When about 1,500 people who do roughly the same thing for a living get together, the effect is both stimulating and surreal. We knew only a handful of the college admissions consultants in attendance at the 2019 IECA Spring Conference in Chicago, but instantly felt at home in a community that is remarkable for its collaborative spirit and willingness to share. This might come as a surprise to those who think of the college process as cut-throat, but not to anyone who truly understands that getting into a great school is not a zero-sum game, and only the tiniest fraction is angling to get into the most elite colleges and universities.
For everyone else, a cornucopia of some 3,000 institutions of higher learning await, more than just a few of which would be a great place for anyone.
Most of our three days was spent in any number of breakout sessions, where college consultants geek-out on subjects only they could love, or loathe. Sure, there was the inevitable banter about the college admissions scandal, but not too much because it isn’t relevant to our mission to help hard-working students become the best versions of themselves. Some sessions held general appeal, such as one on the admissions essay and another on understanding financial aid. Others were strictly for insiders, like dissecting the relationship between independent and school counselors, or how to manage and grow a college consulting business.
Sandwiched in between were tabletop exhibits from a range of exhibitors with products and services meant to support the college admissions process, as well as prep schools and colleges eager to work with counselors to help them identify ideal prospective students.
Two real highlights were speeches by Robert Zimmer, president of the University of Chicago, and Arne Duncan, a former U.S. Secretary of Education.
Zimmer’s message centered on mission and values, with his key point being that while values don’t change, how they manifest themselves can. He spoke about critical thinking, originality, and impact on society, stressing the imperative to argue, challenge assumptions, test ideas and embrace complexity. Such values, rooted in free expression, should not change, and yet on too many college campuses today, Zimmer said, the pressure is on to limit speech.
On the flipside, fulfilling a mission can require change, as is apparent when it comes to ensuring diversity within the academic community, racially, economically, and globally. Doing so requires changing financial aid requirements and initiating programs to attract students from different backgrounds. Finally, Zimmer talked about connecting academics to the real world, by developing careers programs, summer internships, bridging the gaps between intellectual pursuits, solving complex challenges and making a difference.
Arne Duncan emphasized the same connection between college and careers, calling it a both/and situation, not and/or. He also offered a vision that would expand the traditional K-12 model into a pre-K-14 construct, noting the value of starting earlier. Moreover, while a high school diploma is critical (there are zero jobs for dropouts, he said), Duncan argued that completing 12th grade is no longer sufficient to meet the needs of jobs today and tomorrow, which will go where the knowledge workers are.
Duncan called it “mind blowing” that college costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, adding: “College is not a scarce resource.” He also said it was more important what you do when you’re there than the name of the university. A school’s reputation, he continued, should be based on how many students it includes, not how many it keeps out. “It’s no badge of honor to say you can’t come through our doors.”
He was met with a sustained standing ovation.