A College Admissions Counselor’s Fall From Grace

The truth about many college admissions counselors

Since I am bound by legality, I am not able to disclose which colleges I have worked for in the past. Please don’t ask. It doesn’t matter anyway, my gut tells me that my experience will resonate across the board with many Admissions Counselors.

So, what is an Admissions Counselor? Well, that’s easy, right? Wouldn’t you think it is someone who counsels someone on entering college? Duh. That’s what I thought too. I even thought a Career Coach was someone who coaches others on their career choices. Boy, was I wrong.

I struggled in college (yeah I was the “undecided” student — they used to call it that at the school I attended as a freshman). How degrading right? I struggled with this from orientation until graduation. So, it was natural that I was pulled toward a career in, well, career counseling.

Long story short, after years of back and forth and uncertainty, I eventually graduated with a Master’s Degree with an emphasis on higher education. After the pain and agony of being an “undecided” student, I was ready to help other students in the same boat. They were the students that were tagged as indecisive because, at age 18, they had no idea what they wanted to be when they grew up (and just because I can’t keep typing without mentioning this — most of these students would be great at many things, thus making their decision to fall in line more difficult. But that is an article for another day entirely).

The Reality

My first job as an “Admissions Counselor” was a bit of a wake-up call. I soon discovered that I was a glorified cold caller and my job wasn’t to help potential students make a decision that would benefit them; it was to persuade them that the college I worked for was right for them. No matter what. At all costs.

Yikes. I know what you are thinking, but to be fair, I was warned by one of my teachers in grad school. She lightly brushed the subject during a lecture, “remember, colleges are businesses.”

I wonder why I remember this so well…perhaps I was a bit taken aback at this reality check, but now I can’t figure out why it surprised me at all.

Remember, colleges are businesses.

Soon I was on the road, setting up tables at trade shows, career fairs, business expos, high school lunchrooms, and technical colleges. It wasn’t long before I realized my job title was incorrect. It should have been “recruiter.”

The recruiters all looked the same, sitting at mismatched tables with their pretty little tri-folds. Each recruiter stood at attention, desperate to make eye contact with the kids to lure them to their table and get their contact information. It reminded me of the mall kiosks; keep your head down and don’t make eye contact or you are gonna get roped into something you don’t need. Only in this situation is $50,000 in student debt.

The Numbers Game

I have worked in enough colleges to know that being an Admissions Counselor means working in a numbers/sales driven job — especially if the college is tuition-driven. It wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to be told by upper management that,

“If you don’t bring in the students, you and everyone else will be out of a job.”

Yeah, it was cutthroat. So much so, that my fellow admissions counselors would “steal” prospects that I generated as their own to meet their goals — it was an all-out war at times.

At first, I rationalized that I had finally made it into a well-paying job for a woman (in my rural area) that most would love to have. This was my mantra, day in and day out: Appreciate what you have, you could be in a much worse job. I was a first-generation college student, and when you watch your parents work hard their whole lives, you pick up on some of their work ethic. For example: Employer Loyalty.

I thought once I made it into a role like this, I would stay forever.

The Irony

I eventually realized that the loyalty I gave to my employer, and the mantra I had pounded into my brain, was all for nothing. After 5 years of pushing young adults to enter a program I knew they weren’t interested in, and a school I didn’t believe in, I began to notice a shift.

It is important to note that this college was struggling from day one. It was small, private, and didn’t have much in the way of special programs. It had very little to offer. It was religiously affiliated and very antiquated. The campus was dull and the student life was non-existent.

The first indication that something was changing for the worse was when the recruiters (aka admissions counselors) were told to re-call students who were initially denied due to extremely low GPA or test scores and tell them they were now accepted. Typically this was about a month before the new semester would start — yup, when the upper management realized we wouldn’t meet our goals.

