Friday, May 28, 2010

A spitting contest on HuffPost

Okay, I really wanted to title this, "A pissing contest," or worst case, "A urinating contest," but decided that was not decorous and dignified enough for The Itinerant Professor.  So I toned it down a notch.

Michele Hernandez, admissions consultant extraordinaire of whom I previously wrote, published a piece in HuffPost yesterday blaming Harvard for hyping the admissions market for selective institutions.  Far be it from me to defend Harvard; I've been plenty critical of the institution in this blog (just do a search for "Harvard" in the search box).  I wrote a comment to her post stating that she was playing loose with the facts, and that she and her industry were as much to blame for the frenzy and anxiety students and parents face when dealing with trying to get in to these institutions.  She then responded, and. . . .well, you can guess where this is going.   She accused me of directing "anger" toward her, which was (I thought) not my tone at all.  Guess some people believe anytime you disagree with them you're showing anger.

For some reason, HuffPost deleted parts of my response, I think because I posted too many times.  So I'm reprinting the entire thing here:

There is no "anger" whatsoever in my original comment; I didn't intend it as a wild rant, and if it came across that way, I apologize [I usually keep my angry rants anonymous :) ]. I'm merely questioning some of the facts you provided in your post, along with your assumption about where the admissions frenzy comes from. I questioned in your original post when you said that students were applying to 15-30 schools a year. You said in your comment that "My data is not based on anecdotes but rather on the actual data provided by colleges." I think you need to provide some citation for these numbers. I recognize HuffPost is not a scholarly journal, but there is still an obligation to inform your readers where these numbers come from.

My suspicion is that your "15-30 schools a year" is a wild exaggeration that is not based on reality, but based on the frenzy created at least in part by the admissions industry, as well as by the media. How many students are really applying to this many schools?

The U.S. Department of Education conducted a nationally-representative survey of students graduating from high schools in the U.S. in 2004; this survey found that only one-half of one percent of graduating seniors applied to 11 or more schools. Even allowing for the changes in college admissions that have occurred since 2004, due to Harvard's dropping of ED and other changes you describe, you would still be a long way from a norm of students today applying to 15-30 schools. Yes, there may be a very small number who do this, but to put this out there as the norm for those applying to the most selective schools I would describe as fear-mongering.

You are right that the colleges are to blame in part for this frenzy, as well as the media as I said earlier, but I believe the admissions consultant industry (of which you are certainly a very prominent member) is at least equally to blame. You try to convince parents that the only way to get their children into one of these institutions is by using the insider knowledge that you and others have, and that without that information (and the often five-figure fee that obtains it), their child has a snowball's chance in Miami of getting into one of those colleges. The fact that you state that “I turn away almost as many students as I work with” is no defense of what your industry helped to create.

In last year’s article in The New York Times (July 18 2009) on the admissions consultant industry, you were quoted as saying: "‘It’s annoying when people complain about the money,’ the Vermont-based counselor, Michele Hernandez, said. ‘I’m at the top of my field. Do people economize when they have a brain tumor and are looking for a neurosurgeon? If you want to go with someone cheaper, or chance it, don’t hire me.’" Is this really the impression we want to send to parents and prospective students, that getting into college is as complicated – and dangerous – as brain surgery?

Another way you add to the frenzy is through the impression you and some in your industry help to promulgate that the Ivy League institutions (and the small handful of others with similarly low acceptance rates) are the only reasonable destination for bright, motivated students. This does a terrible disservice to many students who could and would receive an excellent undergraduate education, often better than they would receive at one of these low-admittance schools, at many of dozens of other schools around the country that have much more reasonable acceptance rates and sometimes lower costs (see the work of The Education Conservancy – – for helping to combat this). I imagine you’ll respond by saying that that’s part of your service, to help students find the right schools for them. But it’s hard to deny that your website and publicity emphasizes the Ivies, and by featuring so prominently their low acceptance rates, you help add to the anxiety and insecurity these families face.

We'll have to wait and see if she responds.


  1. I'm glad you didn't title this "A Pissing Contest." I read the article and the posts. You aren't making this disagreement personal, only asking for more evidence and consideration to the complexities of access and affordability issues. Maybe the title could have been "Bring It!". :-)

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