Sunday, August 21, 2016

College Readiness Checklist Fails to Make the Grade

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

While we’ve been away this summer, the School Superintendent’s Association (AASA) has released a series of National College and Career Readiness Indicators. These three checklists can be used to determine if students will succeed in their chosen post secondary path of college or career, along with one checklist to determine if they are, according to the Website, ready for life.
AASA calls these research-based metrics, but doesn’t cite the research on their Website or indicate the involvement of counselors or college admission officers in the creation of the lists. They go on to state “the campaign is a response to dismal college and career readiness scores reported by standardized test makers that fail to portray a comprehensive picture of student potential.”
The comprehensive picture AASA has drawn for college readiness reads as follows:
GPA 2.8 out of 4.0 and one or more of the following benchmarks:
Advanced Placement Exam (3+)
Advanced Placement Course (A, B or C)
Dual Credit College English and/or Math (A, B or C)
College Developmental/Remedial English and/or Math (A, B or C)
Algebra II (A, B or C)
International Baccalaureate Exam (4+)
College Readiness Placement Assessment*
The College-Ready list then goes on to site minimum scores on the ACT, as well as “other factors” that contribute to college success, including completion of the FAFSA.
The stated goal of the indicators is to prove “Our students are more than a score”, a slogan that seems to refer to deciding a student’s college readiness based exclusively on the ACT or SAT. Given the list they’ve created, AASA seems to be suggesting students are indeed more than just one score; they are three scores. If the list is an accurate indicator of college readiness, students are ready to take on the rigors of college as long as they have a minimum score on the ACT; a minimum GPA, and a C in any class from Algebra II to an AP course.
This position is completely counter to the one taken on by school counselors and college admission officers, who have long felt that college readiness is a much more intricate construct, and never determined by just one score, or by just three. Directly involved in the college selection process, these educators have long held, for example, that a student is more likely to be college ready if they’ve taken rigorous classes across the curriculum, not just one AP class.
In addition, a number of colleges are convinced that a C in an advanced class suggests the student is unlikely to succeed in college, since average college grades are typically one full grade level below what a student earns in high school. Given that data point, is AASA really willing to say a student with a C in Algebra II is a success if they earn a D in their first year of College Algebra, or if their high school GPA of 2.8 turns into a 1.8 at university? This would rebuff years of institutional data that has been created and verified by thousands of colleges, data that includes the role of personal maturity and socialization as measures of college readiness.
In addition, this college readiness list will undoubtedly lead parents to reconsider what they thought they knew about choosing a college in ways that can be harmful to students. Since the list doesn’t answer the question “Ready for which colleges?” parents will now safely assume that the college readiness list will prepare their child to succeed in any curriculum at any college, from community college to research universities to the Ivy League.
I for one am not looking forward to the first phone call from an ebullient parent who advises me that I was wrong about Johnny’s college prospects, since the Superintendent’s Association has decided that Johnny’s 2.9 GPA and C in Algebra II really does make him ready for Yale, no matter what I think. I don’t mind having the conversation; I do have concerns what that conversation will do to Johnny.
Helping students with the very personal experience of discovering colleges that are best suited to advance their goals, talents, and dreams has never been an easy thing to do, if it’s done well. A vast majority of school counselors and college admission counselors will readily admit that the many Best Colleges lists haven’t helped that cause, since those rankings are based on factors that either have little to do with a student’s college experience, or don’t take the unique needs of each student into account when creating the list. Counselors and college admissions officers do that; lists don’t.
Well-meaning as it may be, this checklist of college ready attributes does little to help the cause of college readiness. It may be news to some superintendents and principals that there’s more to being ready for college than a good score on the ACT, but that’s only because those school leaders have never had a serious conversation with their counselors about the purpose of college, and the process of creating a successful college fit between student and school.
The creation of this college readiness list may create that opportunity, as administrators may use its rollout as an occasion to advise counselors how to “do” college counseling. School counselors are going to want to be ready for that conversation with armloads of data and the insights of college admission officers. If they are, that conversation could lead to new levels of support for college counseling programs —one of the few outcomes of the creation of these checklists that could be considered a plus.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A Good and Bad Spring for Diversity on Campus

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

It’s been an interesting and rocky spring for college diversity.  Efforts to improve diversity through college admissions received an unexpected boost this week, when the US Supreme Court affirmed the right of the University of Texas to use race as a factor in some of its undergraduate admissions decisions.  Since the Supreme Court had already heard this case before, this second hearing hinged on a pivotal question:  was the way Texas used race designed to affect as few people as possible?
The answer came from the unlikely voice of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has never voted in favor of an affirmative action case in college admissions in his long career on the bench.  Given this surprise ruling came as the result of a vote of support from an unlikely source, it’s easy to understand why champions of diversity are thrilled, in fact downright giddy, over this week’s decision.

