Ex-admissions official fights recruiting practices

It’s almost that time of year again when some high school seniors apply to colleges through the “early decision” process, making binding commitments to attend a single school if that school admits them.

But according to former admissions officer Lloyd Thacker, early decision enrollments and other aspects of admissions to American universities are symptoms of a scramble among students to be accepted by “brand name” institutions and growing competition among those institutions to develop brand names for themselves.

“[Colleges] are treating students as customers rather than customers as students,” Thacker said.

Thacker quit his job as a high school guidance counselor and in March 2004 founded the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit group whose mission is to help students, parents and colleges overcome “commercial interference” in the college admissions process.

In the new edition of his book “College Unranked: Ending the College Admissions Frenzy,” Thacker and admissions deans from across the country take aim at what they consider to be a growing malady of commercial excess in college admissions.

“For many high school students today, gaining admission to college has been reduced to a game to be played, and education to a prize that must be won,” Thacker wrote in his book’s introduction.

Leading this rapid commercialization of college admissions, Thacker told the Washington Post, are the popular rankings compiled by the magazine U.S. News and World Report.

“You have to go to the best college,” he said. “The best college is defined as the highest ranked college you can get into.”

Thacker also pointed to billion-dollar industries that have grown by marketing students and colleges to one another and the corporatization of the College Board, the group that oversees the SAT, as promoters of commercialization in higher education.

“The educational costs of this enterprise are incalculable,” he said.

In a January interview with SparkNotes, an online student resource offering book summaries, Thacker traced the problems of college admissions back to the early 1980s, when he said colleges sought to increase enrollment by promoting commercial practices.

Their new emphasis on self-promotion, he said, led to an increase in the cost of education as well as to an increase in competition.

“Colleges are businesses, yes, but they are businesses held in public trust, and therefore they have a duty in serving that trust,” Thacker said.

He said that colleges can serve that trust first by recognizing their special call, promoting that special call and respecting “studenthood,” which he defines as a combination of intangible, immeasurable attributes such as creativity, effort, independent thinking, passion and integrity. He added that administrators should not oversell the SAT or adhere to “ranksters.”

“What makes a student a good student [is] not necessarily their SAT scores, but their imagination, their work ethic, their interest in learning, their industry. These things you can’t rank, you can’t measure, but these are the things that matter,” Thacker said.

Thacker’s fledgling rebellion has made him a celebrity in the admissions community. Marilee Jones, dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said she hoped the Education Conservancy would develop into a think tank of “wise elders” to help guide admissions practices, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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