Introducing the AXS Companion to Common App, Designed to Support Under-Resourced Students

The AXS Companion is now available for college-bound students to use!

College enrollment continues to decline while barriers for under-resourced students grow—but the AXS Companion to Common App, a new initiative by IECA, in partnership with Oregon State University, aims to reverse this trend by supporting these students as they begin their college journey.

Applying to college is already a complex and often stressful process, and first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students of color have faced even greater hurdles to college during the pandemic: reduced or no access to college and school counselors; limited opportunities to access information and resources due to school closures; and a lack of familiarity with the US college and financial aid application processes within their families.

According to Common App, approximately one-third of their million-plus annual applicants are first-generation students. These students are more likely to create Common App accounts without submitting applications because they “often lack familial and school-based guidance on how to navigate the complex admission waters,” according to a recent article on BestColleges.com. It continues: “Just last year, about 700,000 seniors who opened Common App accounts never completed an application.”

Seeing this disparity in access to higher education, a group of IECA members set out to make a change. The result is the AXS Companion, a free online resource that aims to improve access and clarity for under-resourced students who lack college counseling support. Through detailed videos, the AXS Companion walks students through each step of Common App from beginning to end. Alternatively, students can watch an individual section’s videos to understand how to best respond to that section based on their circumstances.

View this video to see samples of the AXS Companion and to learn more about the project:

Sign up here to receive more information about The AXS Companion.
How the Project Came About

Several years ago, Maite Halley, an IECA member who has been a leader in the association in several capacities, envisioned this project as live workshops to support under-resourced communities. During COVID-19, Marilyn O’Toole, IECA member and liaison to Common App, asked Common App leadership if IECA members could pivot and develop step-by-step videos for the initiative instead.

With Common App’s approval, O’Toole then engaged Jon Boeckenstedt, vice provost at Oregon State University to discuss solutions to store and organize the video resources. This evolved into the collaborative framework of Oregon State University Ecampus building the platform, with IECA providing the content.

Left to right, clockwise: IECA members Jeffy Levy, Marilyn O'Toole, Pat Smith, Ibrahim Firat, Sylvia Jackman, Louise Franklin, and Jennie Kent.

Over the last eight months, many IECA members have worked tirelessly on this project, including: Ibrahim Firat, Louise Franklin, Carolyn Gelderman, Anne Holmdahl, Sylvia Jackman, Amy Jasper, Jennie Kent, Jeff Levy, Janae McCullough-Boyd, Marilyn O’Toole, Chantal Paiewonksy, Veena Rao, Pat Smith, and Juan Camilo Tamayo. These dedicated members produced the project content, which included writing and editing curriculum and scripts, as well as recording audio and video for 50+ modules for each section of Common App. Additionally, they called on experts in various fields to support their efforts, and created modules that provide financial aid guidance, essay suggestions, and admissions officers’ advice. The project creators chose the name The AXS Companion because of the double entendre: improving student access through the collaborative axis of higher education and IECA. The AXS Companion was introduced at the IECA 2022 Spring Conference in Philadelphia and is launching on September 1, 2022.

IECA is grateful to the members of the Oregon State University Ecampus who trained our colleagues to audio and visually record each section and then edited hours of their recordings, adding animation to make the directions and guidance clear. In addition, thank you to the engineers, graphic designers, animators, and project managers who have worked tirelessly to create this invaluable resource. 

Pictured above (left to right, clockwise): IECA members Jeffy Levy, Marilyn O’Toole, Pat Smith, Ibrahim Firat, Sylvia Jackman, Louise Franklin, and Jennie Kent.

How The New Digital SAT May Impact Students with Learning Differences

The standardized testing landscape has changed dramatically in the past few years with the pandemic-fueled increase in test-optional and even test-blind college admissions. Now the new digital SAT is shaking up the landscape even more, particularly for those students who receive standardized testing accommodations. With many assistive technology options, the new digital SAT will likely benefit many students with learning differences. However, there are a few drawbacks to consider.

Here are some ways the new digital SAT may positively and negatively impact neurodiverse students.