The Fisher decision certainly gives new life to affirmative action, but Justice Kennedy’s opinion also included some warnings that too many analysts are overlooking.  After granting the University of Texas the right to continue their admissions program, Justice Kennedy went on to advise the university to “use… data to scrutinize the fairness of its admissions program; to assess whether changing demographics have undermined the need for a race-conscious policy; and to identify the effects, both positive and negative, of the affirmative-action measures it deems necessary.” Combined with other comments in the opinion that were thoughtfully picked up by the Chronicle’s Andy Thomason, the overall effect of Justice Kennedy’s opinion is less a genuine embrace of affirmative action, and more an acknowledgement that affirmative action serves an important, but what the Court hopes will be a short-lived, purpose. It is safe to say Justice Kennedy had a change of vote.  Given his past concerns about affirmative action, and the halting tones of support in his opinion in Fisher, it is unclear that he has had a change of heart. 

Beyond the actions of our legal system, several articles published this spring suggest diversity of opinion is having a tough time on college campuses.  From articles about trigger warnings on campus (notices about class content that some may deem controversial) to job actions taken against professors who try to present all sides of an issue in classroom debates, authors across the political spectrum are concerned that more and more students want to hear less and less about opinions that disagree even modestly from their own.  Whether it’s the result of coddling or simple lack of exposure to dissenting opinions in the past, student backlash to the presentation of ideas that cause them to question their core values seems to be at an all-time high, as is the expectation that it is the job of the college administration to shield students from opinions the students might find offensive.

No one can say with any true authority how the Founding Fathers would view affirmative action, but it is clear from their writings and their conduct that the discussion of difficult subjects and the willingness to find common ground are cornerstones of the founding and successes of our country and our society.  As the Supreme Court tries valiantly to grapple with key elements of college access, those with access to a college education seem less and less interested in using those opportunities to engage in genuine discourse.  The poor role models of Congress and Jerry Springer may have led them to take this posture, but it is one that is contrary to the purpose of higher learning, and to the betterment of our world.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

You’re Worried About the Changes in College Admission. Your Students Aren’t, and Don’t Need to Be

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It’s easy to understand why some school counselors are nervous about next year.  SAT changes, a new multi-school college application, and major changes in financial aid deadlines are more than enough to concern those of us who have been involved in the college application process for a long time.

But here’s the thing.  Next year’s seniors haven’t been involved in the college application process for a long time.  They are bringing new eyes and new energy to a process that has exactly one purpose:  help them build what’s next in their life.  It may mean more than that to you, but that’s all it means to them, and that’s all it should ever mean to them.  That’s why they don’t really care about all the changes – and that’s why our task is to make sure they never do.

I know, I know.  “But there will system glitches with the new SAT and the new FAFSA deadline.”

Maybe.  But in case you missed it, this wasn’t exactly the smoothest year for standardized testing, even before the new SAT rolled out.  Colleges didn’t get test scores from both ACT and College Board until well after many application deadlines.  That wasn’t because anything was new; it just happened, we told the students, and they went back to English class.  Once it showed up, we dealt with it and moved on, minimizing student stress.  That goal is the same for this year.

“But kids need to know what their score on the new SAT means to colleges.”

Yes they do.  Just like last year’s students needed to know what their score on the old SAT meant to colleges.  They asked; the colleges told them, and the student had their answer.  This year shouldn’t be any different.

“But the new FAFSA deadline will really change things for students.”

Not really.  It will give this year’s students different opportunities and responsibilities, but this year’s class doesn’t have that knowledge—so they don’t have to change anything.  We have to change what we say to this year’s students, but it doesn’t change their existing mind set.  It’s all new to them.


OK.  Perhaps we should just talk about the real issue.  You aren’t worried about what the changes are going to do to your students, who don’t know the history of college admissions.  You’re worried about what the changes are going to do to you.  Interpreting the new SAT.  Helping students apply for college and financial aid at the same time.  Hoping the Coalition application allows you to send a transcript, and that it gets there.  All perfectly understandable.  All perfectly reasonable.

All having nothing to do with your students.

It makes perfect sense that you’re nervous about all of this, because it changes the way you do your work, and that means your programs, newsletters, and calendar all need to be updated, and may not be perfect this year.  It’s your first time doing things this way—just like it’s the first time your students are applying to college.  That means you’re in this together.

Use this to your advantage.  Combine your wisdom with your students’ sense of wonder and endless possibility, and see where it takes you.  It will be new, it may be unpredictable, and it may take you somewhere you least expect—but you will experience all of this together, with the student’s best interests as the ultimate and only goal.

In a time where college admissions seems more and more like a pricey game, what more could you possibly want than a chance to start fresh?

