Colleges offer counselors plush trips

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A downtown dinner and boat cruise, followed by a night in an upscale hotel room may sound like a prom package, but is actually part of the treatment high school guidance counselors may receive when they visit Marquette's campus.

Jennifer Machacek, associate dean of admissions, said such treatment for high school counselors is the norm among universities nationwide. Experts, however, say ethical problems could arise from granting such gifts to people who are in a position to sway high school students' college choices.

Machacek said there are group programs for guidance counselors that include a tour of campus, including most on-campus buildings and residence halls. Then the counselors are split into two groups. One group is sent to a student panel, the other to a faculty panel.

The university pays to take the counselors out for dinner, Machacek said. In the past, the Edleweiss dinner and boat cruise, as well as a dinner at the Milwaukee Art Museum, have been used with the intention of showing off the city.

In the summer, counselors are put in residence halls, normally Straz Tower, but otherwise they share double rooms at the Wyndham or Pfister hotels at a reduced rate negotiated by the university.

At most, Machacek said, the university pays $25 to $30 a person for dinner, and $50 to $80 a person for hotel costs.

Ethicists say the university can bring counselors to the schools, feed and house them, but they must be careful to avoid causing conflicts of interest.

"It's OK for a university to bring (counselors) in, give them meals and all that stuff," said William Starr, interim director of Marquette's Center for Ethics. "But it's not good if the university was making sweetheart deals."

Offering money or gifts beyond the norm is wrong, Starr said.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling's "principles of good practice" specifically bans payment to guidance counselors for recommending schools, but says nothing about guidance counselor trips.

The university also participates with Ripon College, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Beloit College and Lawrence University in COWS, or Counselors Observing Wisconsin Schools. Although each school pays $5,000 per year to bring in the 44 counselors, the cost is worth it, Machacek said.

"Of the schools we have had in COWS over the last 10 years, 65 percent will send us at least one application," Machacek said.

In fact, most costs to bring in school counselors pay for themselves, since high schools whose counselors attend often send students here.

"The long-term benefits of the programs outweigh the cost," Machacek said.

High school counselors said they enjoy the visits to universities and consider the trips especially useful when advising students.

"It's helpful to have as much exposure to students (at a university) as possible," said Theresa Wright, a senior counselor at Benet Academy in Lisle, Ill. She said because of guidance counselor programs, she has seen universities in California, New York and throughout the Midwest.

"I feel well-informed after visiting a campus," Wright said. She said she was unaware of any unethical activity from college admissions counselors.

Machacek said the practice of inviting counselors to a university or group of universities is becoming more common and said she was aware of numerous multi-college programs.

"(Guidance counselor programs) definitely (are) not something done only here," Machacek said.

The Wisconsin Association for College Admission Counseling sponsors "Northern Exposure" for Illinois high school guidance counselors to acquaint them with Wisconsin's universities, she said.

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