Pros:
  • Shorter test will benefit students with attention challenges such as ADHD
  • Completing the test on the computer will eliminate the difficulty some students have with tracking and alleviate the difficulties with bubbling in a scantron form for those with fine motor control challenges
  • Adaptive questions, which adjust to a student’s ability, may decrease frustration
  • More time per question, so a student’s processing speed is less important
  • Shorter reading passages benefit those with reading challenges
  • Text-to-speech capability, where a student can adjust the speed of delivery vs. relying on a human reader, which can be unpredictable
  • Students can alter the font size and type of font, colors, and background for increased readability
  • Calculator available on screen to help those with math calculation difficulties
  • Math formulas available for students to reference, reducing the need for memorization
  • Highlighter tool can help students mark text or answer options
  • Students can increase amount of white space between lines of text for easier reading
  • No more relying on a live proctor—extra time is much easier to administer because it’s run by the computer, ensuring a consistent, reliable experience
  • Students can isolate one line of text at a time to block out distractions
  • Students can eliminate answers using “strikethrough” to help them narrow answer options
  • Students can zoom in to make text bigger
  • Scratch paper will still be available
  • Access to a clock on the computer that counts down the time and gives a five-minute warning, helping students to manage their time strategically
Possible Cons:
  • The adaptive feature could cause anxiety and distraction for students who try to figure out the level of questions they are being offered
  • Students without computers will be using borrowed computers they may not be familiar with; this could disadvantage students without access to computers or who don’t have a comfort level with the computer they will using for the test

The PSAT in October 2022 will be a good trial run to see the ways in which LD/ND students experience and potentially benefit from the new format. IECs need to be aware that the class of 2025 will be a “test” class, because the scoring will be different from the paper SAT and there will be no correlation tables. IECs can help students prepare for the new format by recommending they take a digital practice test (if available) to familiarize themselves with using their accommodations on the new format.

Overall, the new digital SAT has the potential to greatly improve the testing experience for many students with learning differences.

By Elizabeth Cooper, JD, IECA (MA); Julie Richie, MFA, IECA (TX); and Ann Rossbach, MAT, CEP, IECA (NJ)

Tips for IECs Guiding College Transfer Applicants

Not all students start at university and graduate four years later from their initial university. Some students start at community college with a plan to transfer to a four-year university in an effort to save money, have smaller, more supportive foundational courses, and/or explore different courses prior to settling on a major. Others enroll at a four-year university but determine that the school is not the best fit for them after all. With a global pandemic causing financial hardships and making college visits more difficult, independent educational consultants (IECs) may find themselves guiding more transfer applicants to four-year universities.

Below are tips for IECs helping student applicants manage this transition.

College Grades Matter Most

Whether students are enrolled in a community college or another four-year university, students should know that admissions officers will be focusing primarily on the college courses taken and grades earned. Some universities may have specific unit or course requirements for transfer students, such as having completed a minimum number of units or core courses in a breadth of subjects. Determining transfer eligibility will require careful research of each potential university. 

To a lesser extent, admissions officers will be looking at engagement in clubs and activities while at college. Strong transfer applicants will have made the most of their time at their initial institution. Extracurricular activities from high school or a gap year may be considered if the student has spent less than two years at the initial college. 

The Major

Most transfer applicants will need to apply to a specific major. Unlike first-year applicants, transfer applicants generally cannot apply as an Undeclared or Undecided major as the university that the student is applying to wants to know that the applicant will be able to complete their degree within two to three years of transferring.  

Appropriate preparation for transfer may include the completion of prerequisite courses for the major, especially when applying to competitive or impacted fields. Ask students to acquire and save syllabi from their classes whenever possible, as some schools and major departments may use these to evaluate course equivalencies.  

Articulation Agreements and Transfer Guarantees

Some community colleges have transfer admission guarantee programs with universities, but applicants must meet very specific requirements, and students may need to start with a detailed plan when they initially enroll at community college in order to take required courses (especially important for STEM majors for which successive courses require prerequisites). In some cases, these guarantees may require completion of an associate’s degree.  

If there is no specific guarantee or transfer pathway in place, or if the student is hoping to transfer between four-year schools, look for articulation agreements and course equivalency guides. Many universities post transfer courses that have previously been accepted for credit, or participate in a central database, such as Transferology 

Transfer Application Essays

The community college to four-year university application essay should focus on how the student has planned and prepared for transfer and may include details about extracurricular activities at the college or in the workforce. 