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

College Access and Your Principal: An Essential Partnership

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

The Internet is already full of the pictures that hold a special place in the hearts of school counselors.  Dressed in cap and gown and beaming ear to ear, an incredibly delighted high school graduate is standing next to an equally delighted, somewhat older, and often slightly slouching adult.  Off to college, perhaps with a counselor-discovered scholarship in hand, the caption under the picture reads “Thank to my counselor Mrs. Smith, I’m doing something I never thought I would do—go to college.”

It does our hearts and our stress levels a world of good to see a counselor’s hard work pay off for a student with college dreams.  As we think about professional goals for next year, we can’t help but wonder what we can do to help more students realize that dream, if that’s what they want to do.

That’s where your building principal comes in.  Long recognized as an essential element of a successful school counseling program, strong counselor-principal bonds are a must in order to create the college-going atmosphere that gives all students the chance to consider college as a viable postsecondary choice, understand what it takes to be ready to make the most of college, and walk the sometimes winding path of applying to college and finding the resources to pay for it.  When it comes to setting college goals for next year, here are three reasons why you need to start with the principal-counselor relationship:

College Access Isn’t A Program; It’s an Atmosphere  There are some programs counselors can run without anyone else’s assistance, but creating a college-going atmosphere simply isn’t one of them. We may be the masters of college awareness, but students knowing which college they like best means nothing if they don’t have the skills and attitude necessary to make the most of the college experience.  That’s largely built in the classroom, through extracurricular activities, and in conversations about learning that need to go on outside the counseling office in order for students to truly be college ready.

It’s important for counselors to have strong relationships directly with teachers, but when it comes to integrating college readiness into every assignment, building time in the annual schedule for events like College Application Week, and sending the right message about the role of college to parents, principals can move the college access needle as no one else can.

Your Principal is Your Boss  It’s also important to remember that principals control the one commodity counselors never have enough of—time.  From assigning tasks like schedule changes and test administration to creating policies for when colleges can visit your students, principals play a significant role in deciding what gets done in the college curriculum, when it gets done, and what doesn’t get done.  Any college program that requires more counseling time, or more building resources, ultimately happens only with your principal’s OK—and it will only get done successfully with their enthusiastic OK.  Give your administrators take a personalized tour of your college counseling curriculum.

Your Principal is Well Connected  A growing body of research shows that an effective college-going culture is best created in the community, not just in the school.  Since the principal is seen as the face of the school in the larger community, it’s essential counselors make the most of the relationships principals have with business leaders, the local media, faith leaders in the community, and heads of area government.  A world of partnerships, internships, job shadowing, professional connections, and program resources await the counselor who builds strong bonds with caring community members, and that relationship begins through the principal’s office. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The 5 Minute Evaluation Program

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

School counseling has come a long way as a profession in a short amount of time.  From updated ASCA standards to a new array of formatting data to being honored at the White House, it’s safe to say that our profession is more visible, more respected, and better understood than ever before.

All of this growth is good, but a key part of change is incorporating or modifying successful past practices in ways that make sense in our brave new world. That’s certainly the case with evaluation and assessment of counseling services and programs.  New data reports can offer finely detailed accounts of attitudes, participation, and pre/post change, but there’s still something to be said for that moment when we pause for a moment after a student leaves our office and we quietly say to ourselves, “Yeah, that could have gone better.”

There’s nothing scientific about that approach, to be sure, but it can create opportunities for additional deliberations, both formal and informal, that lead to real change, and better service.  An award-winning college instructors call this the “onramp assessment method.”  His campus is close to a freeway, and every semester without fail, he leaves campus for the last time that term, hits the onramp, and knows exactly what he needs to do to improve the quality of his teaching next term.

This is a crazy time of year for counselors, so it might be hard to find five minutes, but that’s an even better reason to find them, turn away from the Mania of May, and ask yourself these simple questions. The answers can take you far on the freeway of improvement—and besides, this week’s column is a little short, so you can use the time you’d usually spend reading on helping yourself.

Hey, I’m a counselor—I’m here to help.

  • What three things went well this year?
  • What three things could have gone better?
  • If you had the chance, what one event or meeting would you do over, and why?
  • What one event or meeting makes you burst with pride?
  • If your supervisor was asked to identify three goals for you for next year, what would they be?
  • Are they the same three goals you have for yourself?
  • If they aren’t, what are you going to do to negotiate the difference?
  • It’s this day, next year.  What was glorious about the year you just lived?

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Apply to College *and* Financial Aid in the Same Month?

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

School counselors throughout the land were really stoked when the US Department of Education first announced a change in the filing date for the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid.  By moving the date to October 1 of the senior year (it used to be January 1), the government was giving students an extra four months to apply to college with at least some idea of how much aid they would receive from the federal government, and how much they would have to pay.  When a decision is as important and costly as college, there’s nothing like having some extra time.

