Martha, and Marcia, hello. Welcome to The Search.

Martha, let me start with you. When I reached out and asked if you might be interested in coming on the podcast in this moment, you had a very poignant reflection about the times you witnessed as dean. Could you share that with our listeners?

Martha Merrill:
Sure. I remember vividly 9/11. Was actually traveling with a group of other deans at that time and just the impact it had on admissions that year, and actually frankly, several years following. We can talk a bit more about that in a moment, but also, there've been many economic downturns. 2008 stands out again, vividly in my mind as a time when many families were struggling to make payments to colleges and colleges like Connecticut College and many others were able to react and to address those concerns. But all of this is to say that we've been through those processes and I can assure, and as a parent who has been through this admission process as well, granted that was '06-7 when my child went through the process. But these major impacts on whether it's global or local occurrences can be very frightening to a family, a parent, a child going through the process.

But I can help assure people that colleges are flexible. We do react as needed and that we're all going through many of those same kinds of things, especially right now, maybe not to the same extreme effect to some families. But I guess the bottom line is we've been through these processes, we've been through these experiences, and students do still get into college and go to college. Maybe it's going to look a little different moving forward, but the process does still move forward and families can be rest assured that college counselors, colleges and universities are going to work with them.

Lee:
Yeah. Yeah. Thanks. Jacques, you spent a year in the Wesleyan admission office in the very late 1990's and published the gatekeepers in 2002. It has been 20 years since you were embedded, and almost 20 since you published. What's the same, as you see things moving from that moment at the beginning of the 21st century to where we are now?

Jacques Steinberg:
I think that, whether we were talking about the fall just passed or the fall that's coming up, I think there are so many fundamentals to the admissions process from the perspective of student and parent that are indeed the same. This fall, parents of rising seniors, there still will be admissions officers waiting to receive applications from your children and give them the floor to make their best case for admission. That will not change. That was the case 20 years ago when I started on the admissions beat, as we referred to it as journalists. Similarly, and the things that process will value that you, Lee, and your other fellow deans and directors and VPs will value. So much of it is the life experience and perspective of that student or applicant. I don't see that changing.

I also think it will be possible to reinforce Martha's point for students and families to be able to seek out an appropriate fit this coming fall. They may have to do it a little more remotely. They may have to be a little more creative in their due diligence. We all have to be especially vigilant about those families who don't have access to technology, where there will be a heavier burden, but all those things that governed the process in the past, even when parents were listening were applying, I would argue remain very much in force this coming fall.

Lee:
Yeah. Marcia, how about from your seat in a high school? You've witnessed many classes go from junior year to senior year and beyond. How do you reassure your juniors that this upcoming cycle will play out in a way that is familiar?

Marcia:
Our school stopped on the 13th of March and we immediately went to the care and feeding of our seniors and all their anxiety of not being able to visit schools, everything we all know, campus at schools. Kids had applied to schools that they got into that they'd never seen before. The uncertainty of when would they start, the concept with gap years, et cetera, but all in all, for our seniors, we have a class of 206, maybe two are talking about gap years. When I talked to one student who was offered a gap year option of school, he said, "I really want things to be normal." So, I'm just telling them don't listen to the noise. There's so many rumors going around that are not accurate about what's happening. I'm checking in with them a lot more frequently.

Lee:
It's easy to say don't listen but harder to do when there are headlines right now talking about revolutionizing college admission. If you're a junior, I can see where that would be distracting to think you had moved through high school in a particular way with this upcoming admission cycle as the finale of it. Now the choreography of that finale is different, or is it?

Marcia:
Well, I think that I've said to our students, they probably see more of me in the last three months or juniors than any juniors have ever seen before. I have met multiple, multiple, multiple times with multiple students and families via Zoom or Google Hangouts. I think that it's been easier to give families that reassurance and have them not listen to the noise because of our frequent contact with [inaudible 00:12:06].

Lee:
Yeah. Jacques, do you see something similar in the urban school districts? Is that part of this audience having a more challenging moment?