 The four-year university to four-year university transfer application essay should focus on the positive reasons for transferring, and what the student will do differently at the new university in order to be successful. It is best to avoid saying anything negative about the previous university (aside from it not being the best fit for the student). 

The Transfer Transition

Check to see if there are transfer coordinators, transfer support programs, and transfer housing at the schools being considered. All of these will help the student make the transition to a new university.  

Map out a path to graduation at potential universities. Some transfer students find that an additional semester or year is required to graduate in the desired major. It may be useful to check on maximum unit policies and fifth-year senior housing possibilities in some cases to ensure that the student will not just be able to gain admittance to a new university, but also graduate with a degree in a reasonable timeframe. 

Finally, check to see what financial aid may be available at the universities where you will be applying to transfer to. Applicants will need to submit the FAFSA in order to receive any need-based aid that they qualify for. Some, but not all, universities offer merit aid to transfer students. 

IECA members: Join the Transfer Students Affinity Group on the Member Network for more support and discussion on working with college students exploring undergraduate transfer opportunities. 

By Jaime Smith, MA, IECA Associate (OR) and Priscilla Vivio, MEd, IECA Associate (WA),  IECA Transfer Students Affinity Group Coordinators 

A Legacy Obsolete

The families I advise are generally aware of legacy admission practices, but many are less informed regarding its origins and the degree of advantage that it affords them.

As an independent educational consultant who works directly with students who benefit from this policy, I can also vouch for the pressure, and even embarrassment, this adds to an already stressful process. Not unlike the Varsity Blues scandal, students are the ones caught in the crosshairs of outside influences and expectations that can infringe on and even deter the process of finding that perfect-fit college.  

Although increasing college access and diversity is a growing priority for colleges, I have found legacy admissions to be the proverbial elephant in the room. The contradictory policy of legacy status still appears to be considered sacrosanct by many postsecondary institutions. College admissions is subjective, and the institutional priorities that define who is admitted each year often place emphasis on varying qualities that are not associated with academic merit: athletics, ability to pay, etc. However, the notion that an advantage is granted to applicants based on historical ties to the college is completely unjust when considering our country’s painful history of denying postsecondary access to students based on race, gender, and religion. Many colleges have a page on their websites dedicated to a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, yet duplicitously maintain legacy status in the admissions process, giving a clear (non-merit-based) boost to more privileged populations. 

Dartmouth College is the notorious trailblazer of legacy admissions, first introducing the practice in 1922, with other colleges such as Yale following closely behind. The origins of using legacy in admissions are seeded in nativism and antisemitism, created to ensure that certain populations remained excluded. Selective colleges such as Harvard and Princeton have single digit admit rates for the general population, yet admit about a third of legacy status applicants. At Cornell University, legacy admits make up “around 15% of the student body,” almost five times that of the Black student population, or almost equal to that of the entire Black and Latino populations combined. Although colleges have confirmed that legacy admits are often academically qualified, competitive applicants, this practice has given additional privileges to an already affluent population, further compounding inequity in the admissions process and serving as a barrier to achieving higher rates of diversity at college campuses. Furthermore, those who promote the use of legacy admission say it guarantees loyal alumni giving; research shows there is no correlation.   

Amherst College is the most recent institution to end legacy admission preference, citing it as a policy “that inadvertently limits educational opportunity.” The College is also strengthening its financial aid programming in an effort to making an Amherst experience more affordable and accessible to all students. Amherst joins the ranks of colleges like MIT and the California Institute of Technology in creating a holistic approach to admission that does not factor in alumni connections.  

Although legacy status is just one aspect of a college admissions process already rife with advantages for the wealthy and privileged, eliminating it is one solid gesture that all colleges can take to “walk the walk” in their diversity, access, and inclusion efforts. I applaud Amherst College, and its predecessors, for having the courage to make bold changes to embrace a new legacy that embodies the visionary leadership our students and families deserve. Breaking with past practices is something we all must be willing to do to create meaningful change for the diverse populations of students that we are called to serve and advocate for as college access professionals. 

