Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Crazy Time of a Crazy Year

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

I first heard someone say it at a New Year’s Eve party, many years ago.

“I can’t wait to say goodbye to this year.  It can’t leave soon enough.”

My heart really went out to that person.  It’s tough going through any challenging experience, but when they all seem to pile on top of each other in the same year, it makes a real challenge out of getting through the day.  It’s no wonder folks experiencing that hope January 1 will draw a line in the sand of despair, and give them the fresh start the calendar promises.

I expect I’ll hear that again this New Year’s Eve, because I’ve already heard it from lots of people—and it isn’t even December.  From the passing of so many amazing entertainers to a one-of-a-kind election to too many news features of frustrated citizens,  reasons abound for people to want to move on to 2017 without giving 2016 a proper goodbye, wishing instead just for good riddance.

This is just as true for children as it is for adults.  Grownups may better understand the challenges that come with a change in presidents, but don’t think that the children aren’t immune from the tension some parents might feel, and unwittingly share with others.  They might not be articulating the need for a safe space, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need one; and combined with the holiday tensions some families regularly encounter, it will be easy to understand if some students will be engaging in unusual behaviors in the next couple of weeks.

What can counselors do to help these students?  What we do best—support.

Create a safe space  Counselors know students will only reach out for help in places where they feel accepted, and where they know asking for help will give them the help they need.  Counselors devoted their energies making sure counseling centers have that vibe and that track record; now is not the time to take away the that certainty with a slip of the tongue about a new political leader or the edgy relative you’re not looking forward to seeing.  Our students need a message of support now more than ever; modelling that message is the very best thing any counselor can do.

Call on your team  You never want to expect trouble, but now might be the time to send a heads up to your classroom colleagues, reminding them of the kinds of stress this time of year puts on students, and encouraging them to let you know if there’s a student who might be struggling unexpectedly.  Intervening before a problem gets out of hand is a delicate mix of art and science, and the intuitive data teachers can provide can make a world of difference in a student’s life.  Let your work partners know how much you value their insights.

Self-regulate  Being a great counselor is important to everyone, but that won’t get your holiday shopping done, or help you manage your own disappointments of 2016.  Counselors often find themselves hanging around the office a little more this time of year for no particular reason.  Make sure you understand your surroundings and the perspective you have that’s shaping them.  You can only be at your best by checking in, and shaping up.

It’s been an unusual year, and this time of year brings with it all kinds of unusual dynamics.  Being your supportive self can create a secure sense for students who keep looking ahead to the What If of the holidays, or who want to know if we’re at 2017 yet.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The Future of College Access

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Many college access champions are wondering what the future holds for students looking for help applying to college.  While his campaign didn’t address this topic, President-elect Trump made specific promises to poor whites and urban-area blacks to improve their lives, and promised young people in general a better future.  He’s also expressed concern that the US Department of Education has too much power, and education decisions need to be returned to the states, a point many Democrats admit in private circles.

There are four things President-elect Trump’s administration can do to fulfill these promises, all by the end of his first year in office, while still improving the quality of college access for a great number of students.
  1. Improve Career and College Choices for Poor Young People  One of the  main reasons poor youth don’t get good paying jobs is because they don’t know they exist, or they don’t know how to get them.  A block grant program in Colorado has created 100 new school counseling positions that pay for themselves in four years, and have decreased the dropout rate, while increasing college enrollment and student participation in career training.  All of this is estimated to have saved Colorado $300 million.  Taking this block grant program to the federal level would be a snap, giving power to the states, and giving all poor youth a shot at a better future. 
  2. Provide Mentorships to Young People Who Understand Young People  These same youth are in desperate need of role models, students a few years older than them who overcame the same odds they’re facing, only to succeed in careers and colleges.  The National College Access Network has had great success developing such mentors in many states, mentors that offer sound college advice, as they support the college counseling curriculum developed by high school counselors.  A block grant version of the NCAN model can make the difference between helping poor students get to the next step, and being swallowed up by a life of desperation.
  3. Allow Student Loans to be Refinanced  Too many young people (and not so young people) are plagued with student loans they could easily pay if they could be refinanced and consolidated with other consumer-based debt.  This would give them the chance to get ahead, put a little money away, and use some of it responsibly to make purchases of other goods.  President-elect Trump’s strong connections in the banking industry could be instrumental in creating these avenues.
  4. Develop College-Based Success Partners  When poor young people get to college, they often don’t see anyone that looks like them, or comes from where they come from – and that can make adjustment to college life challenging.  Creating block grants for states to create college-based mentors to make sure low-income students develop the savvy needed to speak up for themselves and make the most of the rich resources of public universities.  A number of college-based mentorship programs exist; culling the best practices and developing a national model would be the perfect next task for a group like Better Make Room.
College access professionals are keeping a keen eye on the futures of undocumented students, financial aid, and the regulation of for-profit colleges, and with good reason.  While standing on principle for these core elements of college opportunity for all, advocates should also realize these four areas offer a place to begin dialogue with the new administration—dialogue that can lead to a better understanding on all sides of the needs of all students, and how college plays a role in meeting those needs.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

College Access under President Trump

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

It really should come as no surprise that the results of a presidential election lead to change.  Just like the start of a new school year, or getting a new principal, change requires us to focus on what we do and how we do it in a brand new way, if only because new people are involved in the processes we’ve  known and loved for years.

