Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Choosing a College Amid the Chaos

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It’s easy to forget about some of the day-to-day happenings in our lives lately, but despite the unusual events going on around us, this is still the time of year many high school seniors are making plans for college. The last few colleges will be sending out admissions decisions, and since seniors have had the last week off, they’ve had plenty of time to wait, wonder, and worry.

It’s time to put that energy to good use in putting together plans for a bright future. As college-bound seniors and their families consider their options, it’s important to keep these factors in mind:

Read the letters colleges are sending you with care. Many colleges are sending admissions decisions out right now, and it’s important that you read them from start to finish. If you’ve been accepted, the letter will talk about what to do next, and when you need to pay your enrollment deposit and housing deposit—and those may have different deadlines. If you’ve been waitlisted—where the college is still considering your application, but hasn’t admitted you yet— the letter will tell you if you need to let the school know you still want to be considered for admission. If you’ve been denied, the letter could let you know about transfer options you could pursue in the coming years. In any case, reading the entire letter is important.

Most colleges are still accepting applications. If the letters you get from colleges leave you thinking twice about your college options, consider starting over. For some reason, people think colleges stop taking applications around April 1, even if the college still has plenty of room for more students. That simply isn’t the case-- nearly every college would be happy to take your application now, and in many cases, as late as August. Some colleges may not be accepting students in certain majors, but call the college admissions office and ask. The answer will likely surprise you.

Many families need to update their financial aid applications, or file one. Many families invest in the stock market to save for college, and the ups and downs of the market may find many families in a different place than they were when their senior applied to college last fall. The financial aid budgets of most colleges haven’t been affected by these changes—that’s likely to happen next year—but a college can’t help a family who needs more financial support if the family doesn’t let them know their situation has changed.

In all my years as a college counselor, the single hardest part of my work is getting families to call financial aid offices. I can understand why—family finances are a pretty personal thing—but if you think the market has changed the college you can afford, it’s time to pick up the phone. If your senior has been admitted to college, that college wants to do everything they can to make sure you can afford to let them attend—you just have to let them. Pick up the phone, and make the call. They’ll tell you what they need to know.

Consider starting at one college and finishing at another. For better or worse, colleges have seen these same tough financial times very recently, with the recession of 2008. One of the many options many students took advantage of was starting their college career at one school—one a little less expensive, and usually closer to home—then transferring after a year or two to the college of their choice. This has a lot of advantages, since it allows the student to start their college career and keep their academic skills sharp, while giving their college fund a breather, and allowing the stock market time to recover its losses, making the last two years of college at a pricier school more affordable.

If transferring seems like a choice for you, you want to make a call to the school where you plan on finishing your college experience. Most colleges take transfer students, but not all of them, so you’d need to know that. You’ll also want to know which classes to take at your first college that will count towards the degree you want to get from your second college—and the best way to know that is to ask the college that’s giving you the degree.

Talk to your school counselor. If there’s ever a time to run your ideas past someone who can help you make a strong college choice, it’s now. Even if you don’t know your school counselor well, they can help you sort out your options, and even mention some you haven’t considered. Yes, most counselors have way too many students, but with school closed, they have more time than ever to learn more about you, and help you decide where to go from here. Most counseling offices are offering ways to reach out to your counselor. Check your high school’s website, and that should get you going.

It might be hard to see just when life will be back to business as usual, but when it is, you want to make sure your plans are on track to move forward with your life in the best way you can. Taking the time to revisit your college plans is the best way to do that.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

What Colleges Can Do To Support High School Seniors During the Virus

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Colleges and universities are doing the right thing for their students by closing campuses and moving all courses to an online format. These are by no means perfect solutions, but they’re doing the best they can to put students first in these challenging times.

With that record of success behind them, it’s now time for colleges to do the right thing for future students—the high school seniors who will soon be choosing which college to attend this fall. Spring is the time for seniors and their families to sort out their choices for life after high school, but just like the students already in college, the current situation is throwing some hurdles in the way of the Class of 2020. Here’s what colleges can do to help students navigate those obstacles, and make a strong choice for what comes next in their lives:

Delay the date a required enrollment deposit has to be paid. Most colleges ask students to make an enrollment deposit by May 1, a sign that the student intends to attend that college in the fall. May 1 usually works pretty well, but that’s assuming students have had the opportunity to visit campuses over Spring Break and do some serious comparison shopping. Obviously, that’s out for now.