By Yvonne Espinoza, IECA (TX)

Yvonne Espinoza, Yvonne Espinoza College Counseling Services, can be reached at [email protected]

How to Navigate Vaccine and Mask Mandates with Your Students and Families

More than 18 months into the pandemic, COVID-19 continues to impact the landscape of college admissions and how life on campuses looks these days. With mask and vaccine mandates varying across the country—as well as the responses to them from prospective students and their families—many IECA members are looking for suggestions about how to guide parents and students through this tumultuous time. IECA Secretary/Treasurer Ibrahim Firat (TX) offers this perspective and advice.

Stay Informed about a College’s Mandates and its Political Climate

Our office is staying informed about college mandates/requirements by reaching out to current and past students (who are in college now) to hear what they are experiencing; reading the Chronicle of Higher Education’s up-to-date information about colleges’ vaccine mandates and other requirements; and staying in touch with admissions office contacts.

We rely on current/past student feedback, online forums, student-published media (newspaper, radio, podcast etc.), events on campus, and faculty-led research/publications to keep our pulse on the political climate of the college.

Provide Context for Vaccine Mandates

Just as size, location, academics, etc. are factors to decide where to go to college, so are rules/regulations/mandates. Vaccine mandates are not new, however; certain vaccines (i.e. meningitis) have been required by colleges for some time, so we start by reminding that this has been around. Secondly, we remind parents that their college-bound student is (or by the time they go off to college will be) 18+/adult and that it really is their decision to further pursue discussions with the school about mandates. Thirdly, colleges have been providing religious and/or health-related exemptions to mandates and that they can look into these options if necessary/applicable.

Continue to Guide Students and Families According to Best-Fit

There is a fine line between making this issue political and scientific versus completely college admissions or fit related. We do not get into the politics or the science of it as we are NOT the experts in those areas. We do get into the factors of selecting the right-fit college for the individual student/family’s values, and if certain school’s mandates are against those values, then it is simply an X rather than a checkmark next to that factor and we treat it as such. For some people, that X means everything; for some people that X is just another factor that may not fit them (i.e. size of campus/class size) and it may be okay.

College life on campus is shifting from all angles (i.e. living, dining, political climate, frats/sororities, etc.). How can we support families who are trying to find the best-fit college in this dynamic environment? It is a challenge, given that we still cannot visit most universities in person to gather updated info and get a feel for these “vibes.” But we must use the resources available to us to find the college that best matches the student’s educational, social, professional, and personal growth.

Ibrahim Firat, Firat Educational Solutions, LLC, can be reached at [email protected]

IECA Responds to Netflix Varsity Blues Docudrama and Anxiety Permeating the College Admissions Process

In response to the forthcoming Netflix docudrama “Operation Varsity Blues: The College Admissions Scandal,” IECA commends its members commitment to the highest standards in ethical college advising while calling for greater transparency in the college application process.

The Netflix film takes a deep dive into the 2019 college admissions scandal, dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues,” involving a criminal conspiracy to influence undergraduate admissions decisions at several prestigious American universities. The scandal led to more than 50 high-profile arrests, including actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman. The conspiracy was arranged by William “Rick” Singer, who claimed to be an educational consultant and used millions of dollars from wealthy parents of college applicants to fraudulently inflate entrance exam test scores as well as bribe college coaches and administrators.

While the Varsity Blues scandal exposed the specific efforts of wealthy, privileged parents to ensure their children’s admission into the nation’s top colleges, it brought to light broader problems in the college application process:

  • Access to college advising in high school is unequal across the country, and particularly strained in urban and rural public high schools, where the average student-to-counselor ratio is 455:1 and more than 700:1 in some areas. This leaves school counselors overburdened and students under-resourced.
  • Colleges have become increasingly opaque in their admission criteria.
  • College acceptance rates continue to decline, partly due to the increase in applications, leading to heightened anxiety levels among students and parents.
  • Sophisticated modeling means computers play an outsize role in college admissions, minimizing the personal stories of students and admission counselors.

How IECA Members Help Students and Families Navigate College Admissions

Since its founding in 1976, IECA has been the leading voice in putting students first in the college admissions journey. IECA and its members work to assure families understand the drivers in college admissions and help them navigate its complexities in order to find a “best fit” college that meets a student’s unique set of academic, social, financial, and career needs.

“IECA members are ethical, compassionate professionals who dedicate their careers to advising students and families on their individual paths to success” said IECA CEO Mark Sklarow. “Our members focus on the unique student’s needs to help them have a successful experience wherever they choose to attend college.”