New faces might have been the only change some were expecting to deal with once the Electoral College had released its latest test scores, but with all the media calling this week’s results  “shocking”, it’s safe to conclude we’re in for more than just new faces in new places, implementing the same federal policies about college access.  It’s early to say what will happen to college opportunities under President Trump, but based on some of his campaign remarks, here are some possibilities we may need to consider:

Changes in financial aid  Many blogs and tweet sites have been abuzz with the notion that federal financial aid is going to become less available, both in the amount the federal government offers, and the number of students who receive it.  It’s uncertain where this claim comes from; part of it may be President-elect Trump’s assertion that government needs to change, and part of it may be the idea that education has long been the responsibility of the state, and a Trump administration will take financial aid and return it to those federalism roots.

Another possible change that’s been mentioned is the idea of increasing the role of banks in providing financial aid.  Cost-cutting efforts to eliminate the middleman in financial aid have generally been welcomed, but there are some who feel the federal government is holding colleges hostage with threats of cutting off student financial aid unless the college meets certain benchmarks, many related to student performance, and many, in the eyes of some, extremely unrealistic.

Privatizing federal financial aid may open more avenues for needy students to pursue, as would the loosening of restrictions on for-profit institutions, something that’s also been bantered about.  Either way, more changes to paying for college are in store than just this year’s switch to the FAFSA filing deadline.

DREAMers and College   Observers also believe a Trump administration will do little to expand college opportunities for undocumented students, with some believing the next president will institute changes that will make postsecondary access more restrictive for these students.  This would be in line with Candidate Trump’s insistence that immigration reform is badly needed in the United States, even though his specific plans for that reform have changed greatly since the promise to build a wall on the Mexican border. 

President-elect Trump’s policy on immigration in general may do even more to discourage undocumented students from seeking education of any kind, even at the K-12 level.  The GOP candidate has discussed deportation programs for undocumented individuals as part of a general priority of the administration.  If that’s the case, some families may make the decision to keep their children home from school, for fear of being discovered.

Common Core  One educational priority of the new administration that’s unlikely to affect college opportunity is the suspension of Common Core as a curriculum in schools.  Since the decision to use Common Core has always been made at the state level, the Trump administration would likely have to use federal mandates to restrict its use—a tactic that would give more power to the federal government, not less.  Look for this area as one that will require the new president to clarify his priorities.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Now that November 1st is Gone…

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

The last week has been way more trick than treat for most high school counselors.  More high school seniors than ever before have been applying to colleges through early application programs, and many of those have a November 1 deadline.  What started out as a bit of early trickle a few years ago became more of an early flood this year, with Common Application alone reporting 18,000 college applications submitted between 11 pm and midnight on November 1.

It’s certainly a treat to see that many students interested in college, and even better to see that they are organized enough to submit applications this early in the year—even if it meant some long nights and early mornings at the office for the counselors who had to submit all the transcripts to go with those applications.  But early applications can also bring some tricks along with them, way after November 1 has come and gone.  It’s known as the “If My Early School Doesn’t Take Me” riddle, and you want to make sure you know the answer soon.

Here’s how this works.  One of the reasons students apply early to a college is because they just don’t see themselves anywhere else.  This is especially true with Early Decision (ED) applicants, who must agree to attend the college that admits them ED.  When it comes to applying to college, this isn’t really asking to go steady; this is more like proposing marriage.

Sincere applicants are always a joy to work with, but the increased volume of early applicants means more of them are likely to get deferred, or rejected—and that can be a problem.  Many students are so focused on their dream school, they either don’t have a Plan B, or Plan B is something like “I’ll hear from my Early school on December 15.  If they don’t admit me, I’ll just apply to my seven backup schools over the holidays.”

That may work out well for the student, if they really want to ring in the New Year in front of a screen.  But what about the teachers and counselors who have to send letters and transcripts to support those seven applications—and what if there are, say, 30 students using this strategy in your high school?  Do you plan to give up part of your holiday, paying homage to the copier, fax machine, or online application submission program?

If none of those are part of your plan, you’ll want to plan ahead.  Tell all students to notify you by December 1 of their plans to apply to any schools with a January 1st deadline.  Any student who misses that deadline will then know their transcripts and letters will go out after the holidays, late—and that’s real incentive.

