Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The More Things Change

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


High school counselling offices are busy with the sounds of college this week.  PSAT results are being returned, leading juniors to wonder about the next steps in their exploration of college.  Meanwhile, seniors are starting to hear back from their colleges, especially the students applying through Early Action or Early Decision plans, where students organized enough to apply sooner, hear back from colleges sooner.

The busyness of this week seems to be as old as college itself, but even as this annual ritual plays itself out to a new audience, cracks in this traditional system are rising to the surface.  A detailed piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education spelled out the challenges faced by students whose applications for financial aid are flagged for verification by the US government.  On the one hand, most of these applications include unusual situations that often need to be investigated, to make sure they accurately represent the student’s need.  On the other hand, it should be no surprise that a vast majority of these students come from low-income backgrounds, and they aren’t used to having outside parties ask about their finances.  Combined with the second- , third-, and fourth-requests that are often part of the verification process, it’s no wonder many students flagged for review decide the process—and therefore college--  isn’t worth it.

Verification is just one of many parts of the college application process that’s been brought up for scrutiny and review this year.  Colleges using ACT or SAT test scores have generally asked students to submit official copies of the results—copies students typically have to pay for.  Dozens of colleges have changed that policy this fall, giving students the option of self-reporting their scores.  Many have put this policy into effect immediately, saving students hundreds of dollars, while costing testing companies thousands, if not millions, of dollars.  Combined with colleges who are allowing students to self-report their grades, the process of applying to college is becoming more of the work of the student, and less the task of coordinating the work of others.

Early Action and Early Decision programs are also under review, as many colleges admit as high as half of their students through an early program.  While data is lacking, there is a clear impression that more of the students applying to early programs come from high schools with more counseling services—schools that tend to be in higher income communities.  Low-income students who do apply early often run the risk of having to accept the financial aid offer of the Early Decision school that admits them without having the opportunity to compare offers from other college.  If they decide to compare the offers of several schools by waiting to apply Regular Decision, they run the risk of applying in a larger applicant pool, decreasing their chances of admission.

These challenges make it clear that changes in the college selection process could create new opportunities for students—but not everyone is in agreement about what those changes should be.  Advocates for test optional schools insist that reform lies in less testing, while accountability advocates insist the only way to track academic success is through more testing.  Suggestions that some students should defer college for a brief stint in the world of work—an experience that could increase their understanding of the value of college—are rebuffed by those who insist that students won’t go back to being students, once they know the feeling of having a regular paycheck.

Meanwhile, thousands of students are waiting to hear from colleges with news that could change their lives—proof that not all change is bad.


Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Triple Threat of Being a Counselor Next Week

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D


There’s never really any down time in the life of a school counselor, but it could be argued that the last couple of weeks have been relatively low key. There are a few college applications to complete, and the march of helping students complete financial aid forms will go on until at least March, but all in all, the post-Thanksgiving weeks have been pretty mild.

That’s about to change next week, as high school counselors must face the Triple Threat of December. While not quite as dizzying a pace as the first week of school, next week will be mighty close, as we wrestle with three important tasks that require different approaches. Ready?

PSAT scores are released to students next week, and this is always a logistical nightmare. College Board has tried to soften the blow, giving counselors access to the scores a week before the students—but no matter how the results are delivered, the task of trying to explain what these scores mean to most, if not all, of your students can make for a very busy week.

In developing your plan of attack, think about creating different approaches based on something other than the scores of the students. Sorting students into groups based on test results may be a natural or intuitive approach, but you risk giving bad advice to at least some students in every group if you’re assuming they’re scores tell you something about their post secondary plans. This is especially true for the students scoring in the 150-180 range. Some of these students may be terrified that these scores won’t get them into the college of their choice, while others couldn’t care less about these scores, since they plan on going to trades school anyway.

A better approach is to ask students to self-sort based on their plans for life after high school. The presentation to four-year college-bound students can focus on how to use the scores to prepare for the SAT, while the conversation to the non-college bound can emphasize what the scores say about their general skill levels, and what they might want to do if they want to keep the college option open. It’s important to add this last bit; the number of students who would be willing to look at a four-year college is bigger than you think—all they’re waiting for is someone to give them permission to hope.