IECA members believe there are many great postsecondary options for every student, and no student should be made to feel that they must become something they are not to get accepted. Being and presenting one’s authentic self and demonstrating one’s own talents and abilities is a way of ensuring the right college fit. This is central to what an ethical independent educational consultant does.

IECA members offer an unequalled level of expertise, competence, and professionalism. Potential IECA members go through an extensive application process. They must have a master’s degree (or equivalent), at least three years of admissions counseling experience, experience working with scores of students, and have visited 50 campuses before they can be considered for professional membership. In addition, all members must agree to abide by IECA’s Principles of Good Practice and submit their marketing materials for review to ensure they accurately reflect the independent educational consultant’s role.

IECA members sign an annual pledge that governs their interactions with colleges, students, and parents. They agree to avoid any action that distorts or misrepresents a student’s record or interferes with a university’s ability to accurately evaluate a student. Because IECA consultants are committed to the highest ethical standards of practice, families find that IECA members have the student’s best interest as their sole focus.

We Believe

With a new docudrama on the Varsity Blues Scandal coming out this month on Netflix, as well as potential legislation impacting independent educational consultants (IECs) in several states, the IECA Board recognizes that the general public may not understand what IECA is and what guides our actions. These “We Believe” statements are meant to complement our mission and values and demonstrate IEC’s ongoing commitment to all young people.

1) We believe all students should have access to individualized educational guidance that will help them achieve their goals.

2) We believe independent educational consultants should act respectfully, honestly, compassionately, ethically, and professionally with every student.

3) We believe in the potential of all students regardless of cultural, religious, racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, gender, sexual orientation, unique needs, or learning differences.

4) We believe that education should be available and affordable to all families.

5) We believe independent educational consultants are uniquely equipped to guide and support students toward their personal, academic, social, and professional goals.

6) We believe in the power of education to widen opportunities for everyone which will ultimately improve society for all.

 

2020 Rankings Released: What Colleges are Looking for in Applicants

by Mark H. Sklarow, CEO, IECA

For more than 20 years, the Independent Educational Consultants Association has surveyed its member college admission experts to determine what colleges want to see in their applicants, creating a ranking to assist students and their parents in understanding how college applicants are reviewed after submission. Of course, all colleges are different and IECA members can be particularly helpful in understanding those variances.

Among the key 2020 findings:

• While grades are important (#2 in rankings), colleges want to see students challenging themselves, willing to risk perfect GPAs by taking courses that will demonstrate a willingness to take chances, including AP and IB coursework (#1).

• Despite all the talk about “test optional,” scores on standardized tests like the SAT and ACT remain critical (#3)

• Extra-curriculars rose to their highest level ever in the IECA rankings (#4), but colleges look for a long-term, passionate, authentic involvement in one or two activities whether in or out of school. No one is impressed by a long list of tangential clubs. In fact, jumping two spots (to #6) this year: demonstration of leadership within those chosen few activities.

• Essays remain important and are even more important at smaller colleges. But students misunderstand their role. Yes, clear and cogent writing matters, but a great essay is one that tells a story, giving insight into a student’s unique personality. There’s a great saying—no one else should be able to write the essay you submit for admission.

• Coming together are four items that speak to the question: what can YOU do for US? Colleges wonder how the student will contribute to campus life: through unique characteristics or demographics (#7), through special talents (#9), through interest in research (#10), and through demonstrations of a student’s character and values (#11).

• How does a student demonstrate all those? Through the essay, the activities list, and through recommendations, which turned up as #8 on the 2020 rankings.

• Finally, an area students often don’t understand is demonstration of interest and enthusiasm in attending (#12). Are you following the college on Facebook? Did you visit the campus? Seek an interview? Colleges don’t like to extend an offer of admission to a student who will go elsewhere, so when you decide on your first choice, let them know!

The complete survey results can be found here.

Impact of DOJ Agreement on ED & Admission “Poaching”

by Mark H. Sklarow, CEO, IECA

By now, most independent educational consultants (IECs) who work with college bound students have heard that NACAC has reached an agreement with the Department of Justice that eliminates several provisions of the NACAC SPGP. The DOJ argued that some of these rules—those requiring colleges to restrict recruitment efforts—constituted collusion or restrained trade.