Jacques:
How students and families can tune out some of the noise overall, I think it requires real discipline. I think it requires setting aside times of the day or the evening or the week or the weekend when you're going to have the discipline not to look at Facebook or Twitter or news headlines or news alerts. When you do consume those things, that you do keep the perspective. It's not possible for the college admissions process to be revolutionized between now and this fall. So, as you say, if you're the parent of a rising senior or you are a rising senior, being careful to think about how much does this really mean for me. But I think that discipline, taking that breath, inhale, exhale perspective is what's required. Because you could be submerged under information 24/7 if you wanted to be.

Lee:
Yeah, yeah. The word that I keep coming back to is elastic, that there seems to be a need to be more elastic this year in the way we understand all the elements we've been introducing through this podcast. Transcripts don't look like they looked a few months ago. There's still information there. A's and B's, and C's have been replaced in some schools by passes and fails, but there's still recommendations. There's still essays. There's still probably Zoom based interviews that will pop up that will re animate that part of the file that doesn't have an asterisk on it, but it invites a different way of thinking about all these different holistic elements. Martha, if you were still sitting at a dean seat, what part of holistic admissions do you think is going to be more spotlighted as we head into this coming admission cycle?

Martha:
I think the non-cognitive qualities are going to be really important and ones that are harder to assess, but ones that during this time might be the ones that some deans are going to focus on.

Lee:
So, when you say non-cognitive, what would you mean?

Martha:
I think about grit and grit and reaction to setbacks, and those are the kinds of things that I sort of recall 9/11 being important reactions, whether you were from New York City, and as you know, I read a lot of those files, or you were from the middle of Minnesota at that time where 9/11 wasn't affecting you. So, I think that's one piece that we might focus on in admissions that has always been, I think, an important but really hard to get at. I know you yourself have worked hard in different institutions and probably at Dartmouth to try to figure that out.

I don't want to go down the whole the testing is an issue. Marcia, we won't go too far down that path, but that's probably not going to weigh as much at all in this coming year because it simply can't. So, it's these other pieces, the essay, maybe it's an online interview, whether those are being offered or not. I think one of the things that hasn't changed is just trying to get at the essence of the student, whether they're a good fit. From the student perspective, what hasn't changed at all is that this admission process is a process of self-reflection.

Lee:
Martha, I've been thinking a lot about the qualitative factors that go into a file too. In the scenario where some part of the upcoming academic year is virtual again, we don't know, what qualities does a student need to embody? You mentioned grit. What else? What are the skills you need to represent as we build community virtually? So that's what I find myself reflecting on and asking myself. How do I make sure my application invites those qualities into next year's process? We're always going to value curiosity and creativity and collaboration and citizenship and kindness, diversity of thought, diversity of background. Those fundamentals are true today. They were true yesterday. They're true tomorrow. How do we find them? Marcia, as you counsel the rising seniors about telling their story, what should they be highlighting right now?

Marcia:
Most of our kids have already written an essay. We talked to them earlier, if they thought that that would be helpful for us to read an essay. It was very cathartic, I think, just for kids to be distracted. But again, it's showing that resilience and when you were listing those words, kindness, respect for others, self-reflective. So I think they need to talk about what's important to them in their heart, but to write it when they're in a good place, because there are a lot of mood swings going up and down during this time and to think a lot about being in the right place when they write this.

Lee:
Yeah. Jacques, from your background as a journalist, where does the qualitative piece fit? Admission officers talk about holistic review. As a journalist, you covered it. Does what Marcia and Martha and I are talking about sound like just chatter or is it real from your perspective as someone who reported on this?

Jacques:
As a reporter, I always saw myself as a proxy for students and parents and counselors. Similarly, as I listen to this conversation, and I think for students and parents, that essay for the student is one of the few parts of this process that you can control. You can decide what you want to tell this person in the admissions office, who likely has never met you before, about who you are and what you value and what are the formative experiences of your life, and what would you bring to this community if you were to join it.

