Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Financial Aid Call to Arms for School Counselors

By:  Patrick O'Connor  PhD

The end of the college application season is here, and thanks to our friends at WikiLeaks, it comes with a twist.  Soon after WikiLeaks published a series focusing on how it’s possible to hack just about anything, the federal government suspended the IRS Retrieval Tool so many students use to file for financial aid.  

While this was done in the interest of keeping taxpayer information secure, students just deciding to apply for financial aid are finding more hurdles in their way—and there were plenty to begin with.  It’s been possible to file for financial aid since October, but this is the first year filing started that early, so many students, families—and, ahem, counselors—aren’t used to the new calendar.  That means many students (especially low income students, or students who are the first in their family to go to college), will be applying now, where they have to use their tax information from 2015.

Quick now—where is your tax information from 2015?

And that’s the problem.  Without the retrieval tool, most people will be more challenged to find their 2015 tax information than they would trying to remember what they ate for lunch yesterday.  Since this affects more first-time college attenders, this could be the game changer that leads them to decide not to bother applying to college at all; if you’re not sure you can afford it, why bother?

That’s where we come in.  Thousands of students will be getting college decisions in the next two weeks, so we’re going to be plenty busy high fiving students who heard yes, and designing new plans for those students who didn’t.  In the midst of that traditional mix, we’ll also have to keep an eye out for the late FAFSA filers, a challenge we didn’t think we were going to have.

Here’s what to do:

Make sure the student has applied to college.  If they haven’t applied for aid til now, there’s a good chance they haven’t applied for college, either.  The IRS tool is expected to be back up in a month, and giving them something to do until then can keep their college hopes up.  Check and see if their applications are in.

If they have applied, have them contact the financial aid office.  Counselors aren’t the only ones freaking out about the FAFSA disconnect, since financial aid offices can’t do much without applicants.  Some colleges are developing Plan B for creating packages, relying on applicant’s best recollection of their taxes, using 2016 tax information, or some combination of both.  Your student’s school may be one of those colleges, and if that’s the case, they can still give your student college cash.  Calling them will help you—and the student—discover the answer. 

Review Plan B.  The IRS tool may be back online in late April, but many colleges will have given all their aid away by then.  If a student’s top choice is a school that tends to run their funds dry by May 1, it’s time to make sure the student applies to a college that’s known to fund students who apply late.  That’s usually colleges that have a smaller percentage of students on campus, and community colleges, but a phone call to the college’s financial aid office will let you know for sure.

Tell ED to fix this problem now.  Education Secretary Betsy DeVos , 400 Maryland Ave  SW, Washington DC 20202.  A letter there, encouraging the federal government to work with the National Association of Financial Aid Administrators to find a workaround, might help us reach a faster, better solution for all. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Essential Reading for School Counselors

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

There’s a report floating around your state capitol that school counselors really need to read. As we were electing a new president last year, Congress managed to pass the Elementary and Secondary School Act, or ESSA. ESSA replaces the much-discussed No Child Left Behind Act, the legislation counselors knew as No Child Left Untested. Noble in its goals, No Child Left Behind got bogged down in its own details, neve delivering most of its promise. That’s why Republicans and Democrats were only too happy to replace it in an election year; they could campaign take credit for killing an unpopular program, and improving education.

That’s where the report comes in. ESSA puts a great deal of planning (and a little bit of funding) back to the state level, something Republicans really like to do with education, and something we’re likely to see more of with the Trump administration. Before getting federal funding, each state must submit an ESSA plan, outlining just how they’re going to use this newly given power and money—and before that plan is read by the federal government, it must remain open for public comment for at least 30 days.

It’s important for counselors to read this report for three reasons. No Child Left Behind included monies that may have been used for counseling-related activities. Now that all Federal funds have been lumped together in one big block and given to the states (this is creatively known as a block grant), states are no longer limited to how they use that money. If your state was using this funding for counseling activities, they can now use it on just about anything else related to schools. A quick call to the legislative committee of your state counseling association will let you know if your state was using this money for counseling services. A quick look at your state’s ESSA report will show if it’s still being used for that purpose.

