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Can Lloyd Thacker use the College Board to reform the admissions process?

January 10, 2011

The NYT published an article about Lloyd Thacker in its Education Life Magazine this weekend.

If you don’t know who Lloyd Thacker is, he’s one of the heroes of the college counseling world. Working hard to reduce the stress and hype and dispel myths about the college process. He’s the founder of the Education Conservancy, a non-profit dedicated to “improving the college process for students, colleges and high schools.” His book, College Unranked, written in 2005, stands out as one of the very best books on the college I’ve read.

Since leaving the college admissions world and founding Education Conservancy in 2004, Thacker has been trying to change the college admissions process by speaking out against the commercial interests that interfere with it, and one of his chief aims has been to create a student focused admissions website, CollegeSpeak, that would “provide all manner of advice and prospective on the college process.” Which is why my eyebrows were tweaked when I read in the NYT that Thacker is partnering with the College Board to create this website. You can read a bit more of an explanation of this from a nice interview Thacker recently gave to the the Chronicle of Higher Ed.

Here’s my problem with the College Board in a nutshell. They claim to be an non-profit organization, and their website motto reads “Inspiring Minds.” Yet it is a deeply conflicted organization, since it rakes in huge profits from test fees, and selling materials to prepare for these tests. You can see this conflicted nature when it killed AP language and computer science exams because not enough students take the test for it to be profitable, and then later, reinstated the AP italian exam, after vociforus protest by the Italian government (and an agreement from supporters to raise $1.5 million to pay for the test—this seems like academic extortion to me). The college board looks at new ventures not completely from an eye of what is best for “inspiring minds,” but also with the thought of what will be best for the bottom line. You can further see this nature in this quote from the NYT article about Thacker collaborating with the College Board

In that respect, the stated purpose of this endeavor bears little resemblance to the board’s for-profit foray — for which it raised $30 million from investors — to build an education site that would also help students open bank accounts and buy dorm furniture. The board bought out those investors in 2003, and that subsidiary reverted to a nonprofit.

So it seems that the College Board can wrestle itself away from focusing on the moeny. Can you imagine a “student center admissions website” hawking bank accounts and dorm furniture at the same time it’s trying to explain the difference between a core curriculum and a distribution requirement? Yikes! Just look at the pretty bad for a taste). Still, I worry. I mean what’s next—Alife Kohn announcing he’s teaming up with MENSA to help encourage real intellectual engagement?

Don’t get me wrong, Thacker is right that it’s unlikely a small 2 person non-profit is going to be able to develop a website to change the landscape for college admissions, and certainly, if there’s one thing the College Board has, it’s a website visited by most every high school senior, and the money to do just about whatever they want to it. I truly hope that this partnership does produce the website Thacker describes, and it becomes a one-stop resource for students applying to college that provides a perspective of the process different from stress treadmill emphasized in the media.

Still, I think Lloyd Thacker would be wise to keep in mind the fable of the scorpion and the frog.

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