You can't really control that test score or even whether you have access to take the test, and you can't necessarily control that grade and whether that grade has become a pass instead of a B, but here's a part of the process that you're the master of that universe. That should be to the extent you're looking for things that can provide reassurance and calm in this challenging time. I think that could be a calming thought.

Lee:
So, let's try and calm people. One of the things that struck me when I was reading your introduction to The Gatekeepers, you opened the book with this sentence, which made me smile. "Colleges make their admission decisions behind a cordon of security befitting the selection of a Pope." It's true. We go into a conclave and you wait for the puff of smoke, which is the decision.

I think part of that perceived secrecy is what makes people anxious, but then the end of the introduction, so many pages later, you say, "I hope the reader will find it heartening to discover that Ralph, who was the main character in the book, and his colleagues give serious and careful consideration to nearly every request brought before them and that in making their final determinations, they regularly plumb the depths of those applicants, probing far below the surface of test scores and grades." That was a really wonderful observation.

Jacques:
Thank you. It's amazing to hear those words from 20 plus years ago and to realize that so much of them resonate, particularly the second part you read. The cordon of security befitting the selection of a Pope, that feels a little dated to me because of what I would argue has been the democratization of information about this process.

We're talking to a sitting dean of admission in one of the nation's most selective institutions who's laying this process bare for an audience of students and parents and counselors. That hardly sounds like high security. Obviously, none of us are privy to the actual decisions that you will make about whom to admit or whom to turn away from your class or whom to put on the waiting list. But there has arguably never been more information about how all this works and that too, should be calming to people, but it can also be overwhelming too, because how do you decide what to pay attention to and what's credible?

Lee:
The part where you ended with, "We go far below the surface." That's the piece that I think gets lost a lot in the more binary way of thinking, I have this test score and I have this GPA and there's my decision. We said, wait, there's a lot of information that swirls around those two data points that we are pretty good at ferreting out and digesting.

Jacques:
I think that that statement may arguably be more true this fall than ever before. I think for students and parents, they don't realize the extent to which admissions officers do their homework, not only in understanding that student and their circumstances and what they bring to the table, but also doing the homework on their school. If your high school went pass-fail in the spring, if you couldn't get access to an Sat or an ACT or an AP exam, I think it's a fair assumption that that admissions officer is going to be able to ferret out that information. Indeed, a counselor like Marcia will go out of her way to share it. That too should reduce anxiety somewhat.

Lee:
Marcia, do you want to comment as a trustee of the College Board? I don't want to put you on the spot, but testing is a hot potato right now in this shifting landscape. It's always been a controversial topic, but I think the public health crisis wrapped around the established critiques have made this a particularly tough moment. What do you tell students about testing right now, especially if they haven't taken it yet? If they're in that group of rising seniors that has not had a chance to sit for any type of test and they're panicking.

Marcia:
Some of our students who haven't tested are praying that more schools will go test optional this fall because they feel like it would be very helpful to them if they did. I've had some students who have very high testing who are really anxious because they're worried that high testing isn't going to be as helpful to them anymore, but we just keep assuring them of the percentages of students who are in the same situation. I tell them to read the FairTest website under the chronological order so they can see that recent schools that have gone test optional. We also tell them that the committees reading their applications haven't changed other than regular turnover. It's the same people reading the same applications who are assigned to those schools and people don't go into this work if they don't like kids. You're in this work trying to help as many kids as they can. Now, more so than ever, I think the admission officers who are reading these files are going to bend over backwards to give these kids every opportunity that they can.

Lee:
Yeah. I haven't used this quip on the podcast just yet, but my title is not the dean of denial. It's a byproduct of a process I must lead, which has an abundance of quality. But the goal is to say, yes, just like Jacques's non-profit. The goal is to find reasons to validate and include people in our class. We can't include everyone, but I don't pick a file up saying, how do I find a way to no on this one? It's, how can I find a way to yes? I think that will be true this year like every other year. We may have to read between the lines a little bit more to understand some of the conditional verbs that are starting to pop up when I talk to juniors like, I would have dot, dot, dot. I could have dot, dot, dot.