Taking the limits off of education funding makes it possible for states to use ESSA funding to increase the amount of federal funding they use for counseling activities. Yes, this means your state could end up taking federal money from some other worthy program and giving it to you, so that means counselors would have to live with expanding their services at the expense of some other department. On the other hand, this creates an opportunity for the state to look at how it’s been using Federal funding, and realize ways to spend the money more efficiently, creating a surplus that could go to counseling. How do you find out if they’ve used this opportunity to run a tighter fiscal ship? You read the report.

Finally, and most important, many states are using ESSA as an opportunity to review how they are spending state funds on education. Not every state will do this, but now that federal funding is one more money source the state gets to use to meet state needs, some states will use this as an opportunity to review all spending, and see if money could be used more wisely.

If your state is taking this approach to ESSA funding, it’s time to stop reading this article and figure out where your state’s ESSA report is located. This zero-based budgeting approach was popular in the 80s and 90s, and it can certainly add more money to counseling services—but it can also wipe out programs completely. Thanks to ESSA, you have the ability to help shape the education power in your state. The first step in plugging into that power is reading the report.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Reducing “Other Duties as Assigned”

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

For reasons that have never been clear, many schools either give the task of test coordination to counselors, or assume counselors do that as part of their job. Either way, counselors who have taken courses in test interpretation—as in, here’s what the results of the test mean—spend the better part of March putting Number 2 pencils in groups of 25, setting up seating assignments for a special testing schedule, and hustling to find speakers to keep the non-testing grades busy, and far away from the part of the building where testing is occurring.

It isn’t easy to say just how this “tradition” came to be, but it’s easy to see how it can come to an end. Many counselors have just spent the last month or so working with students on scheduling for next year. Since most high school counselors spent the last half of January working out schedule changes for the next semester or trimester, that means many school counseling offices have been on “other duties as assigned” mode since returning from Christmas Break. Sure, students with urgent needs have trickled in here and there, but since the bulk of the counseling office’s work has focused on logistics, it isn’t hard to see how the word is out among students that the counselors just have other things to do this time of year—and that isn’t good.

What can you do to end the madness and make sure everyone understands student access is your top priority? Try these:
  • Make sure the person in charge of your schedule understands what you’re up against. You might assume your administrator knows that schedule changes turns in to scheduling, and that turns in to testing—but maybe they’ve never put all the pieces together.
            The solution is twofold. First, take a look at the Annual Agreement form produced by the American School Counselor Association.     This form helps provide structure to what could be an awkward conversation with your administrator. On the other hand, since administrators usually don’t know what counselors are really supposed to do, this handout helps guide them, and your discussion about duties. Once it’s done, it can be refreshed every year.

            The only thing missing from this document is a calendar that outlines your major and minor counseling duties on a monthly basis. You’ll want to set this up using the calendar program your administrator uses—this makes it easy for them to understand just what you’re doing each month. You give them a master calendar at the start of the year, then a monthly calendar at the start of each month. This is a reminder of what’s coming up, in case they’re thinking about “surprising” you with a new project.

  • Once your administrator is on board, make sure you communicate with your parents and students. I’m still a fan of a weekly one-page newsletter to let them know what’s going on in your office. This can remind them of your big projects, but remind them you’re still there for them. “Yes, it’s March, so I will be testing the juniors, but I’m never so busy that I don’t have time for you. If we need to talk, come right in.” This allows you to keep a “students first” tone in your work—and once you write a year’s worth of newsletters, you’ll only have to tweak them the following year.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Your State Legislature Needs to Hear From You

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

One state legislature wants to do away with school counselors completely.

Another state has made filing a FAFSA a graduation requirement.

Yet another is considering a bill requiring all students to submit a college application before finishing high school.