Now that it’s spring, counselors are putting their fall activity schedules together, and it’s starting to dawn on them that they’ll have to move their FAFSA completion activities to September—which, of course, is the same month they’re helping students apply to college.  Throw in a couple of weeks of schedule changes, and the new FAFSA deadline now seems less about giving students more time, and more about trying to drive counselors over the edge.  All we need now is to have administration move the Awards Assembly and AP week to September, and our journey to insanity will be complete.

It would be great if we could delay applying to college or filling out the FAFSA for a month, but the two are now linked in the minds of students, so delaying one could unintentionally derail the college plans of the very students the new deadline was meant to enhance.  If you’re trying to figure out how to manage this 1-2 Septemberpunch, consider these options:

Build FAFSA into your College Application Week plans.  Many high schools are already devoting a full week to raising awareness of college options through College Application week.  Designed to be a Spirit Week for college, this is a week many counselors help students apply to college—so why not build some FAFSA time into this event?  The whole school is already focusing on college this week, so this is a perfect add-on, making a rich week much richer, and only a little crazier (if College Application Week is a new idea to you, go here for some CAW ideas.)

Seek outside partners to help students and families with FAFSA.  Some high schools take a different approach, working with students on college applications, but focusing on parents for FAFSA completion.  If that’s the case, it’s wise to consider working with community partners to create a separate set of activities for parents to complete in September that may, or may not, have something to do with College Application Week.  Some schools partner with local accountants and tax preparers to host a series of FAFSA completion workshops in the school computer lab on September nights and weekends, while others call on college financial aid officers to offer introductory workshops during these same time periods.  Financial aid guidelines change quickly, so it’s wise to make sure you have a college cash partner who stays on top of the trends—and that doesn’t always have to be you.

Build an Early September/Late September model.  If the idea of doing both these important activities at once is just too much, consider splitting September in half.  If you start with the FAFSA activities, you can lean on your college cash partners to lead the way in early September, when counselors are usually inundated with schedule changes.  This means you can focus on college applications in late September, with some students having their FAFSA information in hand by then. Now there’s a winning combination!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The College Application Question No One Wants to Handle

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

At first, it seems like a simple couple of questions that cause most college applicants no problem.  Usually located right after the student’s name, address, senior year schedule, and year of graduation, two fairly long questions appear, both with Yes and No boxes to check:

“Have you ever been suspended, disciplined, expelled, or put on probation while in high school?”

“Have you ever been charged with, or convicted of, a misdemeanor or felony?”

Like most things in life, if neither situation applies to you, this is no big deal—check no twice, and start thinking about how to tackle the essay prompt.  But for those students who don’t check no, life can get interesting in a hurry—and that means it gets interesting for counselors, who are often asked the same question.

As is always the case, the best plan to have is to plan ahead.  For the question about school discipline:

  • Make sure you know the school policy on how to answer this question.  Many schools have a policy requiring counselors not to answer this question—the student can, but the counselor cannot.  If your school has a policy, follow it; if your school doesn’t have a policy, develop one.  Now.
  • It’s important to read the question on each application closely. Some schools will ask about the student’s entire disciplinary record, while others will only want to know about discipline that led to time away from school.  One answer may not apply to all applications.
  • When the answer is “yes”, the college may ask for an explanation.  Many schools direct counselors to discuss this with the student, have the student write an explanation they review together, and submit that answer, with no additional explanation from the counselor.  This shows the college that the student is taking ownership, and can explain how they have moved on from the situation—and that’s the important part of the explanation.  Unless it’s absolutely necessary, the counselor doesn’t add their own comments.
  • If the situation is complex, the counselor may simply want to say “please call me” when answering the question.  The student should still submit an answer as well.

The question about misdemeanors and felonies is more challenging, largely because most counselors aren’t aware of these situations, since most students aren’t eager to share them.  At the same time, many students will simply stop filling out a college application, convinced that simply answering Yes to this question will lead to a denial of their application.

After once again reviewing school policy, the best way to be proactive with this question is to supply general information to all students.  They need to know that most colleges evaluate each Yes answer on its own merits, and many colleges that ask this question turn all Yes answers over to a separate legal or judicial division of the college.  This group often reads the student’s explanation, does any appropriate investigations, and determines if the student would pose a risk to the college.  If the answer is no, the application is then read for admission like every other application, and the matter is closed.

It’s easy to understand that some people think one poor choice is like one low grade—that it will eliminate college as an option.  While discipline questions aren’t usually a part of college admission, it’s important all students know that “one strike and you’re out” doesn’t generally apply.  These questions shouldn’t get in the way of pursuing your college goals.