Oregon State University was the first college in the country to see this problem, and they found a pretty easy solution- they’ve moved their deposit deadline to at least June 1. OSU’s chief enrollment officer points out that there’s nothing magical about the May 1 date, so if an extra month gives students a chance to see campuses, why not? A number of other colleges requiring a deposit have done the same thing; the current list can be found here. Let’s hope it grows.

Consider developing new payment plans to meet the financial changes brought on by the virus. OSU’s officer also points out that, while we were all out hoarding kitchen wipes, the stock market has been on a roller coaster ride that has been more down than up. Since many families invest college funds in the market, that means a good number of families might discover what they thought they could afford last fall—when their senior applied to college—is either completely out of reach, or is going to require some fancy financing if it’s going to work.

Since there are fewer high school seniors to choose from this year, colleges need to think about doing what they can to keep interested students from changing their minds for less expensive options. Colleges that have payment plans need to remind parents they exist; colleges that don’t need to come up with them, and fast.

Revisit options available for students who need to put college on hold. Despite everyone’s best efforts, circumstances are going to arise where students who thought they were headed to college this fall will have to put those plans on hold. Illnesses can affect families and family businesses, where a spare pair of hands can make all the difference in moving forward with purpose.

This happens often enough under normal times that colleges allow students to delay the start of their college attendance, provided they meet certain criteria. Known as deferring attendance, many colleges require students to re-apply for admission in order to delay their start, while others require some kind of deposit.

It’s time to review those requirements. Students may be so busy with their studies that they’ll need the summer to make their final college choice, or they may need a semester or two to save up what they need to pay for their first year, giving the stock market time to recover as well.

Flexibility has been the key in the thoughtful responses colleges have made to the current crisis. These steps will go a long way to extend that flexibility to next year’s freshman class, giving them a sense of belonging that will make the college transition a smooth one.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Planning for the Pandemic

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I’m a little late to the pandemic preparation party, mostly because it hasn’t quite yet hit my part of the country. Still, two colleges in my state just switched to all online classes, and music concerts are being cancelled for this weekend, so it’s probably time to ask myself, what exactly will my counseling program look like if my school closes for a while?

If you’re making plans, or if you’ve already made them, see if this checklist helps your sense of readiness:

What counseling services are going to be offered while my school is closed? Before we get too far down the road of being “open for business” under difficult circumstances, it’s worth asking just what the goal is in being open in the first place. Since my work is primarily in college counseling, and admissions decisions are coming out in two weeks, my plan includes communicating with students and families who have questions about financial aid offers, college plans, admissions answers, and more.

Counselors who do more of the mental health/social-emotional side of our work are given a more challenging task. How do you offer support to students you can’t see in person? Can you? Should you? It would be easy to decide that’s just not something you can do, but if you’re the only listening ear that student has access to, maybe it’s not that easy after all.

What resources will you need to offer these services? If a student needs help, they come see you in your office. What do you do if you don’t have an office they can go to—try and talk via an online meeting platform? E-mail? Burner cell phone? Meet at a local coffee shop, where confidentiality is slim and the chances of catching what you’re trying to avoid could be greater? Which files and materials do you need to take home, and which ones are accessible online—and if you have to take anything home, how will you keep it secure? Think of all the ways students could reach out to you, then engage the ones that make the most safe sense.

What are the limits to your services? Instructors of online classes will tell you about that one student who emails at two in the morning. It’s likely you’ll run into at least one of those students when you make the jump to distance counseling. Set your boundaries now for when you’ll be doing what you’ll be doing, and stick to them-- hours of the day, days of the week, ways they can reach you, etc. Students appreciate help, but they also appreciate consistency. Just as important, so do you. Be good to yourself, too.

What does your school think of your plan? Sorting out what you’re willing to do is just the start of the journey. Your principal is going to want to make sure your offerings and availability are consistent with those of other mental health professionals (like the social worker) and the teachers, and your union may have something to say about working at all under these circumstances. There are also the legal implications of online advising that your school attorney should be thinking about—and if they aren’t, you want them to be. Show them the plan, get them to physically sign off on it, and then (and only then) are you good to go.

