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)

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.

Post-Election Update: What to Expect from the New Biden Administration

By IECAs Lobbyists/Government Relations Team of Brian Finch and Craig Saperstein, Pillsbury Law and Public Policy; and the IECA Government Relations Committee

With the November 2020 general election nearly concluded, the Biden-Harris transition team is beginning its initial tasks of identifying individuals for key agency positions, and setting the groundwork to implement the new Administration’s major policy initiatives. The Biden Transition Team has begun formal coordination with current agency officials, and now has access to direct government funding for the transition. Given President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign promises and stated policy goals, there may be substantive developments in the higher education space within the first few months of the Biden presidency of which independent educational consultants should be aware.

Top Biden Policy Goals

Whether by executive order or through legislation, President-elect Biden has already indicated that he hopes to address student debt within the first 100 days of his presidency. Although no specifics have been revealed by the Biden team, potential relief may include a specific amount of debt forgiveness for undergraduate loans (rumored to be ranging anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000, with income-based caps), an extension of the COVID-19 forbearance period, and reduced federal interest rates on future federal loans.

Another priority for the Biden Administration will be reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA), which establishes federal student aid programs and governs most federal money going to colleges and universities in the United States. The HEA is designed to be reauthorized and updated every 5 years. However, the most recent update has not occurred since 2008. House Democrats introduced a bill, known as the College Affordability Act, to reauthorize the HEA in the current session of Congress, but action on HEA reauthorization is not likely to occur until the next session of Congress.

Beyond these initial objectives, the Biden team made education reform a key priority throughout the presidential campaign. Specific to higher education, the Biden campaign promised to invest in educational pathways programs in high schools, including investing in school vocational training programs, building partnerships between high schools, community colleges and employers to allow students programs to earn industry credentials while in high school. The Biden team has also promised to allow Pell grants to be used for dual enrollment programs, allowing high school students to take classes at community colleges for college credit.

Stakeholder groups have also been using this transition period to identify specific Trump Administration directives that the incoming Biden Administration should address. This week, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) and the American Council on Education (ACE) both sent their policy priorities and recommendations to the Biden transition team. Their recommendations include reversing Trump Administration limits on H-1B visas that have limited international student enrollment in colleges, ending the Trump executive order limiting diversity and critical race theory trainings, and ending certain “unnecessarily adversarial” investigations by Department of Education into admissions practices. While the Biden team has not responded to these requests, these two influential higher education lobbying organizations and may help shape the initial Biden Administration policy goals.

Department of Education

Recently, the Biden-Harris transition team named its Agency Review Team for the Department of Education. The Review Team is led by Linda Darling-Hammond of the Learning Policy Institute, who previously served in the same role in 2008 for the Obama-Biden transition. Other Review Team members include the head of the Institute for College Access and Success, the postsecondary education leader at the Center for American Progress, a senior administrator at Howard University, the policy director for the Alliance for Excellent Education and numerous stakeholders from the primary and secondary education worlds. These volunteers are responsible for reviewing and understanding the operations of the Department of Education, coordinating the transition of power, and preparing President-elect Biden, Vice President-elect Harris and incoming Administration leaders to implement key policy priorities.

As part of the COVID-19 relief measures, federal student loan payments had been suspended through the end of 2020. The Biden – Harris administration had signaled a desire to extend student loan relief in some way. Recently the Trump administration announced that student loan relief for 41 million Americans who have benefited from a freeze on monthly payments will now have this relief extended to January 31, 2021.

While President-elect Biden has started naming his picks for top Administration positions, he has not yet indicated his choice for Secretary of Education. While campaigning in 2019, Biden promised to pick a teacher for the position, but left it unclear whether this only meant a K-12 teacher, or whether he would also consider a post-secondary educator. Potential rumored candidates for the position include Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers; Lily Eskelsen García, the former president of the National Education Association; Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises; Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson; and Philadelphia superintendent William Hite.

Regardless of who is ultimately named as Secretary of Education, the largest priorities will remain the same: increasing federal funding for schools to address the COVID-19 impacts, restoring Obama Administration civil rights guidance in schools, rolling back many of the Trump Administration and Secretary DeVos positions and directives and restoring funding cut over the past 4 years.

Potential Washington Gridlock

Despite the many Biden team objectives and promises, the viability of many higher education reform proposals will largely depend on the outcome of the January 5th Senate runoff elections in Georgia. The results of these two races will determine political control of the Senate. Victories by the Democratic candidates, Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, would give Democrats 50 seats in the Senate, along with the tiebreaking vote by Vice President Harris. If Republicans are able to win either seat, they will maintain control in the Senate. A divided Congress, with a Republican-controlled Senate and a Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, would be far less likely to enact any sweeping changes to federal higher education policies than if Democrats have unified control of Congress and the Presidency. While some of Biden’s policy objectives can be accomplished by executive order, and through Department of Education initiatives, control of the Senate will be critical to the success of the Biden Administration’s legislative goals.  Without such control, there is a distinct possibility that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will not even permit a vote on legislation he or the majority of the Senate Republican Caucus opposes.  Democratic control of the Senate will permit the party to set the committee and floor agenda, though even having a majority is not a panacea; bipartisan support for higher education reform legislation will likely be necessary regardless of which party controls the Senate, given that Senate rules dictate that a 60-vote majority is needed to pass the vast majority of legislation.

Making Character Count in Admission

by Mark H. Sklarow, Chief Executive Officer, Independent Educational Consultants Association

Let’s assume you were an admission director for a day. One spot remains for the class of 2019 with two folders in front of you. Candidate A is a brilliant young woman, with a 4.0 GPA which she achieved without breaking a sweat. In fact, she cruised through high school, never once experiencing a downturn personally or academically. Candidate B achieved a GPA a bit lower, let’s say a 3.6. But she did it faced with challenges: personal, familial, and academic. She wasn’t scared off by tough classes and succeeded with grit, determination, and a healthy dose of persistence.