What’s Fair?

The Hechinger Report produced a powerful article, “Rich School, Poor School,” by Erin Einhorn, and the subtitle tells it all: “How the class divide is widened by gaps in counseling kids for college.” You should read the story in its entirety. It tells the sad truth that many of us know, but would like to forget: There is no equity in college counseling services for U.S. high school students; a student’s chances of getting into a selective college are clearly improved by attending a great high school—public or private—where dedicated college counselors know how to make the college applications system work for them.

What's Fair in College Counseling? By Regina Paul on Policy Studies in Education

To be honest, I worked recently with a couple of students who attended two of the best high schools in our area—a famous competitive public high school in New York City and a well-respected public high school in one of the richest towns on Long Island. I was not impressed with the work of the college counselors in either one. However, each school had college counselors, who had access to the fancy software that Ms. Einhorn refers to in her article and who, at least, tried to keep students on a schedule that would get college applications in on time. And, of course, these students were further supported by the strong college-going culture that is present in such schools—schools where almost every student goes on to college and where many of them go on to great colleges.

It’s just not fair, you might say, reflecting on Ms. Einhorn’s story about a private school and a public school not 20 miles apart in Bloomfield Hills and Detroit, Michigan. What is fair? I once worked with a wise principal with an unusual definition of “fair.” Chris Aguirre used to say, “Fair is not when every student gets the same thing. Fair is when every student gets what he or she needs.” Man, with that definition, students in poor urban high schools should be getting three or four times as much college counseling support as students in rich suburban high schools and private schools. As Ms. Einhorn points out, it is just the opposite now. The kids who need college counseling least get the most. The rich kids whose parents and school culture could handily make up for a lack of counseling time and expertise actually benefit from the most counseling time and expertise. No wonder the gap is widening.

The free weekly podcast that my nonprofit started, NYCollegeChat, is designed to help narrow the gap. It is aimed at parents who personally lack the college background to help their children negotiate the world of college and the college applications process. It is aimed at the kind of parents we saw in the New York City public schools—parents who wanted the best for their children, but had no way to get it without relying on an understaffed public high school’s help. While we originally targeted the podcast for parents in New York City and New York State, it really works for almost any parent who needs some guidance in understanding the world of college. It’s just a small way we thought we could help.

Thanks to Ms. Einhorn and The Hechinger Report for reminding us of something we should not forget—that is, what’s fair.