Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Racism and College Admission

By: Lawrence Q. Alexander II

Nov. 1…For some, it’s just another day, but for those of us in college admission, it marks the anniversary of our “first date”—the day when Early Decision and Early Action applications have typically been due and that our work with seniors coalesces.

We recall preaching to them during the spring of their junior year about the importance of starting early and working on their college applications throughout the summer. We replay the melodious songs we sang to our faculty and colleagues about the impact of their letters of recommendation. We also experience pardonable pride as we lead our school community to a date on the calendar that at one time seemed so very far away. We think about the students and families we’ve counseled, the admission colleagues we’ve conversed with, and the floorboards we’ve confessed our frustrations to. And historically, we feel a range of emotions, from excitement to fear to anxiety to relief to sheer exhaustion.

Yet this year, with a global pandemic and the demand for racial equity and justice looming over our anniversary celebration, many of my colleagues and I experienced another emotion on Nov. 1—rage. And as COVID-19 and Racism 2020 tear through our world, they also pervade our profession, prompting a cascading list of uncomfortable yet unavoidable questions.

What if our process isn’t as accessible, equitable, and inclusive as we once thought? What if it never was? What if the systemic racism present within our country is also present within our profession? What if I was complicit in perpetuating it? How do we reconcile our love for a profession that has also washed its hands in the blood of systemic racism?

Racism and college admission—breaking up is hard to do.

After 10 years working as a college counselor, my own conscience is pricked by the following questions:

  • To what extent did I help students center their trauma and not their acumen in their college applications?
  • To what extent did I center predominantly white institutions at the expense of dignifying historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and tribal colleges?
  • How hard did I make students prepare for standardized tests for admission to universities that didn’t welcome them anyway?
  • How much time did I spend curating college lists for my students based on their palatability for white audiences?
  • How much of my professional success came at the authentic inclusion of my students of color?

I’m sure many of my colleagues in college admission are experiencing a similar moment of conscience. As we gather together for NACAC’s Antiracist Education Institute, I encourage you to come prepared to be honest about our profession and about our complicity. We will address several systems of oppression within college admission, but the first conversation is the one we have with our own conscience: How does our profession harm students from historically marginalized and underserved communities? How have I been complicit in it?

I look forward to leaning in and learning with you during our institute. I don’t join you as a self-righteous teacher, rather a fellow journeyman hoping for redemption. In that spirit, I humbly ask you to bring a true willingness to break up with the profession as we’ve known it and embrace it as it can be.

College admission can be better and so can we.

Learn more about NACAC’s Antiracist Education Institute.

Lawrence Q. Alexander II is the lead presenter for NACAC’s Antiracist Education Institute. Alexander serves as the lead search consultant for Carney Sandoe & Associates’ Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion practice and previously spent a decade as a college counselor in both public and independent schools. Alexander is also the director of equity and inclusion at The White Mountain School (NH) and has established himself as an industry leader through his work with East Woods School (NY), Brown University (RI), and the Association of Independent Schools in New England (AISNE). 


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