It’s more than fair to say that many are responding to the changes in the national political structure by letting federal officials know just what constituents think, and what they want the government to do. The effect of this action is clear, as many federal policy efforts have been stalled, changed, or even reversed as a result of this participation—a clear reminder that democracy is a participatory system of government that only works when people truly participate.

The same impact can be achieved at the state level, and some would even argue it’s easier to have your voice heard there.  With fewer constituents to serve, it’s easier for the folks back home to set up meetings, provide information, and set up town meetings of your own for elected officials to attend.  With frequent contact, it isn’t hard for anyone to become known to the staff members of a state official on a first name basis, and become a reliable source of information and opinion.

That’s especially true when it comes to education, an area where a vast majority of the decisions are still made at the state level.  That’s even truer with the recent passage of the new Elementary and Secondary School Act (ESSA), where Congress gave powers long held at the national level back to the states.  That’s part of the reason some of these counseling-related bills are being taken up by state legislatures; they have a new sense of opportunity, and they plan to make the most of it.

Since they have more opportunity, so do you—but will you make the most of it?  High caseloads and full work days sometimes make it challenging to stay on top of legislation, but these simple steps can keep you in the loop, and make you the active participant in school counseling you need to be:

Contact your state school counseling association  There’s a very good chance your state organization has a government relations committee, and may even hire a lobbyist to speak on behalf of school counselors.  It that’s the case, part of their task is to stay on top of legislation and policy changes that could affect your life as a counselor.  A quick email or monthly phone call to them is all you need to stay on top of essential issues—and if you persist, don’t be surprised if they call you one day with updated news on an issue they’d like you to actively support.

Subscribe to meeting notification systems  Many legislatures give members an opportunity to sign up for notifications of committee meetings.  These notices are sent directly to your email, and include the bill numbers and topics the committee will discuss.  Subscribing to notifications from all committees dealing with education—including budget committees—is another great way to stay informed.

Make a monthly visit to your district offices  Nearly all states require their legislators to maintain some kind of office hours in the area they represent.  While these are sometimes called coffee hours, they’re designed to give you direct access to your elected officials and their staff.  Going on a regular basis, even if you’re there just to listen, can build a strong relationship with your legislators.  Look for notifications of these office hours on their web page, and sign up for their monthly newsletter.  These are great ways to stay informed.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Topic of Your Choice as a College Essay. Just Because You Can...

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

“Dr. O’Connor?”

“Hello, James. How are you?”

“Well, I was doing OK, until I heard you wanted to see me.”

“Why,  James—is it my breath?”


“Yes, well. James, I heard from Tartar College today.”

“They turned me down already? I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Their admission percentage is equal to the Federal Reserve benchmark rate.”

“James, your diffidence is astonishing. No, they haven’t turned you down, but...”

“So, I’m in?!!”

“...they had some questions about your essay.”

“My essay?”

“Yes. What did they tell me the title was? Oh yes. There’s No Place Like With Homeboys for the Holidays.”

“Oh. Yeah. That essay.”

“They said it really had some touching moments in it, as well as two consecutive prepositions in the title, but it didn’t say a lot about you. They also wanted to know a little about its origins.”

“Well, I—- hey, wait a minute. Are they saying someone else wrote that essay? Because if they are, they’re dead wrong. That entire essay was all me.”

“You have no idea how little that comforts me, James. Actually, they were wondering about timing.”


“Yes. When did you start writing the essay?”

“When did I start, um—“

“Right. When?”

“De—cem—ber 29th.”

“I see. And the deadline was?”

MidnightDecember 29th.”

“You did it again.”

“Actually, I started this one at two in the afternoon.”

“Well then, plenty of time for multiple drafts.”

“And I finished in time to watch Home Alone with my cousins.”

“That would include Cousin Kate, who gave your dog Felix the beef jerky under the mistletoe?”

“Wait. I thought I took that part out.”


