Rich Borsch has been Fenwick’s lead college counselor for 47 years. What changes has he seen over five decades?
By Mark Vruno
Let the matriculation process commence for the Class of 2019! Now is the frenetic season for Fenwick’s college-counseling duo of Rich Borsch and Laura Docherty. Busy is an under-statement. Between early application and essay preparations leading up to January 1st, the two guidance gurus are up to their elbows in paper and student e-documentation.
It’s an annual rite at Fenwick and at high schools across the country, but few counselors have been immersed in the process as long as Mr. Borsch, who wouldn’t want it any other way. This school year marks his 51st at Fenwick, and he has been a college counselor for all but the first four.
In a typical, six-week period this fall – comprising 30 school days – representatives from 77 different colleges and universities, including the University of Chicago, Northwestern and Yale, came to Fenwick. A representative sampling of 11 other visiting schools (by date) during that time frame:
- Lafayette College (Easton, PA)
- Central Michigan University
- Butler University
- University of Notre Dame
- Vanderbilt University
- Tulane University
- Juniata College (Huntingdon, PA)
- Villanova University
- Providence College
- Boston College
- University of Cincinnati
“These schools came from all areas of the country,” Borsch reports. “Ten of the top 50 colleges and universities were here; seven from the Big Ten came. We try to give our students exposure to all kinds of college options: from huge schools like Indiana University, with 43,000 students enrolled in the Bloomington campus, to tiny King’s College in Manhattan, New York, which has only 500 students.”
For Borsch, who says he loves working with the kids, it’s all about the right fit for each student. “We try to pick schools based on their individual needs,” he explains, which can be time-consuming. Graduates from the Friars’ Class of 2018 are attending 109 different colleges or universities in 32 states, Washington, DC and overseas in Scotland.
“When I started doing this in the early 1970s, that number was 60 [schools],” Borsch notes. “We’ve had kids go away to Canada, Ireland and Italy, too.” Such international institutions as Trinity College Dublin and the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) “weren’t even a thought a generation ago,” he says.
TOP FIVE COLLEGES FOR THE CLASS OF ’18
37 Friars are studying at the University of Illinois (Urbana)
16 Friars are at Loyola University Chicago
15 are at Marquette University (Milwaukee, Wisconsin)
12 are at Indiana University (Bloomington, IN)
11 are at the University of Notre Dame (Indiana)
Besides the expanded geographic range of college choice, what other changes has Borsch seen during his 47 years of student-college matchmaking? “It certainly has evolved,” he observes. One big difference is the number of Fenwick students going out of state for school. “In 1975, about 70% of our students stayed within Illinois. By 2016, that number had dropped to 22%,” he reports. Thirty-two percent of the Class of ’18 (98 students) stayed in state.
Lately, there has been a trend toward test-optional college admissions — and not judging prospective students based on a three-hour exam. “The University of Chicago is one of hundreds of schools doing this now,” Borsch confirms. “But the fact remains that 75% [of schools] still require either the ACT or SAT, so our students will continue to be prepared. Fenwick is the only school I know of where freshmen take the PSAT exam,” Borsch adds.
Snapshot of Rich Borsch
Graduate of Leo High School, Chicago.
B.A. in English and history from DePaul University, Chicago
M.A. in counseling and psychological services, St. Mary’s University of Minnesota
Fenwick High School, Oak Park, IL, 1968 – Present (started as English Teacher)
Head Coach of the Friars’ freshman football team for 41 years (through 2015)
One thing that hasn’t changed under Borsch’s watch is the school’s high profile. The quality of its students allowed the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA) to designate Fenwick as a “special-purpose college preparatory school” – one of only 20 in Illinois. “When I accepted the college-counseling position, I was adamant that we stop utilizing class rank,” he recalls. “We have so many extremely bright kids, and I don’t like stigmatizing the lower half of any class.”
Forty-seven years ago, that was revolutionary thinking. “It was a risky move,” Borsch admits, “and we got some pushback. But once people [at the institutions of higher learning] understood our reasoning, they got on board.” Foregoing class rank has become common practice among peer secondary schools.
Guiding two generations of Friars
If there was a “Mount Rushmore of Fenwick,” we’d need to make room to carve Rich Borsch’s visage, believes alumnus and former Illinois State Senator the Honorable Dan Cronin, Sr. ’77. Recently re-elected as Chairman of the DuPage County Board, Mr. Cronin is a part-time attorney at Power & Cronin, Ltd. in Oak Brook, IL, and a second-generation Friar. His late father, Richard Cronin, M.D., graduated from Fenwick in 1944. (Dan’s daughters, Sarah ’13 and Grace ’16, are alumnae; son Danny currently is a junior and member of the Class of 2020.) “When I think of Fenwick legends, I think of coaches and mentors like Tony Lawless and Dan O’Brien [’34],” Cronin says. “I think of esteemed teachers, such as Roger Finnell [’59] and Andy Arellano. And, I think of Rich Borsch. He’s right up there with them. He’s an ‘All-Pro’ who is singularly devoted, going above and beyond for our students and families. Rich truly is a unique and defining feature of Fenwick.”