It’s likely you’ll get some students who will tell you this deadline is ruining their Early strategy, but you can calm them down by saying “I’m not saying you have to have the application in by then.  I’m just saying you need to tell us there’s a chance you’ll apply to that college.  If you change you never apply, that’s OK.  If you do, my part of your application will already be there.”

This is one of  THE hardest parts of the college application process to explain to students, who don’t fully grasp that it’s an asynchronous production.  But every part can run together while running independently, and they’re just going to have to trust that.  Pick your date, spread the word, and say it often, and everyone can have a December holiday that doesn’t feel like Halloween.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Senior Panic, and What to Do About It

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Just one look, and you know something’s different.

They came to school a handful of weeks ago, nicely tanned, hugely stoked, ready to rule the school.  This was the year of The Class of 2017, and nothing was going to hold them back from being the Best. Class. Ever.  Not tough classes, not college applications, and not even Genevieve, the freakishly large captain of the junior powderpuff football team, who promised to make Spirit Week memorable for the seniors, but not in a good way.

Now, the end of the first quarter is nigh, and the summer sparkle has been replaced by the autumnal pallor of lots of study time and little fresh air.  The seniors held the juniors off to win the Spirit Jug, and Genevieve’s last gridiron nemesis has just come out of traction with a college essay that is prize worthy—but everyone else who’s going to walk the stage in June is walking around like  a zombie, and that isn’t because Halloween is next week.

Welcome to the laws of physics brought to life.  Seniors started the year on a high that lasted through the first three weeks of school, where most classes were a review of what they learned last year, and everyone made the mistake of thinking twelfth grade was going to be a snap.  But what starts up has to come down, and once October came with the new ideas everyone has to master in every class, seniors had to try and find a gear they didn’t know existed—right about the time their first college application was due. 

They’re now on their third college application, and the initial college excitement has turned into tedium (“They want my date of birth?  Again?”), just as the end-of-the-quarter exams are in view. Ask a senior how they’re doing, and they’ll say “Fine”, but the tone is like they’re on auto-pilot, convinced a college will find out if they say anything else and make a note of it in their file. “We were going to admit you, but there was that Thursday in late October when you doubted your own existence…”

We’re counselors, so of course we want to jump in and administer affective triage to our students.  But even our best “You can do this” will come across as a Twinkie, and our seniors need sustenance.

So tell them to close their eyes. It isn’t October of this year; now, it’s October of next year.  Where are you?  What are you doing?  What are you wearing?  Who are you with?

It will fall out of their mouths like a smile comes from an infant.  I’m on campus.  The leaves are gorgeous, and the sun is shining.  I’m by myself, reading some really thick book, taking notes furiously, and I understand all of it.  I’m sipping some kind of foamy, beige-colored drink in a clear plastic container, and I have a sweater tied around my neck, like I’m in some kind of cheesy Eddie Bauer ad.  Three people pass by and all say hello, but I can’t tell you what their faces look like now, because I haven’t met them yet, but we’re friends. I go back to my book, and I still understand it.  I’m happy.  I’ve made it.

Great, you say.  Open your eyes now.  It’s this October, and the leaves are stunning.  You don’t know that now, because high schools don’t have any trees, which says a lot about American school systems, but take a look on your way home.  The backpack you brought in my office that will give you scoliosis by twenty-three has several thick books in it, just waiting to be understood by someone who loves to learn.  I know that’s you, and I’ve told the colleges exactly that.

If you give me a minute, I can probably hijack a lukewarm cup of something bleakly brown out of the staff room and let you drink it while you study.  If you really want to, you can take your hoodie off and tie it around your shoulders.  Better yet, Principal Freeman is a member of Eddie Bauer’s Gold Club, which means she can have that sweater here tomorrow, with free shipping.

Or, there’s this.  Suppose there’s a ball on the floor, and you push it.  It goes one foot in the first second of travel, then half a foot the next second, then a quarter of a foot, and so on.  When will it travel a total of two feet?

Right.  It never gets to two feet, but it always keeps travelling.  Would it stop if it knew it would never reach two feet, or is that just a goal someone else made that has nothing to do with its journey?

There’s the bell. It’s time for you to push on.  Thanks for coming in.

Welcome to the laws of physics brought to life.  