“OK, OK, I did it again—I ran myself out of time. I was in the middle of a round of Apples to Apples with my cousins, when my mother said I had to finish my Tartar app. All I had left was my essay, so I looked at the prompts, picked “Write on the topic of your choice”, and put down the first thing that was on my mind.”

“Which was the joy of having family around you at the holidays, the mysteries of egg nog, and the discovery that the person who wrote The Christmas Song was Jewish.”

“Wow, Dr. O’Connor. Did they read the whole essay to you over the phone?”

“”I’ve seen essays like this one a million times, James, all by students who were hoping the adrenaline of the deadline would inspire them to produce an epic Topic of Your Choice essay, instead of...”

“...Instead of taking the time to think about what the essay was saying about me, thinking about using the structure of a different topic to help me focus, and presenting rough drafts to my counselor or English teacher in advance.”

“The exact words I shared with you when you wrote Halloween: A Memoir on October 31st for your November 1st application.”

“But I really do love my family, Dr. O’Connor.”

“I know that, James. You’ve told me about the conversations you’ve had with the cousin you’ve driven to physical therapy for the last three months, the grandfather who stood next to Eisenhower on D-Day, and the other cousin you teamed up with when you were both lost on the Appalachian Trail.”

“That was Kate.”

“But none of that was in the essay. Instead, Kate is on record for her poor meal choices in caring for a golden retriever.”

“You were right, Dr. O’Connor. Topic of your choice is pretty tricky. With a little more self-discipline, I could have done myself proud and written a great family essay.”

“Well, there’s some good news, James. The praise you received in the letter of recommendation from your English teacher has led Tartar College to ask me if they can look at a graded paper you’ve written for an English class. If I can submit one today, they’ll use it in lieu of your, um, essay.”


“Any ideas come to mind?”

“Well, I did write this paper in December, using O Brother, Where Art Thou? as a vehicle to compare the struggles of the protagonist in The Odyssey to those of JD Vance in Hillbilly Elegy.”

“You wrote that in December?”

“Yeah. Got an A on it.”

“And it didn’t occur to you to submit an annotated version of that to Tartar College as the topic of your choice?”

“Oh. Wow.”

“That’s a perfect reason to use topic of your choice, which Common Application has reinstituted as an essay option next year. If, for some reason, the other prompts don’t give you a chance to do an intellectual deep dive, then—and only then—do you go to topic of your choice.”

“And instead, they got a description of my Uncle Earl’s singing trout tie that has a Christmas hat painted on it.”

“I’ll check with your English teacher, and send the paper over this afternoon.”

“Thanks, Dr. O’Connor. You know, if you could wait a day, I’m almost finished with my next English essay.”

“Oh. What’s the title?”

Losing the Big Game: Sports as a Metaphor for Life.”

“James? Two things. First, I love you. Second...”

“...get out of your office?”

“And don’t the let door hit you, lad.”

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Mr. Obama, We'd Like To Reach Even Higher

By  Patrick O'Connor   Ph.D

Mr. Obama, I’ve written you from this space on more than one occasion to thank, beg, and plead for your support
for school counselors when you were President Obama, and the profession of college counseling received more support from The White House than ever before. Since I just received a letter from you to thank me for writing, it’s an honor to know you listened. More important, it’s a privilege to be part of a profession that has grown in depth and breadth of service in ways that simply wouldn’t have been possible without your and Mrs. Obama’s support. I am grateful; much more important, the families I serve have greater hopes and lives, thanks to all you’ve done.

I couldn’t help but notice that you’ve now started a foundation, and you’re asking for answers on where the foundation should devote its energies, by having individuals answer the question, what makes a good citizen? At the risk of running afoul of a request of the former leader of the free world, I answered the question by urging the foundation to continue the work started in The White House through the ReachHigher Initiative.

I know much of this work is being taken up by BetterMakeRoom, there’s more than enough work to be done in college access to keep dozens of foundations and non-profits busy for quite some time—and, to be honest, the profession would be greatly enhanced with the active presence of the very caring couple who brought school counselors to The White House for the First. Time. Ever.

