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Parent’s manifesto in response to direct mail letter knocked my bow tie off kilter! #admissions #highered

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I have frequently cited my experiences as a Little League umpire as a teen and as an intramural referee while a freshman (which we were called then) at Gettysburg College as great preparation for my work in admissions and enrollment. Both of the these experience taught me a great deal of patience and taught me how to deal with parents and people who had a strong view about a particular matter—often whether or not a pitch was a ball or strike, etc.  In my nearly twenty years in college admissions and enrollment work I’ve had plenty of opportunities to draw upon those formative experiences to deal with a parent or set of parents who saw the world or a situation in a different way.

Such preparation has often led me to defend a decision or take a stand all the while being as respectful as I can be.

A recent letter from a parents following a search mailing got me thinking about responses.

To be honest, I though that I’d heard and seen it all…until the following response  to our direct mail search this year was received in the Office of Admissions and then forwarded to me.

Don’t get me wrong…I’ve had response cards from Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and some rather crude characters throughout my time in this line of work. However, what follows left me scratching my head for several weeks afterwards and will be one of those resources I will use for many years into the future.

So…here it goes (I have deleted any information that might reveal the identity of the family and have renamed the student, Oso, because my son really likes Oso on Disney Junior and I renamed the family, too…they are now the Birdwells).

Hi Dane:

Per your email and the onslaught of emails and U.S. mail coming from all schools “chasing” Oso and we’ve been through this process already with our oldest daughter, the purpose of this note is to try and take a different approach and request that you “make us an offer” for Oso’s services.

Oso (a junior) epitomizes the perfect student athlete so the school tells us.  He is #2 in his class, ran on the Cross Country team which came in second in state this year, finishing up basketball, and now running track (400, 800, 1600, 4×400, 4×800 are his events – though not at every meet).  He is on student union currently, natural helpers, etc.  as well.  

Why “make us an offer” for Oso’s services?  My wife and I are not thrilled at all with how this whole college process (FAFSA, etc.) works as we already went through this with our oldest daughter.  We don’t want to relive this nightmare again with Oso. 

We have been having very lively candid discussions with the individual schools on this whole college process.  Thankfully everyone is very kind and understanding.   

The resounding theme that has become quite apparent to our family is that the whole FAFSA process, scholarship process, etc. does nothing more than seem to reward the “irresponsible” and “penalize” the ones who “do the right thing“.  I cite some examples below that we discussed with other colleges and what we encountered with our daughter.

NOTE:  Our family is not whiners or beggars looking for a free ride.  We are ONLY looking to be treated fairly. 

Example #1 – We have a friend of the family who’s son did NOT take all the honors and AP classes as our daughter had and was NOT on the high honor roll consistently(if ever) as our daughter was.  But since he is of a different ethnicity – he was getting $10, 000 dollars a year  ($40, 000 over 4 years) in addition to his merit scholarship at his college preference.  We, and more so our daughter, is just appalled that ethnicity continues to “penalize” her.

Example #2 – We have many friends whose families have not “lived within their means” at all.  One family in particular has a huge home with an extreme mortgage and multiple cars and never saved for a “rainy” day.  Well guess what… the dad lost his job and the family’s children didn’t pay anything for high school.  Sports activity fees, lunches, AP test costs, etc. are all covered at the taxpayers expense.  One of their children kept telling our daughter how they didn’t have to pay for anything in high school and from what we understand minimally more than half of her college costs were covered as well.  Our daughter was so frustrated with this not to mention us.

Example # 3 – The high school has local scholarships available.  The frustrating part is they request the families income, copies of the families 1040s, copies of the families FAFSA forms, etc.  Our’s and our daughter’s question was – What in the heck does our families career and salary have to do with our daughter’s scholarship opportunities.  Isn’t it supposed to be a reflection of her coursework through high school?  The message she sees is grades don’t matter evidently.  Where does the “merit” ever fit in??? 

Our oldest daughter and now Oso have “busted their butt” for almost 13 years (counting kindergarten) to take the most advanced classes, try their best on grades, studies for hours on end only to be penalized by ethnicity, families irresponsible spending, our income etc. etc.

We ask you… with debt spiraling out of control in America –  Who and what are we investing in? 