Many IECA members have asked for guidance on what they might expect or “what to tell client families” so they are not blind-sided as the rules that colleges have followed for years become relaxed.I think there are two specific bits of information IECs and families should know:

1. Colleges for years have agreed to a universal response date, the date by which students would commit to a college for the fall. Colleges had agreed to rules that prohibited them from trying to “poach” a student who had made a commitment elsewhere. Meaning, colleges would not pursue a student who committed to attend elsewhere, including a prohibition of incentives to change their mind (like a last-minute bump in financial aid).

This rule will end. So, what will happen? We really don’t know. Most organizations, like the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) and IECA believe most colleges will, at least initially, voluntarily keep to this rule. Yet we know that any college that fails to achieve enrollment numbers may feel compelled to recruit past a student’s personal decision or beyond the May 1 deadline. Like the proverbial leak in the dam, what we don’t know is if a few colleges pursuing students will result in an all-out effort to recruit already committed students.

We also don’t know yet if colleges will take actions proactively to protect students that commit. For example, I predict that deposits may well increase from the hundreds to a thousand dollars or more, all to make it less likely that students will casually accept offers late in the year with a new pursuer, post-commitment. Likewise, housing deposits and fees could increase. Thus, while some colleges may pursue students who have committed elsewhere, other colleges may work to make a student think hard before making an expensive decision to change their commitment.

Other questions will be left to IECs to consider. If colleges can seek to recruit students who have already deposited, will our advice that students may not double deposit or admonitions that once you accept you must withdraw applications elsewhere, still be valid? Will this lead to a “second season” of admission where students are free to negotiate for their best deal?

2. The second area that the Justice Department secured a change was in recruitment of students applying under a binding “Early Decision.” The rule had been that colleges could not use special incentives to entice students to apply early—and commit—since this was binding. For example, colleges were precluded from using special Early Decision scholarships, or early decision priority for dorms or classes.

These rules, too, are now gone. Colleges may begin to offer incentives to apply under a binding ED, and there are signs that colleges are exploring this. Again, we hope that such incentives don’t become widespread, but I suspect it will happen. We know that Early Decision is a serious commitment, and as such, a decision should be done upon thoughtful and careful planning with an IEC when there is a clear first choice, not merely because an incentive is put on the table.

Once again, IECs will have to ponder the advice they give to students. Such incentives could become one more variable to consider in the process.

Colleagues, I hope this information helps as you think about what could occur. It will be important to follow how the application year develops as your work with students will almost certainly be impacted. What we don’t know is how much or how fast the traditional rules will be become victims to the DOJ rulings. Those attending IECA’s Spring Conference in Connecticut will see agenda items on this issue, including an address on this topic by Jayne Fonash, NACAC president and IEC.

How IECs Help Level the Playing Field in College Admissions

by Mark H. Sklarow, CEO, Independent Educational Consultants Association

I am pleased that in response to the recent college admission scam, many are looking for solutions that address colleges, athletic programs, the role of privilege, and the role of independent college counselors. Unfortunately, some have suggested a solution that would increase the benefits to the already privileged.

Some opinion pieces have appeared suggesting that no one should be allowed to charge for college admission advice. This attitude favors the wealthy, privileged families that are able to send their children to private schools, often costing in the tens of thousands of dollars and whose college counselors serve small numbers of just 20-30 students. Such a system provides a benefit to those privileged enough to provide such support, while leaving public school students behind. These public schoolers often face impossible ratios of 600 to 900 students per counselor—with that counselor handling crisis intervention, course selection, as well as college advising.

Independent Educational Consultants (IECs) help level the playing field by supporting working- and middle-class students who go to public school, by allowing families of more modest means to gain similar expert help and advice at an hourly rate that is affordable for most. In addition, all members of IECA commit to efforts to serve those from underserved communities.

Those that want to stop the use of all paid assistance (would they refuse paid tutors for students struggling in school, as well?) misunderstand the fundamental role of independent educational consultants. IECs help students explore college opportunities and find the right place for them to succeed academically and socially. IECs don’t get students admitted—they help students demonstrate why they deserve to be admitted at appropriately chosen schools. They help students find colleges they might not have heard of—often out of their region—and they help students put their best foot forward.