As it turns out, there’s a college access project that would be a great first step back into the field of college access. The state of Colorado has developed a pilot project to add more counselors to schools in need, and given the high number of students most counselors serve, that need is fairly big.

These four year grants allowed schools to train these new counselors and get them familiar with the building. After four years, the dropout rate fell from 5.5 percent to 3.7 percent; college access increased at a double-digit rate, and participation in career and technical education programs more than doubled, according to one report.

The change in the dropout rate meant that each school received more money in their budgets, so the counseling positions more than paid for themselves. In addition, since these students are completing high school, Colorado saved more than $300 million in social costs—far more than the $20 million they invested in the program.

Several other states are looking at this model, to see if it would work for their schools, including Michigan. We certainly get the attention of legislators when we tell them we have a program that makes the state money, but something tells me they might pay even more attention if this information was being provided by, say, a more familiar face.

I can’t guarantee that every state will realize the success Colorado has, Mr. Obama, but I can tell you that having more counselors is the issue in our profession. Now that we’ve found a way for those positions to pay for themselves, all we need is help spreading the word.

Can we count on you, sir?

Oh, one more thing. After I sort of hijacked the question on your foundation’s Website to advocate for college advising, I urged a few colleagues to do the same thing. Some told me they did, and others have said once they hear you’re on board, they’re game to offer support.

Right now, the count is up to a couple of hundred.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

5 Questions to Ask When Visiting a College Campus

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

As we finish most of our college work with the Class of 2017, members of the Class of 2018 are making plans that include college visits. Often built in as part of a family vacation, campus visits can give students a chance to see a college that’s otherwise too far away to visit. It might also be the only chance a student can get away to see campuses at all, especially if they have a demanding senior year schedule.

Fall visits are still the best (when the campus is in high gear), but no matter when you go, it’s important to make the most of each visit by preparing a list of questions ahead of time that are based on your interests — and that includes admissions questions. ACT and College Board offer a nice set of starter questions, but you’ll want to add these five questions to any list you build:

Does my major affect my chances of admission?Students often gauge their chances of admission on college-wide information, like average GPA and overall percentage of students admitted. But some colleges limit the number of students they’ll admit to specific programs, and that could include the major you’re interested in. Engineering, honors colleges, and accelerated professional programs are the usual suspects, but the only way you know History is wide open is if you ask — and if your major is limited, ask what they’re looking for.

Do you offer residential programs? Many big colleges know some students thrive best in smaller classes where they can get to know their professors — and that’s why they offer residential programs, or living-learning communities. Often based by major, these programs typically hold classes in the student’s residence hall, which is where their professors have their offices, and many offer research opportunities students wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. It’s the best of a big and small school, all in one campus.

Do you ask what other colleges I’m applying to?  Students are often surprised when colleges want to know where else they’re applying — and while most colleges don’t ask, it happens often enough that students should be ready for the question. If a college of interest tells you they do, don’t be shy; ask them what they use the information for. They may just use it for statistical purposes, but it may play a role in your admissions decision or scholarship package. It’s better you know.

Does your net price calculator include merit scholarships?  The U.S. government requires all colleges to have a net price calculator on their website (can’t find it? Search for “(Name of Your School) Net Price Calculator”), but not every calculator takes the same factors into consideration when giving you a price tag. If you think a college will offer you merit money(check here to see what your college might offer, and scroll to the bottom of the page), make sure you know if that’s part of the calculation, or bonus money.

Do you consider ability to pay when reviewing my application?Colleges would like to give all students the aid they need to attend, but school budgets just don’t allow for that. As a result, some schools will look at the financial need of an applicant as part of the admissions process. This changes from year to year and varies from school to school, so make sure you know what the policy is for each of your colleges—and if you get an answer you don’t understand, your very appropriate follow-up question is “what does that mean?”