What kind of message are we sending to society especially our children who see this repeated behavior?

What’s more embarrassing is our kids and their friends see how this is faring out and said “why didn’t you guys just spend all your money and have a ton of debt.  You will be rewarded most.“  Second comment they say, “you should just get divorced like the others and you will be rewarded the most.”  I don’t think this is the message we want to be sending our younger generation.

Lastly – We aren’t rich, we have lived on one income most of our lives as my wife chose to “stay home and raise the kids” (I was NOT going to voice my opinionJ) and we continued to “live within our means” anyway.  We have tried to teach our kids how to manage money as you grow through the various stages of life like we did.  You may get married and have kids and if you do, make sure you have auto, home, life, disability insurance to protect your family.  Invest money when you are young to take advantage of compounding.  We can only hope they have listened and learned.

Oso is very excited about college coming up and is very adamant about receiving a degree but does NOT want to be loaded down in debt until the day he dies.  Again, we are not whiners or beggars looking for a free ride.  We are ONLY looking to be treated fairly.  We can only hope we have raised him right and if he chooses your school you will get a very dedicated student who “does the right thing” and DOESN’T drink, smoke or do drugs.  He just flat out enjoys his schooling, sports, work, giving back to the community, etc.

So please if you are truly interested in Oso “make us an offer” for Oso’s services. 

Thanks for reading and listening,

The Birdwell’s

When I first read the Birdwell’s letter I was speechless! (I know some might have read this and said, how dare he!) Not me. I responded more like, hum.

It was not because I was mad, but because I didn’t know quite how to respond, which is uncommon for me. Over the course of several days I reread the note from the Birdwell family several times. My thoughts about the letter and how to respond were all over the place.

I thought about responding and explaining the process and why some of the things mentioned occur. (I couldn’t imagine much luck with this)

I thought about simply excluding the family (and Oso) from our database. (I thought this would only punish the student, which is unconscionable)

I was mad in one moment, bewildered the next and confused later on. However, as I reread the Birdwell manifesto, I developed a great deal of sympathy and understanding. I understand the frustration expressed. I found myself having full sympathy for what Mr. Birdwell described—even if some of what is described is slightly overstated. I found myself “getting it” and understanding that Mr. Bridwell was expressing what many feel about this overly complex process.

My conclusion is that the Birdwells are not unreasonable, irrational or crazy people. They are responsible and value education. They are not interested in nuance and they are not interested in long explanation about the way things area. In every way, they deserve our best!

They want the best for Oso and I think they make a good case for him.

In the end, the Birdwell letter, which irritated me initially and knocked my bow tie off kilter, has inspired me to recruit the heck out of Oso. I want that kid here. I want to prove to the family that we want Oso here and we have something to offer.  More than anything, I want Oso to want us because we’ve made him an offer about a transformative experience.

The Bridwell letter also reminded me that we do have an obligation to make an offer to each of our students and we better be thoughtful about the offer and what it represents. We always need to be mindful that it’s not just we (as college and universities) who have something to offer; it’s the students, like Oso, who have countless gifts to offer us.

This is what admissions is all about.

I now have my bow tie straightened out and I am ready to make the case for Augustana with the hope that we can make a strong enough offer to inspire “Oso” to choose the experience. I believe the Birdwell letter and am convinced “Oso” has much to offer us.

What do you think of the Birdwell letter and how might you have responded?

W. Kent Barnds @bowtieadmission

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1 Comment

  1. Bob Adkins says:

    Like you, my emotions have run the gamut as I read and then re-read the Birdwell letter. Oso may have much to offer, but it also sounds a bit like the family has an entitlement chip on their shoulder. Their examples assume much with little to no evidence beyond their own conjectures. They decry the financial awards those folks have all been given while they have their hands out at the same time? I think that smacks of hypocrisy at it’s worst.
    Have we really come to an era when we need to “make an offer” prior to a student submitting an application? Are parents really so crass that instead of taking a thoughtful approach to the admission process, they are going to limit their children to only applying to the schools with the best “pre-app” offer? I agree with you that it should be about the student and finding the right fit, but their letter suggest it is more about them… and the problems they have with the system.

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