I might have dot, dot, dot. I keep thinking, well, this is why they taught me the subjunctive tense in AP Spanish. We're framing all these questions around a conditional narrative of something lost. What I'm trying to do in the podcast is to turn it back around and say, you still have agency, you still have the opportunity to tell your story. The chorus isn't performing, but you're still a singer. How do you let us know that? If that's an important part of your identity, sing like a bird. Bring it forward in whatever way that feels germane. Some of us are reintroducing, or introducing for the first time, a video to say, if this is a platform to tell your story, then use this platform.

Couple more questions. One, one of the non-negotiables, something that's not optional for so many families is financial aid, especially now as the pandemic has generated really depression era levels of unemployment and families are really struggling to think about is this affordable? How is this possible? So if you're a low income or a middle income family and you're feeling hopeless, what words of wisdom do any of you have about moving forward towards what I always think of as the promise of college, but that promise has a price tag that can be a wall more than a speed bump sometimes, in the way people think about it? Jacques, this might fall more in your work right now.

Jacques:
There certainly are no easy answers, but I think it is important for families not to give up hope and not to decide that, in the midst of this catastrophic economic period, that it's not possible to get a college education and be able to afford it. It is going to take some effort on their part though, to get information. One, in addition to exhausting their high school counselor, whether it's somebody as accomplished as Marcia or somebody who is newer to the field, exhausts every piece of information that person has, and then use, I would argue, the college financial aid offices as resources. Is it fair to say, Lee, that if a student, whether they were interested in applying to Dartmouth or not, or wondering whether they could afford a Dartmouth education or not, or maybe they were considering a state university school, if they were to reach out to the Dartmouth financial aid office, might they find that office to be helpful in giving them the lay of the land as it pertains to financial aid?

Lee:
Oh yes. Not unlike admission officers who have seen our travel curtailed, financial aid officers have also seen financial aid nights postponed because we can't travel. So, in a normal cycle, yes, we would be doing exactly that. So, in this moment where we are socially distanced, financial aid staffs are resources for families. We covered this in another episode, but the net price calculators are really helpful tools to do that. To me though, I think the evangelizing I'm trying to do around financial aid and affordability is to not let the pandemic and the economic pain of it stop students from exploring their options.

Certainly, many colleges are feeling financial hurt of their own. Many of us are reprioritizing financial aid as a game changer for people. How do each of you think of the admissions calendar right now? In a typical cycle, the junior spring, or the winter and then the spring, the search gets launched. People go through the summer visits. They come back to school in the fall, they start talking about early options. I've been wondering if the fall of 2020 might bring a shift in the way people think about applying early and whether this might be a cycle with a restoration of trust in regular decision. How would you advise families to think about a calendar that was versus the calendar that now is? Should they be resetting themselves? Think, well, maybe this is the year to apply in January and make a decision in April.

Martha:
I'm not sure students have to make that decision ... Families, students have to make that decision right now, because I think, even though the search will be different, families will not be traveling around the country or certainly internationally to explore. The exploration is going to be a very different type of exploration. I think at this moment, I will also encourage students to actually go to websites and fill out the forms, which you wouldn't normally have to do if you would take in the SAT. You might be on a list where you might be mailed information. So, students are going to have to be more proactive in seeking out information. I would, as I would always do, encourage students to really explore a wide range of colleges and universities, and again, even harder to do so electronically through social media. There are many ways to do so, but it's probably not going to be in person. But I think it may be too early to say, it's too soon for a student to decide whether or not they should apply early. It may very well affect many students' choices to do so.

Lee:
Yeah. Ok. My last question also pulls from Jacques's book. Musing about the "high drama of college admission" was the phrase, and he speculated that part of the drama was "The elusive definition of what constitutes merit." So, I'm wondering if each of you could in a couple of thoughts on merit, what counts?