Good angel and bad angel made their loudest appearance for me during this time. I knew that these students, who weren’t academically prepared, were going to spend their money on college just because we needed students, and they would not succeed. The good angel said, you can’t ethically do this. You are not helping the student or the college in the long run. The bad angel, which had the voice of my supervisor, said get those numbers up or the faculty, and you, will be out of a job. Despite the threats, I didn’t make those calls.

A few months later, they let me go. Well, me and 8 other loyal employees. We weren’t meeting the goals and they figured it couldn’t be the product, it must be the employee. So one Spring day, they walked each of us out with a security guard, as if we were going to blow the place up.

I had seen this outcome coming, so it wasn’t a surprise to me. It became clear they had other plans for me when they started giving my work to a newly graduated alumnus (i.e. work for pennies) and withholding future college plans from me. I was no longer included in meetings, no longer assigned new work, and basically left staring at a wall for about three months. Looking back, it was emotionally abusive. I begged to know why work was taken from me, and what I had done wrong hoping maybe they would end the torture and just send me home.

So, in all the free time I had, I began to prepare myself by organizing all of my work into files on my computer for the next person and pre-packing my box of personals. My drawers were cleaned out and my box was under my desk. I figured it was a matter of time now. It was long three months of confusion and emotional distress. The weirdest part: they promoted me during that time, and because of the signs and signals I had received, I felt as though it was more of a game than anything else. I was promoted by title only, no monetary raise, and no new responsibilities.

Fall from Grace

That day, I saw the first handful of employees walked out with the security guard. Their boxes in hand as well. I comforted a fellow coworker as she sprang into full panic attack mode, knowing the same fate would be hers. Then my phone rang and I was summoned to a separate office. I walked the steps of the old school up to the designated office repeating a rehearsed mantra in my head each step I took, “You will be fine, at least you will have the summer off.”

I knocked briefly and opened the door. An attorney and my supervisor sat with balls of tissues in her fists, as she told me through tears that I was being let go due to a college-wide restructure. Of course, I cried as I read the severance package in front of me. I looked at her and shook my head, got up with my paperwork, and left the room. The security guard was waiting for me outside the door. He told me to take a minute to get my personal items and we walked to my office together in silence where I grabbed the box from under my desk and walked to my car. We passed college classrooms with faculty and staff standing in the doorways watching me walk the plank. Deadwoman walking.

A Healing Process

This had been my first job in Admissions, and during the healing process, I decided it was time for me to move up the ladder. I set my sights on advising roles, hoping to help students who were confused about their future goals. Yes, I was still passionate about helping young adults ready for college. It didn’t take long before became an Admissions Advisor, and then a Career Coach, at two different schools over the next five years. Each position was the same — a recruiter incorrectly labeled as an advisor, counselor, or coach.

The positions I obtained offered much higher pay and extremely good benefits. I should have just been happy, but two things still stand out when I look back at the positions I held in college admissions.

The second school I worked for initially felt more promising. It was a large university with a great reputation. I worked with a different population of students (non-traditional) who took online classes. I settled into the monotonous routine I was familiar with: cold calling, setting up tours, and sitting at event tables selling education for a mint.

It was becoming a blur of redundant sales pitches again, until one day, a student came to me who did not fit the profile of the non-traditional student. She was a student living on campus, a sophomore maybe, who somehow found her way to my office. She explained to me that she had seen her program advisor many times and she was concerned about deciding which program to enter. She too had been an undeclared student up until this point. Here she was, a younger version of me. The one I had been hoping to help this whole time.

She explained that she thought certain programs would help her get jobs, and the career path she most desired was not available at this school. She asked me to talk to her about the online programs we offered because she didn’t like spending time in the classroom. The online classes we offered were the typical business programs most schools have available (you know, to stay competitive of course).

She was sad, crying, and appeared desperate to find the “right” answer. She talked about how she knew her time was up and she needed to find a major or risk wasting more time and money on the wrong ones. She had spoken to various program advisors during the search to decide what she wanted to be when she grew up. They all gave her their elevator speech and sent her on her way. They told her how her programs would “align” with some of her interests and passions so she should choose to enter their program(close enough when hitting your numbers is a concern, right?)

