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The Systemic Inequities in the College Application Process

The Systemic Inequities in the College Application Process

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By Tamara Herdener
Faculty Member, Legal Studies, American Public University

In these times of racial protests and Black Lives Matter, many of us are trying to understand what systemic racism is in practical terms. The systemic inequities in the college application process is one such example.

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Inequities in the college application process illustrate not only systemic racism, but also illuminate other inequities in the process stemming from low income levels, being a first-generation college applicant, and prejudices based on gender. These inequities and injustices are subtle undercurrents that impact and negatively alter students’ lives.

The Inequities between Public and Private School College Admissions Counselors

Systemic inequities in the college application process, however, is a complicated and multifaceted issue. One facet is the stark contrast between the lack of college admission counselors in a public high school versus the cadre of college counselors in a private high school.

However, public school districts themselves are not to blame for this lack of qualified counselors, but rather the lack of funding. In a public high school, the guidance counselors are beyond busy, mostly doing all that one would expect a high school counselor to do.

This work includes counseling students on the courses they need to take to meet their high school’s credit requirements to graduate. Typically, these counselors are responsible for registering the students for their classes each year by inputting this information into the computer system, which is a huge undertaking.

In addition, the heart of high school counselors’ work is to support and counsel students through difficult life experiences. We owe a heavy debt of gratitude to high school counselors, both in public and private schools.

For example, they offer support to students through all the stressors of high school, including academic struggles, relationship breakups, bullying, and social media landmines, as well as drug and alcohol addiction. Moreover, these counselors are also expected to advise the students on the ins and outs of the obstacle course of applying to college.

At a private school, the high school counselors have a similar job description. However, the stark contrast lies in the fact that they are not expected to advise the students on how to apply to college. In contrast to public schools, private schools offer a separate cadre of college counselors whose only job is to guide students through the college application process.

Students Must Have Experienced Counselors to Navigate the Complex College Application Process

In the current landscape of college admissions, any 17- or 18-year-old student absolutely must have a knowledgeable college counselor who is able to give a significant amount of time advising the student in navigating the application process.

Preferably, this targeted advice from the college counselor begins as early as the first day of freshman year. It is unrealistic and unfair to expect any student to undertake this journey alone, especially when we have other expectations for students to fulfill.

For instance, we expect high school students to earn good grades, be active in extracurricular activities, volunteer their time, get adequate sleep, and remain physically and mentally healthy. In addition, we want our students to enjoy their high school experience and have a bit of fun once in a while.

Systemic Inequities in the Number of Available Guidance Counselors

High school students in public schools receive far less guidance in the college application process than private school students. The American Counseling Association states that in May of 2019 “there is an average of one school counselor for every 455 public school students.” With those numbers, it is understandable why public high school students are not receiving this guidance.

In some cases, more affluent public high school students pay for college counseling outside of school. These counselors, in private practice, cost an average of $200 per hour.

On the positive side, nonprofit organizations such as College Possible, QuestBridge and a handful of other organizations offer college admissions counseling to low-income students. However, these services are a mere drop in the ocean of students needing this assistance. That includes the middle-class students attending public high school who also do not receive these services.

How Can These Systemic Inequities in the College Application Process Be Fixed?

So what are some solutions to providing high school students with the experienced counselors they need to properly apply for college? One solution would be to allocate tax dollars toward paying for public school college admissions counselors.

Other solutions include growing the number of nonprofits that offer college admissions counseling to low- and middle-income students or changing the college admissions process to make it less onerous on students so that they would not need college admissions counseling.

The coronavirus pandemic may be the impetus to making these changes. However, colleges and students still need to find the right “fit” for one another.

Ideally, colleges should have an application process sufficiently extensive for the college to get to know the student in helping to make that determination. Maybe the solution will be a hybrid of all three options of allocating tax dollars, growing the number of counseling nonprofits and altering the admissions process.

About the Author

Tamara Herdener has practiced law in the public sector at the municipal and federal level for more than 20 years, including eight years of service in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps. She has been a professor in the Legal Studies Program at American Public University since 2005. Tamara earned undergraduate degrees in Political Science and Foreign Languages from Seattle University and a Juris Doctorate from the University of Notre Dame Law School. 

Ms. Herdener serves on a variety of educational committees in her community. It is through her many years of teaching and in these service capacities that she developed a passion for understanding and meeting students’ needs from a holistic approach. She believes that approach positively impacts the greater common good. She is a firm believer that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” 

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