Cronin reflects on his own experience as a student-athlete at Fenwick in the mid-1970s: “I wanted to swim in college, and Mr. Borsch showed me that I had options, which I didn’t think I had.” Northwestern, Notre Dame and the University of Illinois all were within reach for young Dan, who ultimately chose Evanston and the NU Wildcats.
Fast-forward four decades, to when the more seasoned counselor shared similar advice and insights with both Cronin girls. Sarah, now a marketing coordinator at HBK Engineering in Chicago, was choosing between Indiana University and Marquette University in Milwaukee. “Rich Borsch highly recommended Marquette, and she had a wonderful experience there,” her father relates. Grace, who won the 300-meter hurdle state title as a Friars’ senior, now is a junior at Notre Dame and member of the Fighting Irish’s Women’s Track and Field Team. “Mr. Borsch was among Grace’s biggest advocates,” Dan Cronin says, adding, “He has a wealth of information. He helped her with recommendations and how to present herself. Rich believed in Grace and stood shoulder to shoulder with her.”
Former Friars’ gridiron star Tim Rooney ’75 preceded Cronin at Northwestern. “I’m not sure anyone who has ever worked at Fenwick has helped more families or directly influenced the lives of more students than Rich Borsch,” points out Mr. Rooney, a Life Trustee, former Board Chair and partner at the Winston & Strawn law firm in Chicago. That statement from the one-time football receiver turned lawyer factually is correct. Mr. Borsch indeed has worked with more than half of Fenwick’s graduates.
“For generations of students, Rich has taken a personal interest in each student and has worked tirelessly on helping them choose — and, in many cases, get into — the right college for them,” Rooney continues.
“I remember to this day the help he gave me over 40 years ago in selecting Northwestern on national signing day. I had some definite issues and concerns with the program that I was not discussing with anyone, and which were making me hesitate on what appeared to everyone else like an obvious choice,” Rooney admits. “As decision day approached, Rich sat me down and wanted to know what was going on. I really trusted Coach Borsch to finally discuss the issues with him. His understanding and very wise counsel put my mind at ease and allowed me to choose Northwestern, which influenced the rest of my life.
“And like many Fenwick families, a generation later he gave that same care and concern to my sons as they explored their college decisions,” Rooney praises. “I can’t say it any more simply than this: I’m forever in his debt.”
So many options …
The myriad college choices available are akin to the 40-plus clubs and activities available to the current Fenwick student body: There seems to be a school for nearly every curious student and every niche interest. Mr. Borsch says he encourages aspiring graphic artists to consider premier options such as the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) in Georgia, the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in Providence and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. More specialized education opportunities include the DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, Washington (for video game-development education) and Full Sail University in Winter Park, FL (for entertainment and media-related interests such as theater and set design). Fenwick’s future chefs might opt to stay closer to home and attend culinary school at Kendall College in Chicago, he adds.
An extreme example is St. John’s College campus in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the classic curriculum is rooted in tradition: geometry students read Euclid’s original text in Greek, and stage plays are performed in French. “It’s not for everyone, obviously,” Mr. Borsch acknowledges, “but certain students may be drawn to the experience.” Fenwick doesn’t discourage inquisitive, young minds. “Instead, we foster the special interests of these young women and young men. We work hard to find the best fit for them,” he says emphatically.
Ed Pacer ’80, another alumnus and past parent, appreciates Ms. Docherty and Mr. Borsch’s tireless pursuit. Mr. Pacer describes Borsch as “a man of great foresight who understands that the value of an elite, college-preparatory education can be exponentially enhanced if each Fenwick student goes to a college or university that provides them with the best chance to excel as an individual.” However, 38 years ago, information was “not available with a keystroke on one’s laptop or cell phone, and the prospect of trying to become familiar with hundreds of individual colleges was so daunting that no one did it — besides Rich,” continues Pacer, who is an attorney and Managing Partner of the Peckar & Abramson law firm in Chicago.
“Unlike his peers, Rich did not feel right merely recommending colleges because of where they were ranked in one publication or another,” Pacer continues. “Instead, he took it upon himself to travel thousands of miles and invest countless hours visiting schools and developing relationships that allowed him to gain a personal understanding of what they really had to offer.” As a result, when Rich recommends that a student look at a big state university that everyone has heard of, he does so because it would be a good fit for that student. Similarly, when he recommends a small, liberal-arts college that few people know exists, he does so because he knows that school is a hidden gem that might be the perfect place for a specific Fenwick student to thrive.
“Today, Fenwick’s college counseling department has achieved an unparalleled reputation for excellence, at a time when every elite school understands the importance of this service and tries to replicate what Fenwick offers. As a Fenwick alumnus, and the father of three recent Fenwick graduates, I know that this level of excellence is the direct result of Rich Borsch’s extraordinary vision and tireless commitment to his labor of love.”
