When good kids get bad advice on college

Some guidance counselors - arguing for realism - set student aims too low.

Kimberly Cummins made headlines last October when she was told by her New York City high school that she could not apply to Harvard University.

Confused and indignant, she pressed for an explanation. Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn, she says she was told by her college counselor, allows only its top five students to apply to the Ivy League. With an 86.6 GPA, Kimberly was ranked 11th.

But Harvard was her dream - even though she knew admission was far from a sure thing.

Kimberly's story is a dramatic example of a scenario that's played out in public and private high schools across the country: College counselors, often with the best of intentions, advise their students to aim low.

The reason may be unofficial school policy, as Kimberly says was her case. (Or a misunderstanding, as her school described it.)

By other accounts, some counselors simply aren't accustomed to sending students out of state for college. Or else they may hope, through careful vetting, to boost the number of graduates they place in elite schools.

Most of the time, it's an honest attempt to insulate students from exaggerated expectations and crushing disappointment.

Yet in trying to quantify an increasingly unpredictable process, some counselors are turning to numbers, at times placing undue weight on factors like GPA and SAT scores, when recommending where kids should apply.

That may shortchange some students.

"There are so many subtleties and unmeasurables" that a student brings to the table, says Lloyd Thacker, executive director of the Education Conservancy in Portland, Ore., and author of "College Unranked: Affirming Educational Values in College Admissions." The intangible set of qualities he calls "studenthood," for example: curiosity, imagination, hard work, passion for learning. "You can't quantify them simply and you can't rank them," he says.

But some of the instances in which student aspiration is discouraged may also reflect a larger issue: overextended college counselors.

In 2003, the US Department of Education reported one counselor for every 478 public high school students. The ratio is even worse in urban schools and low-income schools. At one Los Angeles public school, researchers found a student-to- counselor ratio of 5,000:1.

It's these very schools, though, where a college counselor is most important - and influential - and where even muted or unintentional discouragement can have a deep impact.

When Kimberly was told that she couldn't apply to Harvard, her mother, an immigrant from Barbados, and her older sister, a law student at New York University, immediately stepped in. They negotiated with school and district officials and contacted a newspaper and nonprofit advocacy group.

But many students lack such a backstop. "What you're faced with in urban districts like Boston or New York City is a situation where students don't have someone else to advocate for them," says Greg Johnson, executive director of Bottom Line, a nonprofit in Boston that helps get low-income and first-generation students into college.

Still, students of all types could be at risk of getting discouraging messages from their guidance counselors.

A father from Albany, N.Y., recently posted a message labeled "Your GC [guidance counselor] may be steering you wrong" on the discussion board of collegeconfidential.com, a website with admissions advice. It drew over 100 responses.

In his sophomore year, this man's son was told that his 83 average and 1200 SAT scores left him no chance of admission to a four-year college. His counselor advised him to look into a community college or technical school.

"The GC was not totally wrong," his father wrote on the discussion board. "Our kid applied to 19 colleges and our son knew as well as we that he stood almost no chance of getting into 15 of them."

In the end, however, the young man was admitted to five schools - including highly ranked Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y., which he plans to attend.

Sometimes counselors simply don't understand student ambitions.

At Derby High School, a 2,400-student suburban school in Kansas, Logan Runyon faced skepticism and resistance when he expressed interest in out-of-state colleges.

Logan's transcript was packed with challenging college prep courses. He graduated with a 3.98 GPA, and had earned a 1460 on the SAT. He wanted to go to the kind of prestigious school where such numbers would be the norm.

But for his counselors, "a postsecondary education, whether it's gotten at Butler Community College or at Duke, is the same," says Logan's mother, Karen.

Undeterred by his counselors' lack of enthusiasm, Logan aimed at some of the country's most selective schools and was accepted at several, including his dream school, Duke University in Durham, N.C., where he ended up enrolling.

But for every counselor who offers unfortunate advice, there are many more who do their best at a very difficult job. Even under the best of circumstances, point out those familiar with the process, college advising is a balancing act.

Counselors must be pragmatic about students' chances without becoming pessimistic. They must nudge them to be realistic while remaining encouraging.

Hard as they try, there are always students and parents who feel they've been ill advised. Often, says Harvard admissions director Marlyn McGrath Lewis, what these families mean is "the counselor didn't have a crystal ball."

Every year there are success stories, students who made it into their dream schools, despite middling numbers and incredulous counselors.

Yet counselors maintain that the admissions process isn't a complete mystery. "Just having the numbers and scores isn't enough" to guarantee admission to an Ivy-caliber school, says Michele Hernandez, a former assistant director of admissions at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and currently a private consultant in Portland, Ore. "But not having the numbers and scores, you don't have much of a chance, either."

In Kimberly's case, her early-decision application to Harvard was deferred and then she was rejected in the regular decision pool. At Yale she landed on the wait list. Finally she settled on the University of Michigan - sometimes called a "public Ivy" - where she was offered a generous scholarship. It would seem that the Ivy League had been a realistic goal for her.

Kimberly says there is no ill will between her and the staff at Boys and Girls High School. (Her counselor asked not to be a part of this story.)

She says she understands that counselors and schools "have opinions and they have experience." But the way she sees it, "you just have to apply where you feel comfortable and go from there."

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