How are you communicating your plan? Students and parents obviously need to know the role you can play in a student’s life while school is on hiatus, but so do the rest of the adults in the building. The last thing you want is for a well-meaning teacher to decide a student really needs to talk to you, so they give the student your home address and phone, which they now have forever. Providing the parameters to your colleagues is the best way to make sure your counseling plans are a success.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Why College Counseling Should Be Taught in Graduate School

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

You’ve had a lot to read this month if you’re interested in school counselor training in college counseling. A January report from Harvard suggests school counselors do their best college advising when they talk about colleges close to the high school where they work, or the college they attended—suggesting this lack of breadth is due in part to a lack of graduate school training in college counseling. This message is echoed in a NACAC opinion piece that provides data on how bad the problem is, and this report that shows how this lack of training affects students.
School counselors have raised this issue with counselor educators—those in charge of the graduate school programs where school counselors are trained—for years, but this concerns have largely fallen on deaf ears, or been met with one of the responses below. In either case, there seems to be a new urgency for more training in this vital element of the school counseling curriculum— so let’s see how the counselor educators concerns can be eased, so they can move forward with this important change:
Instruction in college counseling is already integrated through all the other courses we offer. Individual and Family Development. Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy. Clinical Counseling. These are all titles of school counseling classes, and these subjects are taught as separate classes, as a comprehensive curriculum. College counseling has its own curriculum, and counselors deserve the opportunity to devote concentrated time to mastering this curriculum, just like the others that are mentioned—and it’s no less important.
I wouldn’t know what to teach, since there’s no established curriculum for a class like this. True—but then again, there’s no established curriculum for any course in school counseling. If you’re not sure what you should be teaching in a college counseling course, some of the leading minds in the field have produced a list of outcomes for a college counseling class—skills counselors should have after learning about college counseling. It’s not a comprehensive list, but most counselors who’ve seen the list would have killed to get these skills in grad school.
If you want to see how other colleges teach the subject, the National Association for College Admission Counseling has a Special Interest Group that includes instructors of college counseling classes, and would be happy to share their syllabi with you, along with the texts they use. Contact that group here if you have questions about starting a class.
My own teaching load is full. Most of the graduate programs that offer this course have school counselors teach it—those who engage in college counseling in the field. Since they work for adjunct pay, this is a bargain, and doesn’t affect any professors’ teaching load.
We can only hire PhD adjuncts to teach courses, and PhD school counselors are hard to find. Colleges have a way around this, where you list the course with the professor’s name on it, and they serve as a supervisor, with someone else teaching the course—or let the school counselor serve as a guest lecturer, which has a different , and more liberal, set of rules when it comes to running those courses. There’s a way your Theatre department can hire Lin-Manuel Miranda to teach Drama 101, and he only has a BA; use that method to hire a rock star school counselor to teach this class.
I can’t find anyone with background to teach the course. If this is really the case, please contact me at collegeisyours.com. The NACAC group has about two dozen experienced teachers who would welcome a chance to teach some version of this course again. If you can’t find someone, we will.
I can’t afford the startup costs of a new class. College budgets may be tight, but they always include funding for development of new classes—so this wouldn’t cost extra money. Still, if you can’t afford to start the course, encourage your students to take an existing class, and let them transfer the graduate credits in. The University of Sioux Falls offers a 3-credit graduate course in college counseling, and it costs a bargain basement $405 (full disclosure: I teach it). Many counselors have taken this course and transferred it into their degree. Just make sure the path is clear at your school so your grad students can do that.
This isn’t “real” counseling. This one just drives me crazy. It’s bad enough some school counselors feel this way, but when counselor educators claim college counseling is nothing more than advanced academic advising, it’s clear they’ve never studied the topic, and don’t care enough about it to help counselors become the comprehensive school counselor their students need them to be. When the American School Counselor Association says college advising is one of the three parts of being a good school counselor—and when you stop to really understand all the emotions and family dynamics behind a student’s choice for life after high school-- it’s easy to see how studying this topic, and knowing what you’re talking about, is a counseling obligation.
This article points out how school counselors support the affective domain of their clients. One major way to damage that affect is if students walk out of their counselor’s office, convinced the counselor can’t help them much with their college plans. Better, focused training eliminates that worry.
We don’t have room to add another class in the school counseling program. Recent changes in school counselor training requirements makes it very easy to add a separate course in college counseling without going over the new credit limit, but some counselor educators still insist there’s no room for growth. If a program has reached its maximum credit load, it’s time to consolidate. Most school counseling programs have 6-8 classes in mental health training; with a little creativity, that same content can easily be realigned into one less class, leaving 3 credits for a new course in college counseling.
Most counselors don’t have time to do college counseling. It’s certainly true that high caseloads and “other duties as assigned” limit all facets of a school counselor’s job—but that’s also true for mental health counseling, and grad schools still teach that. Convincing administrators to give school counselors the resources they need to do their jobs is another story. For now, it’s essential to make sure school counselors know how to initiate and supplement strong college counseling programs if they’re given the chance to do so (or make the chance to do so)—and the only way that happens is to teach them how.
Convinced? Great! Pass this along to your favorite counselor educator, and change the school counseling landscape for the better.