From the Heartland to New England
With more than 100 of its students applying to the University of Illinois each fall, Fenwick is one of the U of I’s largest “feeder schools.” Andy Borst, Ph.D., Director of Undergraduate Admissions at the main Urbana-Champaign campus, considers Borsch as an ultimate resource. “Rich is one of the most knowledgeable counselors in the country,” Dr. Borst says matter-of-factly. “He knows the ins and outs of the unique application processes at major research universities, uber-selective schools and smaller liberal-arts colleges.
“When I talk to Rich each year, I ask him about trends in the profession: What does he see working really well and what are some colleges getting wrong?” Borst continues. “Rich has a unique perspective about the changing nature of high school students that can only come from 50+ years of experience. He is a great resource for students exploring college options as well as a resource for those of us in college admissions.”
Getting the Class of 2020 ready
The Student Services Department hosts a weekly program in June. (Seminars are held in the Fenwick cafeteria.) Parents of incoming seniors can talk and listen to professionals cover key facets of the college selection process:
Large, state-school environments
In late June, parents of incoming freshman (The Class of 2023 this coming summer) are invited to a “College 101” presentation.
More Praise for Borsch
Jim Quaid, Ph.D., Fenwick’s Director of Student Services and Enrollment Management, calls Borsch “the best there is” in the college counseling sphere. “No one can match his work ethic.” That’s high praise coming from Dr. Quaid, the former Principal who returned to Oak Park this summer after 21 years, having spent time at the helm of DePaul Prep (formerly Gordon Tech) in Chicago, Marmion Academy in Aurora and as Associate Superintendent of Schools for the Archdiocese of Chicago.
Principal Peter Groom adds: “People from all around the area know what a treasure Mr. Borsch is. He’s a legend in his field; one whose name is instantly respected. All over the country, collegiate admissions people pick up the phone when he calls. Not many schools can offer students and their families the types of connections that Rich has cultivated.
“I remember when he helped one student, Karlo Arellano, secure an excellent scholarship to the University of Southern California in 2008. Karlo was from a single-parent family, and his classmates were so very excited for him. That’s just one example, among thousands, of Rich’s influence over the years,” Mr. Groom concludes.
Dan Cronin contends that Borsch’s college-admissions relationships are, perhaps, unparalleled. “It’s a people business, and I say that as a politician,” he laughs. “Where does your daughter or son want to go,” Cronin asks, “to an Ivy League college out East, Santa Clara in California, Northwestern, Notre Dame? Rich gets kids into highly selective schools. It’s what he does. Just look at how many state scholars Fenwick sends to the University of Illinois’ pipeline every year! He has an elite record of accomplishment, and he keeps nurturing his network. And he can probably help secure that scholarship or grant you have your eye on, too. We are darn lucky to have him at Fenwick.”
“… behind that gruff exterior is a gem of a human being.”
– John Mahoney of Boston College
John Mahoney, Vice Provost for Enrollment Management at Boston College, has known Borsch for nearly 30 years. “Rich first confronted me in a phone call questioning a decision we had made on one of his top students. He sounded angry and strident,” Mr. Mahoney remembers. “As we talked through the case, I gained a better understanding of the student and Fenwick High School, and he gained a better understanding of our deliberation process and decision.
“Did that conversation enhance my perception of Fenwick and its students? Indeed, it did,” Mahoney stresses. “And, that is what makes Rich Borsch who he is: a passionate advocate for the students and the school he truly loves. And in the many intervening years since that first call, he has become one of the colleagues I respect most in this profession, which is really about serving students. Oh, and I should add, that behind that gruff exterior is a gem of a human being.”
Rob Durkle, Associate Vice President and Dean of Admission & Financial Aid at the University of Dayton, has worked with Borsch for his entire 39-year career. “Rich is a complete professional and is well respected among colleges and universities across the country,” Mr. Durkle says. “His commitment to the Fenwick community is second to none.
“Rich is a tireless worker, always with the best interest of the Fenwick students in mind. He has fostered a long and trusting relationship with the University of Dayton and is looked upon as an admired leader by our staff,” notes Durkle. “I have a greater sense of comfort when working with Rich, as he is always well prepared and has a no-nonsense approach to his work — something all colleges appreciate. The college counseling profession needs more people like Rich Borsch.”
At Notre Dame, Alisa Fisher is the Senior Associate Director of Admissions covering high schools in Cook, Lake and DuPage counties in Illinois. “Richard Borsch cares about every Fenwick student (and parent), not only regarding the attainment of college admissions success stories, but also in terms of encouraging well-being and balance throughout this stressful process,” Ms. Fisher writes. “He embraces his role as advocate for his seniors with a consummate professionalism that combines his vast breadth of knowledge with a continued interest in keeping current about the admissions world.
“My weekly calls from Rich are so welcome!” she continues. “We always discuss the admission global landscape! He routinely seeks answers on a student’s behalf. He wants to understand our current policies and application decisions. Thank you, Rich, for 25 years of such conversations. Along the way, you have helped me become a better admissions counselor by your wise counsel.”
Ann Bowe McDermott, Director of Admissions at College of the Holy Cross (Worcester, MA) sums up the sentiment of her counterparts across the country: “I have so enjoyed working with Rich over the years. He has been a tireless advocate for his students and a valued colleague in the admission profession.”