Six years ago, Lloyd Thacker became a familiar name in higher education. Since then, he has been described in many ways. As the savior of college admissions. As a hopeless romantic tilting at ivory towers. As a voice of calm in a world of admissions angst. As a guy who can’t accept that higher education is, among other things, a business.
A former college counselor, Mr. Thacker is the founder of the Education Conservancy, a nonprofit group that opposes “commercial interference” in college admissions, and the editor of College Unranked, a book of essays about admissions. On Tuesday, I caught up with Mr. Thacker to ask him about his organization’s evolution, including its two new partnerships with the College Board and Consumers Union.
When you started the Education Conservancy in 2004, even some of your strongest supporters worried about your ability to sustain the organization and its message. What’s your assessment of what you’ve accomplished?
The Education Conservancy began as an experiment in providing a stage for concerns and leadership to gather and emerge. I was hoping to provide a countervailing force to the increasing commercialization of college admissions. Since then, there has been a decline in some questionable admission practices, like cooperating with the rankings, and in colleges using rankings to advertise. Some colleges have reduced the use of merit aid. Some colleges have said no to early-admission programs. And some colleges have done a better job of assessing standardized testing and aligning their policies with that.
I also sense that the limitations of the market metaphor in education are being tested in some small way. This is not a story about Lloyd Thacker. It’s about the cause of education being able to resonate collaboratively amidst the dissonance of commercialism.
According to your Web site, 31 colleges have contributed $150,000 to help build a prototype of CollegeSpeak, which you describe as a “student-centered” admissions Web site. Where does that effort stand?
The ideas and vision represented in the CollegeSpeak prototype evolved from a presentation by a group from the Great Lakes Colleges Association during the Beyond Ranking meeting at Yale and a day-long workshop of 105 professionals that ensued. From there the Education Conservancy raised money to flesh out design concepts, worked with focus groups of counselors, and built a prototype of the site. Public reaction to the prototype suggested we needed significant capacity to deliver on its potential. While a Web site named CollegeSpeak is not likely to materialize, I am working hard to ensure that many of the site’s counseling and guidance concepts will be realized in the College Board’s effort to revise their college planning site.
You’ve described CollegeSpeak as an antidote to U.S. News & World Report’s annual rankings of colleges. What does “student-centered” mean? And how would this portal be different from the ever-growing array of other Web sites that have information about colleges?
I mean that colleges, as educational institutions, can and should respect and treat students as learners, not consumers, especially during this formative process called college admissions. Many good counselors know what I am talking about, and they try hard to combat the collective impact of commercial admission signals while working with students: “There is one best college.” “Status, brand, and prestige matter most.” “You are where you go.” “This is the most important decision you will ever make.”
These are the kinds of marketing messages delivered by a commercial approach that has profited from turning education into a product and students into consumers. Alternatively, counselors tend to ask students to think about what matters to them, what they like to learn about, how they learn best, what they look forward to learning, and to consider how selecting a college is different from purchasing a car. This is a process focused on education as self-discovery and making matches, and mistakes, according to self-defined criteria. CollegeSpeak was designed to democratize access to this kind of counseling -- a trusted, authentic, educationally driven, and non commercial site.
In the past, you’ve won applause for your criticisms of some major players in the admissions process, including the College Board. Recently, however, you entered into a partnership with the College Board. What does that partnership involve? Why did you agree to it?
A good and fair question, and one I seriously considered, with the help of others, before entering into this partnership. From the beginning in College Unranked, I refrained from joining some colleagues and friends in categorically criticizing the College Board. Yes, I did invite others to do so in the book, because I respected these perspectives and thought they could be useful. But, I will admit publicly right here, I was also hopeful that the College Board could respond to criticism and do a better job of serving its mission, and I remain hopeful.
Many people invested good will, ideas, effort, faith, and even a few bucks in the Beyond Ranking/CollegeSpeak effort. Once we built a promising prototype I felt obligated to deliver on that potential. A generous grant from the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation had helped leverage money from colleges, but nowhere near the amount I would need to hire a firm to build and operate such a site. ... After more than 13 months of earnest and productive discussions with an executive from College Board, we arrived at an agreement that I think will ultimately benefit students, families, counselors, and colleges according to the Education Conservancy’s mission and the precepts embedded in CollegeSpeak.
And what about people who might worry that you’ve sold out?
This site should also improve College Board’s reputation and stature in education. As the leader of what has now become an educational advocacy organization, I also remain the idealist who left my job and struggled setting up an experiment. I am still struggling. To those who might want to question my integrity, or, as you said, worry that I have sold out, I respect their opinions. I also welcome their ideas and participation.
This week you announced that the Education Conservancy has received a $350,000 grant from the Lumina Foundation to finance a joint project between your organization and Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine. What form do you envision this project taking? How would it help applicants?
By blending experts’ perspectives with research about students’ experiences with information in the college-consideration process, we hope to define an array of information types that will best serve the information needs of the widest range of students. We believe that getting the right information into the hands of students will help increase student access, equity, and engagement. Consumers Union is a prominent and trusted source of independent and authoritative information. Ultimately this joint effort will help raise the bar for information standards, encourage colleges to be more forthcoming with useful information, and provide an alternative to commercial and less educationally sound sources of information.
So what form will it take? This is going to be a book?
The exact shape of it has yet to be determined. But we’re not going to rank anything. At this stage, it’s not going to directly evaluate colleges, but we’re going to evaluate the popular sources of information out there, based on how well they deliver. This will be information-based. It has to be free, and it has to be readily accessible, and we’re thinking about it being in print form.
A while back, I spoke to someone who’s skeptical of you and your message. He told me that the same high-school students and parents who stand and cheer after your talks just go home and do the very things that you advise against, like base their decisions about colleges on rankings and “prestige.” What would you say to that guy?
Assuming he is in education, I’d ask: How does he know? What does he do to help? What suggestions does he have? I might share a few of my own stories about students, parents, deans, college trustees, college presidents, whose responses were much more encouraging. ... I’d ask him to consider a phrase uttered by Howard Gardner, the research psychologist, during our recent conversation: “Education is the crucible of hope,” which was much better and more instructive than my initial volley, “Education is the business of hope.” If this someone’s skepticism was unyielding still, I’d encourage him to find a job outside of education.