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National Conference 2023 in Baltimore: Big Takeaways and 3 College Visits

Updated: Nov 22, 2023

It's hard to explain the annual national conference of NACAC, the National Association for College Admission Counseling. Imagine 7,000 people, mostly with some extrovert qualities and prone to hugging, coming together from around the world to connect with friends and colleagues they may only see one time a year.

This year the conference was held in Baltimore. The turnout was good, and to many participants' surprise, there was even a DJ at the convention center entrance.

Perhaps just as disorienting, the brightly lit onslaught of the vendor hall seemed back to its pre-pandemic excess. Imagine a room, tens of thousands of square feet, filled with expensive booths showcasing the latest technology and tactics from a multi-billion dollar admission consulting industry. I am not the only one who refers to it as the "admission-industrial complex."

What may be surprising to those outside the profession is the extent of the schmoozing happening after conference hours-- there is an endless list of receptions each night for people on all side of the admission desk, hosted by vendors, colleges, and even some schools. I happened to make it into the party hosted by the largest consulting firm in the business these days...

To be honest, my main take away from this event I've attended 20 times since 2001, and presented at multiple times (plus, I helped plan on the local arrangements committee in Denver in 2012) are, usually, the connections-- checking in with folks I only see here, and catching up with some of my oldest and closest friends, while also gaining insight into what's happening in our business and where people have landed as they shuffle jobs. Walking through the counselors' college fair, where several hundred colleges have booths and several thousand counselors are making their way through, is a fantastic oxytocin booster when you have 25 years of relationships in this business, and a good reminder that admission remains a human and humane profession led by people who care about kids and their counterparts in the big annual admission dance.

As absurd as the spectacle can seem, it ultimately is all about education, and a profession committed to providing access to it.

This year, the biggest and most discussed topics were predictable: the future of standardized testing, how college admission will move forward after this summer's Supreme Court ruling, great uncertainty over a planned overhaul to the FAFSA federal student aid application, and the encroachment of AI into every aspect of the process.

This report from Inside Higher Ed covers some of how those topics were discussed. Click the image to read more.


Campus Visits

As is the case with most travel I have the chance to take, the conference also usually provides a chance to visit some campuses. This year I saw three colleges I had not previously visited:

MICA is one of the premier visual art colleges in the US, and one of the oldest. Several students of mine have gone here over the years, and they have had positive experiences leading to creative careers. The campus architecture is a stunning blend of modern and Renaissance Revival buildings standing side by side. For students serious about art training, it's a strong program that reasonably accessible if you have a solid application portfolio. I love letterpress print and bought three packs of small posters made by students on a letterpress in the MICA store.

St. John's is unlike any other college in the US or anywhere else. Actually-- there is one other just like it, but with very different architecture and climate, in Santa Fe, NM-- SJC exists across two campuses.

There is one curriculum based on the Great Books that have influenced human understanding over the last 3,000 years. Imagine understanding the development of Mathematics by reading Pythagoras, Liebniz and Newton. Students learn to read French, ancient Greek and Latin to read texts in their original language. Classes are all small discussions around a table. The professor is called a tutor-- they may have a PhD in any number of areas, and they'll guide the class through reading and discussion, learning alongside them. Students refer to each other as Mr. and Ms. in the classroom. While most students are traditional age, this program attracts older returning students, and SJC has always had a commitment to education for veterans of the armed forces.

In their words: At the heart of St. John’s is a liberal arts curriculum focused on reading and discussing many of the greatest books and most important questions in history. This is perhaps the most distinctive undergraduate curriculum of any college in America. Our students read the original writings of great thinkers across 3,000 years of history, engage in vigorous classroom discussion with fewer than 20 students around the seminar table, and study interdisciplinary ideas across the humanities and sciences without limiting students to the restrictions of siloed majors. Read about the program in the words of our faculty, and learn about the reading list, subjects, and classes below.

I've worked with several students over the course of my career who attended St John's in Santa Fe, and I've been to that campus several times, but I had never had the chance to visit the Annapolis campus (near the historic US Naval Academy, which I had the chance to tour years ago.) Similarly to visits to Santa Fe, I was so impressed by the sense of purpose and curiosity of these students. In the student panel arranged for the visiting counselors, one woman nailed it for me-- her goal is to work in broadcast communications. Conventional wisdom would say that this is the worst place for her to study, yet, as she put it, roughly: I'm gaining an understanding of the world and a depth of historical knowledge that no other school can provide. This is an education that teaches critical thinking, communication, and lays a strong foundation for the rest of one's life. Naturally, SJC dedicates resources to helping students with their next step, and to helping families understand the immense value of this education.

I'll be honest-- I like this model a lot. Adults like me can take short summer courses on campus, or get a master's degree that can be completed over multiple summers.

I'll also note that SJC made some waves in the admission world this year when they launched their new "Discussion Based Application" process. Kudos to their president (speaking to our group in the first photo) and Admission Dean Ben Baum for this initiative.

Read more about it:

This was a fast-paced tour, so I didn't collect many photos, but the campus is one of the oldest in the US, dating to the 17th century.

Goucher is another school that students I work with have attended, but I've never had the chance to visit. I had always imagined a more urban campus, and enjoyed their spacious and green space a little outside the city of Baltimore. Almost all students live on campus and enjoy 287 acres of grass and trees.

Goucher is a traditional liberal arts college, and notably is a member of the fantastic Colleges That Change Lives group-- so is St. John's!

One of the things that made an impression is the fact that a full 100% of Goucher students will study abroad for some duration through a wide range of global programs on different schedules. In fact, study abroad is required to graduate. Goucher maintains a robust internship program as part of the Goucher Edge experience that ensures students are engaged and launch successfully.

Goucher has invested deeply in community. New students live in a First Year Village, and Goucher has a strong commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. 38% of their population are students of color, and 15% are the first in their family to attend college. Goucher Gophers athletics are Division 3 competitors-- one of my lacrosse players came to play here a while back. Notably, Goucher has a strong equestrian program.

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