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

What to Say When Your Students are Freaked About College Apps

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Peer pressure is an amazing thing.
There haven’t been two months of school in many states, but some seniors are already convinced everyone is ahead of them in the rush to college. “I’m all through with my applications” beams Jennifer. “I’ve narrowed my Early Decision college down to two” boasts another student. “I’m almost done with my first application” crows a third, “my essay is all that’s left.”
Seniors, it is October 20. College doesn’t start for 10 months. No college has closed admission, and one isn’t likely to until November 30. After that, there will only be, oh, about 3000 other colleges to choose from. Many of them don’t require test scores or essays, most don’t let students apply Early Decision — and they totally rock. So there’s time.
But enough about them. Let’s talk about you.
When was the last time something good ever happened to your life when you took a snapshot of somebody else’s life and assumed it was wonderful? Jennifer may be finished applying to college, but maybe that’s because her mother was holding the car keys hostage until the apps were done. Does that make for great college essays — especially since essays due January 1st should be reviewed December 15th, just in case the first four months of senior year have changed you, the way you look at the world, or what you want to do with your life?
And your friend who’s choosing an Early Decision school — does he understand this is like marriage? Sure, more ED students get admitted (by percentage) than students who wait — but if your one ED college accepts you, you have to go there. Done, Decided. Welcome to the Family.
If your friend has doubts about both of these schools, maybe it isn’t time to book the bachelor party just yet. Instead, he should find some other colleges that have the best qualities of both schools, apply to all of them as a regular applicant, and see what feels best eight months from now.

As for our applicant who needs to finish her essays, she is probably stuck on her essays. If so, it’s likely she is trying to write them Tuesday night at 10, after a full day of school, band practice, homework, and a dinner that involves microwaved pasta, no lettuce, and little family time.
If this describes your friend, here is her antidote — no essays on Tuesday. Carve a two-hour block out of Saturday or Sunday (or both), work on your applications then — and only then — and forget about them during the week. That way, you get to study and learn, work on the homecoming float, have a great senior year, and write great college essays to boot. Plus, your applications will be done by Thanksgiving, so you can spend Christmas break with your family, not with your computer.
The root of all bad living lies in thinking someone else has it better than you — it can make you feel trapped, confused, and unworthy. Funny thing is, that isn’t because of pressure a peer is putting on you; that’s because of pressure you’re putting on yourself.
It’s time to deflate. Be happy Jennifer’s mom is off her back, tell the bridegroom ED doesn’t have to be, and make sure your pal with the essays gets a real meal next Tuesday. You’ll be happier, they’ll be happier, and you may find your first college application will be easier to complete than you thought.
On Saturday.
(Oh, right. What’s another reason your friend might not be able to write her essays?  Click here.)

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

The Role of Texting in College Counseling

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

One of the biggest challenges school counselors face is keeping in touch with their students.  This is especially true when it comes to advising students about college plans.  With all of the choices, and all of the steps that have to be taken, and all of the forms that have to be completed, how can counselors help students keep things organized, and make sure they stay on task?

One way many counselors have met this needs is by using a group texting program like Remind.  These programs allow counselors to set up texting groups on a computer, where counselors can invite students to join the group.  Student cell phone numbers are never revealed to the counselor, assuring security, but the counselor is able to reach out to students with timely information on college application deadlines, scholarship information, and more, using the medium most students prefer to use.

The success counselors have realized through texting has been noticed by the White House, which has recently announced a texting program designed to help keep students on track with their college plans. What’s Up Next sends out regular texts for students with tips on all facets of the college selection and application process, and includes tips on paying for college.  This program is free, and students can sign up at Counselors planning on sharing this opportunity with their students are strongly urged to sign up for the service as well, since this is the best way to make sure the messages students are getting from What’s Up Next align with the goals, deadlines, and messages counselors are sending to students about college.

Texting plays a major role in combating one of the biggest challenges in the college selection process, summer melt.  A Harvard report suggests that 10-40% of all students who graduate from high school with plans to attend college end up not attending come fall.  One of the biggest reasons seems to be a breakdown in communication over the summer; students stop reading emails the colleges send that tell students about important deadlines for enrollment and financial aid, and there are no counselors around to remind students that they still have work to do to get ready for college.  As a result, students don’t get enrolled, or worse, they lose their financial support, and they don’t know how to get back into the college track once they’ve fallen out of it.  That’s summer melt.

The best way to avoid summer melt is to make sure counselors play a key role in the lives of students over the summer- - and that means texting.  By using either a texting program or a disposable phone, counselors can reach out to students with 1-2 texts a week with simple messages (“Check your email for college updates?”, “Did you sign up for orientation yet?”) that will lead to students following up or keeping on track. 

Counselors will want to do a little planning ahead of time to line up the texts in an order that moves students toward college in the right sequence, and they’ll likely have to follow up some texts answering emails to students that have specific questions. It’s also a good idea to contact the Student Services department of the colleges attended by many of your students, to see if *they* offer a texting program your students can subscribe to.  This is a great way for colleges to take over the guidance of the students that will soon be on campus.

You’ve worked hard to get your students into college.  A little more work with your thumbs can seal the deal.