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Can We Please End the False College/Career Dichotomy?

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I think this false war started with a discussion about welders. The Help Wanted ads for welders started to go unanswered, and people got understandably nervous—it’s hard to foresee a sustainable society without them.

It didn’t take long, however, for this rather focused concern to take on a life of its own. “All those darn teachers and counselors are telling kids they need to go to college—four years of college—and now we’re running out of welders. Not everyone needs college, and we need welders. Darn teachers.”

This initial salvo was followed by an armload of articles with “data” pointing out that holders of four-year college degrees earn about $1 million more over a lifetime than workers who have other credentials. This, in turn, was met with the saga of The $80,000 Welder, a story that has been reprinted and cited more often than Liam Neeson’s speech in Taken. It was as if the career tech people were saying “Let’s see your English majors make that much in a year. Ever.”

We’ve been off to the races ever since, with “pro college” folks and “pro career” folks taking turns trying to convince the world their view is the only right one. If you want to keep your options open, you have to go to college for four years—unless of course you want to avoid a mountain of debt that will keep you from buying a house and eating avocado toast, in which case you should go into a career tech field.

In the interest of our students—remember them?—perhaps we should reset, and re-center, the discussion:
  • It’s absolutely true you can make $80,000 a year as a welder, and in many other tech and manufacturing fields—in fact, you can make more. Industrial pipeline welders can pull in six figures a year; it’s likely they’ll have to like working in humid climes or Alaska, but if you do, you can easily make more than most four-year college graduates, making sure pipelines maintain their integrity.
  • That said, the average salary for welders is in the upper $30,000 range. Given the median household income in the US is a little over $63,000, you would likely need a two-welder household to be an average income earner in most states. That tends to be the case for many careers in manufacturing and in tech.
  • Neither of these statistics by themselves should deter a student from becoming a welder, going into manufacturing or going to college. Most articles about careers—and far too many about college—treat the subject as if making money is the only goal, when there are a number of other factors to consider, including—dare I say it—if the student likes the idea of becoming a welder, manufacturer, or college student. If devaluing money sounds like a bad idea, think about the last time you encouraged a student to pursue a four-year degree in studio art, where they’d likely go into about $30,000 of debt for an uncertain employment picture. The argument there is that artists have souls that need to be expressed. Couldn’t we say the same thing about welders, and manufacturers, who are much more likely to find steady employment?
  • Why is this an either/or discussion? Students don’t always get to step into their first choice lifestyle right after high school, and it’s way past time we helped them make plans accordingly. Those who can scrape together the funds to become a certified welder will find themselves making more money than working in retail, to the tune of about $12-15,000 more per year. That’s enough money to pay for college classes in cash, giving students more than enough opportunity to earn a four-year degree, debt-free—and suddenly, they’re on to their next career, having made a lifelong dream come true. It will take more than four years, and working while going to school brings its own challenges. But if the main impediment to a BA is available cash, a temporary career in the trades can solve the problem.
The low birth rate of the 2000s is leaving colleges and career programs struggling for students, so it’s understandable if they’re ratcheting up the rhetoric about their programs. The key here is to make sure counselors don’t let students get caught in the crossfire, by making sure the talents, needs, and interests of the student are at the center of our counsel, and not our own biases about life as a welder, manufacturer, or anything else. If we can do that, the possibilities truly are endless.


Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Recipe for a Counseling Disaster

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

In the interest of trying to achieve some work-life balance, I like to cook. This is not to suggest I’m terribly good at it; if you’ve ever seen those articles about what Pinterest projects look like in real life, my cooking could be featured in them. Still, there’s nothing quite like spending the better part of an afternoon improving my onion mincing, or watching the process of milk and flour become pot pie, all with a little music on in the background (Beethoven’s first piano concerto really makes the old masters pretty approachable).