Jacques:
I guess I'll start. That definition, it certainly seems as elusive today as it did 20 years ago to me as a trained observer, but also now as somebody who has gone through this process twice as a parent and also has supported the gathering of knowledge in communities of underrepresented kids. So, I've got different lenses and time, and I come to the same conclusion. It's certainly people in your seats, Lee, or in seats like Martha used to occupy, or as Marcia provides counsel, can that student do the work? Will they be successful? Are they being set up for success or failure? That has to be part of the merit equation. No one's sitting in your chair, Lee, wants a student to be set up to fail at Dartmouth College or any other college.

So that, and are you going to have to dig deeper perhaps this fall with some applicants, depending on their circumstance, to make that calculation? Probably, but the definition of merit, as I understand it over the 20 years I've been observing, still very much includes that question of who you are and who you've become, and what are the forces that have shaped you and what do you value. So hard to capture in a definition, but it still seems appropriately and reassuringly messy to me.

Lee:
Yeah. I like that. Reassuringly messy is a very poetic way to say it. Martha?

Martha:
Yeah. I think everything Jacques has said is absolutely true. I would add, and this would probably be true for maybe not the most selective institutions, but there are others who are going to really look at the potential of a student. That was the joy of being a dean at an institution like Connecticut College, where it is a very selective institution. But at the same time, we had great opportunity to take students who were maybe just at the precipice of success and who we knew, with our faculty and with the kind of setting that we provided for that student and the kind of counseling and advising, they were going to really succeed. We saw that for many, many cases. You knew that as a dean at Connecticut College as well. So potential I think is part of merit. It has to be.

Lee:
Yeah. Thank you. Marcia?

Marcia:
I was really smart to go last. I thought that Martha and Jacques did a great job answering that question, but I do think I'm going to be looking at the kids who bloom a little late, who will be good fits for those schools. I think that kids cannot lose their voice and their authenticity in this process, and the more authentic they are and the more that the reader is hearing their voice, the better off they're going to be.

Lee:
Thank you.

This moment of re-imagining what counts, how the process works, how to get us from here to there, is an interesting one. But to me, the goal is the same. How do we make an effective bridge between home and college, between where someone is and where they hope to go? How do we bring the resources we all have to this rite of passage that, I come back to my own story, it changed my life to go to a liberal arts college. Seeing that opportunity as still being true is a really important reassuring moment in the work we all do. There we have it, everybody. We have wandered through 12 episodes of The Search, thinking about applying and finding fit and telling your story and figuring out how to pay for it. Now it's your turn to have a search that brings you somewhere great.

The Search has been a production of Dartmouth College. Unexpectedly to me, this podcast has been the professional and personal highlight of what felt like a lost spring. If even one of you benefits from the conversations, we've had over the last four months, then it has been a huge success. Of course, I didn't do this all by myself. So, let me take a moment to thank some people that helped bring this podcast to life. To my colleagues, Diana Lawrence and Justin Anderson in Dartmouth's communication office, who insisted that I do a podcast. Thank you for your assistance. You were right. This has been such a fun thing for me to have done. To my colleague Kate Domin for helping me cast the fantastic high school seniors who are Dartmouth bound this fall. To Erin Supinka, Chris Johnson, and Sara Morin, and the entire team in Dartmouth Communications who coordinated the sound editing and the uploading and the technical logistics of the series. To all the students and my colleagues who joined me over these last 12 episodes, your collective wit your warmth and your wisdom made this series sing.

To Steve, my partner, for enduring the endless Zoom recording sessions from my at home studio, aka, my living room, and for all the encouraging conversations about what was unfolding. To my friend David Clark, for graciously and generously helping me remap the narrative arc of the podcast as it was just an idea. Most importantly, to my producer and copilot Charlotte Albright, for teaching me how to do this and for sharing your radio know how and insights with this hammy admissions dean. Every second of the series reflect your fingerprints. This has been such a treat to partner with you on this. May The Search be with you all, my friends. Thanks for listening. Good luck and Godspeed.