Why would a high school encourage its students to apply to 100 colleges?

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published an article titled, “They each applied to more than 100 colleges. That may be the problem” (the article is behind the Chronicle’s paywall; here’s a link to it that will be available for a limited period of time). The article’s lede states:

Anisah Karim was by all measures a good student – she earned high grades, took part in her high school’s selective dual-enrollment program, launched her own culinary nonprofit, and participated in a slew of extracurriculars.

But when her college counselor told her to apply to 100 colleges so she could have a chance at becoming a “million-dollar scholar,” a coveted term her school uses to honor students who receive more than a million dollars in scholarship offers, Ms. Karim said she found herself getting pulled out of class and faced with disciplinary action during her senior year for not meeting application requirements.

When I first began reading the story, I was shocked and wondered if the young woman was exaggerating, or perhaps even making up the story. I honestly could not believe that a school administration would encourage its high school seniors to waste their time like this. But the story later quotes a guidance counselor who brags about the program, so I’ll trust the Chronicle’s reporting.

A quick search for “million dollar scholars memphis” turns up numerous other news stories about the program, including one about a young woman who was accepted at 149 colleges and was awarded over $7 million in scholarships.

It is appalling that a high school would encourage students to waste their time doing this (and I’m going to assume the school’s principal knows this is going on). A guidance counselor’s role should be to help a student find a reasonable number of colleges that would be a good fit for her, help her apply, and help her identify scholarship opportunities at those schools, from state and federal governments, and from outside sources.

The important thing that students and parents need to understand – and that all guidance counselors should know – is that a scholarship awarded by one university cannot be used at another school. As the Chronicle story put it:

But Ms. Nolan said she wasn’t told that such scholarships — offers of student aid by a college or university, not by a national organization or a government agency — couldn’t be transferred between institutions. She said her counselors supported her desire to become a million-dollar scholar and encouraged her to keep applying to more colleges.

In other words, students who rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarship offers from universities, or even over a million dollars in offers, do absolutely nothing to help them pay for college. They can only benefit from the scholarship offered by each individual school, and used at that school. This is a dereliction of duty on the part of the guidance counselors, or as I put it in a tweet when I first read this story, “educational malpractice.”

Even if many of the schools the students are applying to are on the Common App (a website that facilitates applying to multiple schools without having to reenter much of the student’s application information), it still takes time to complete an application for each one. Many schools require an their own essay to be completed by the applicant in addition to the standard Common App essays. Schools also have application fees, though as the article notes, many waive the fee for low-income students.

This is also ethically questionable because each of the universities has to review and make a decision on each application submitted to it, even if the student has no intention of attending the university, and has applied only to rack up scholarship offers. Scholarships awarded by universities are not infinite; each scholarship offered to these students by a university is one that will likely not be offered to another student who truly does wish to attend that institution.

Encouraging the students to apply for private scholarships that truly are portable and could be used at any institution the student attends – and I hope the guidance counselors are encouraging this as well – would be a much better use of the students’ time. But pushing them to apply to scores of or even 100 schools is a waste of the student’s time and distracts from her studies, as well as taking time away from focusing on which of a more reasonable set of schools would be the best match for her.

While these “million dollar scholars” may generate good publicity for the schools, it is an ethically-bankrupt practice that schools should not encourage.