My interesting goes back to BRF—Before the Rise of the Foodie—and even though America’s love for Rachael Ray has cooled, there is a residual effect to this wave of culinary interest that has come with a terrible price. Recipes are now eight pages long.

This snuck up on me one busy Wednesday, when it was my night to cook, and I was caught short for something to make. I picked up the phone, typed in the name of two ingredients I had, and up popped a picture of something I thought I stood a chance at making. Two clicks later, I thought, and I’d be at the list of ingredients, and on my way.

Oh no.

As I recall, here’s the essence of what came next. “My love for this dish goes back to the shores of Ellis Island, where a shy son of an Italian watchmaker and an Irish girl with a rare love of oregano met in line to begin their new lives. Little did my grandparents know that their chance encounter would lead to their spending those lives together for the next fifty-six years. It also led to the best Sunday Chicken Croquette recipe known to the New World.”

And on it went. Four more paragraphs about Lorenzo and Saoirse, followed by an in-depth review (and seven pictures) of the diameter of the bubbles the milk should show while blending the ingredients. Thinking the end was in sight, I carried on, until we got to the discussion of the ratio of oregano in the Italian breadcrumbs.

I then opted to use my phone for its more primeval culinary purpose. I ordered pizza, asking for extra oregano in the crust, out of respect for Saoirse.

I’m pleased to say most recipe websites are getting the message, as most of them now have a button at the beginning of the post that says “Skip to Recipe.” Still, I can’t help but wonder how the makers of these sites got it in their heads in the first place that I would choose to go to a recipe website to do light reading. I’m looking for a recipe so I can cook. Is that really all that hard to understand?

Since work-life balance is supposed to benefit both parts of life, I’ve taken my lesson from Lorenzo and applied it to my work as a counselor. How many times does a student come in looking for some pretty basic information, and I feel compelled to inundate them with the theory of Carl Rogers? If a student wants to know the average ACT score for students admitted to Michigan State, do I really need to explain the limits of standardized testing, or can I trust them with just the number, and know they get what that means?

It’s certainly true many clients come through the door asking a question that has nothing to do with the issue they really want to talk about, and our professional training gives us the skills we need to make the difference in their lives they really need. At the same time, if a student comes running into our office and asks what time it is, it’s pretty likely they don’t need to be given the history of the sundial—they just don’t want to be late for class.

Our time as counselors is precious, and so is the time our students give to us. Let’s make sure our advice respects that, and is equally precise.


Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Why You Should Celebrate National School Counseling Week

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.


It just figures that National School Counseling Week starts the day after the Super Bowl. The country gorges on guacamole-covered chicken wings on Sunday, and when America’s most misunderstood group of educators asks for three nacho chips and a high five on Monday, the country is too tired to party.

In some ways, we don’t mind. The last time we made headlines, most people surveyed felt that school counselors were more of a hindrance than a help in applying to college. Before that, we were the punch line of a car ad — “Your guidance counselor drives a minivan” — or we were known as the washed-up teachers who were given offices close to the principal so he could keep an eye on us.

But Jenny doesn’t see us that way.

Jenny was the quiet, slender girl who didn’t cause anyone trouble, except herself. When two or three students saw Jenny needed help, they went straight to the school counselor, who called Jenny into that office close to the principal to talk about it in a safe, confidential place. Jenny got help, and became an even more beautiful person.

Steve doesn’t see us that way either. Three weeks into school, he had his fifth unexcused absence, and was on his way to flunking a required course. He told his school counselor he was working late to support the newborn son no one knew he had. His counselor asked the teacher to give Steve one last break, but never mentioned why. Steve got it, graduated, and got a full-time job that paid enough to take care of his young family.

If you didn’t know that, you’re not supposed to. When someone’s life slips or they don’t know where to turn, school counselors give them the space for grace and dignity to rebuild and strengthen their lives, all without fanfare. Sometimes, if you don’t know we’re doing our job, we’re doing our job pretty well.

Of course, we aren’t perfect. Most of us work with 450 students at once, and some have twice that number. Since many principals think we should change schedules instead of lives, we don’t have as much time to help students as we’d like, and most of us were never — never — trained how to help students apply to college.

I bet you didn’t know that either.

Old habits die hard — school counselors know that for sure — but if you have a minute this week, stop by and thank your school counselor for everything you don’t know they’re doing, and put in a good word for them with the principal. We might not score winning touchdowns or drive fast cars, but when the goal is to drive 450 students to win their own big game, the minivan really rocks it.