The pressure was on for this young student, and it was clear that she was not ready to make this decision. I closed the door to my office, put away those beautiful tri-folds and sat down across from her to have an honest conversation with this student.

I flicked that sneering red devil off my shoulder and decided to actually help this student.

First, I told her that she was normal, and it was ok that she wasn’t sure which path to choose. I told her there is no timeframe, it isn’t real and she can take her time to decide. I assured her that this was her life, and if this school didn’t have what she wanted, she was not forced to stay or try to fit the wrong program into her plans. I told her that she had many more options than what she came into my office with. She could transfer to a different college with a program she would enjoy where she would thrive. She could take online classes, she could work for a while, and most importantly: she could take time off from school, go home, and come back and pick up where she left off. She replied with the one phrase that I hated hearing the most as an admissions counselor:

“But, if I leave they said I will never come back.”

My reply was my bosses worst nightmare, “Then that’s ok too.”

I then asked her to tell me, if there was no social pressure, what she would love to do with her life. She was too conflicted at the time to answer, and I know she still thought there was a right answer to search for, so instead I asked her what she loves to do. She pulled a book out of her backpack and showed me her portfolio. She was an amazing young artist.

Of course, like many creatives, she supressed her passion knowing that the social consensus on the arts is a “waste of time.”

I took the time to marvel at her work and told her she was amazing, talented, and gifted. I then sat back and told her that yes, being creative is bittersweet in our current world, but someone has to do it. If there weren’t creatives like her, we wouldn’t have the iPhone, electricity, movies, or books. I explained to her that there were many other career choices for her that include her talents and passion. We briefly talked about them and eventually that light that should have been in this young girls eyes returned. Hope and excitement for her future.

We ended our conversation knowing that she had a lot to think about. I reassured her that she was exactly where she needed to be today and that whatever she decides for herself, will be the right thing for her.

The truth is, college is not something that is a part of every person’s path. Trust me, I believe in education, but more importantly, I believe in the right education for the individual. College is extremely expensive and rushing these decisions helps no one. If a student, who isn’t ready or sure of what they want, fails out, that is an expensive rushed decision. If a student, who wasn’t ready, completes their program but wants nothing to do with the content after graduation, then that is an even more expensive decision. They felt pressured into it by social expectations, and they now carry the financial and vocational burden for the rest of their life.

A Fall That Became A Leap of Faith

I was reprimanded for not pushing this student to stay at her current school, and once again told that the school would close if we didn’t get our numbers up. I took a few days off after that meeting to think. When I returned, the office manager told me the young girl came in twice to talk to me, but they “redirected” her back to her original advisor. I don’t know what she decided, but I do hope she continued to listen to her heart.

I left higher education soon after, and I haven’t looked back. It was an ethical decision, not financial, which of course is risky. It has taken a few years to put these thoughts together, the healing process has been long, and the road has not been easy. Reflecting back, I now realize that there is something important missing between the high schools and the admissions counselors: the concern for the student’s best interest.

Guidance counselors have many students to assist, and not enough time in the day to help each one effectively. Admissions Counselors (aka recruiters) are biased and, in most cases, they are not counselors at all. So if you are entering college, thinking of entering college, or have a child ready to look at colleges, please keep this in mind. An admissions counselor is often a salesman.

Education is priceless, but the wrong one can be expensive with lifelong consequences. Know who you or your child is speaking with, and where their loyalty lies. If they ask about passion and listen without trying to fit their precious programs into your child’s dreams, then they are a coach with an angel on their shoulder.

Are you an Admissions Counselor wanting to pivot out of higher education? I’d love to hear from you! Message me here.

Writer | Oiler | Nature Lover | Goatherd | Authenticity & Intentional Living Coach for Women

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