Early decisions from colleges are also due out starting next week, where seniors hear back from the schools they are usually most interested in. The word is that the number of early applications is up this fall, meaning the number of students who will be denied and deferred will also be up.

It is never easy having a conversation with a student who had hoped a college would say Yes. This advice can set the table for before the students hear back, and even though this advice is aimed at March, the ideas are still helpful now.

Vacation stress may seem like a bit of an oxymoron, but there are always those students who aren’t looking forward to time off from school. Part of this may be a love of school, while part of it might be a dread of the lack of structure, or the people they have to spend vacation with. Either way, that last school bell can be a sound of dread to many students.

APA and others have produced a long line of materials aimed at helping students manage holiday stress. Take a look at these plans now, and build them into your schedule.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Why FAFSA by Phone is a Good Thing

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D


There’s been more than a little scuttlebutt in the counseling community over yesterday’s announcement that the US Department of Education is creating a mobile phone app, making it possible to complete the FAFSA by phone. The app, which will be available in Spring of 2018, is part of a larger overhaul of the financial aid process, all designed to make it easier for students and parents to access and apply for federal student aid.

It’s easy to see how counselors could be skeptical about this move, especially if you’ve ever filled out a FAFSA. Since the form relies heavily on access to income information, it’s pretty easy to compare completing the FAFSA to doing your taxes, where forms are scattered all over the dining room table, and you need access to your online bank statements to stand even a remote chance of filling out the form with any degree of accuracy. Since most phone apps are associated with something quick and easy—ordering pizza, downloading a video—filing something as serious as a financial aid form by phone just seems like a bad idea.

On the other hand, some data would suggest this could be one of the smarter things that could be done to open up financial aid access to low income students. At the First Reach Higher symposium held by the Obama administration, data was shared that indicated most low income students do not have access to a home computer, but nearly all of them have access to a smart phone. This is one of many reasons why the wildly successful scholarship program Scholly started as a smart phone app—their real target audience uses phones, not computers.

Of course, there’s that whole “we need your tax information” part of completing a FAFSA that would make it equally hard to complete the application on a phone, since most people don’t exactly keep their tax information with them on their commute home, or at the local coffee shop when they check email. This may be true, but last year’s change in FAFSA filing asks students and parents to use tax information that’s already been reported, and can be retrieved from the IRS by using the FAFSA app. Now that the security problems have been cleared up, this really does make it possible for most, if not all, of those numbers to be pulled in on a smart phone.

New technology always raises the possibility of something going wrong, but there are two reasons why it’s a good idea the Department of Ed is making this move. First, if a student or parent starts completing the FAFSA by phone app and finds that it would be easier to use a computer, there’s a much better chance they will actually seek out a computer and complete the FAFSA, now that they’ve started it. It may be at work, it may be in the public library, but if you’re more than halfway done with a form that gets you cash for college, your incentive to finish the form is high.

Second, the increased access to FAFSA on a phone suggests users will give feedback to the Department about how the app could be better, and that could lead to modifications to the form itself. Americans aren’t shy about suggesting how tech could be better, and they really aren’t shy about talking about the high cost of college. Social media conversations about any limits the FAFSA app might have could be just what we’ve been hoping for to make applying for aid easier, no matter how you apply.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Looking for a Counselor Role Model? Try Dana Dornburgh

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D




Dana Dornburgh
School counseling is one of the few professions where the year starts fast and gets faster. This is particularly true in high schools, where the school counselor is welcomed back on their very first day with an office full of parents and students, all eager to discuss their academic intentions for the year. In other words, schedule changes.

Of course, some school counselors don’t even have to wait that long. Dana Dornburgh of Holland Patent Central School District was at home, squeezing the last drops out of her summer, when her daughter approached her, phone in hand. The parents of one of her daughter’s classmates didn’t have access to the school’s online portal, so they texted Dana’s daughter to see if Dana could take a screenshot of their daughter’s schedule and send it to them. You know—today.

Dana’s response, in length, quality, and success, is more that reason enough to elect her Queen of School Counseling. “I'm not at work. I'm on a ladder painting my porch. See you Thursday!”

Dana came to mind this week, as counselors are not only trying to advise students on personal issues, but also keenly focused on helping students apply to colleges that have early application deadlines  Applying to college is, at best, a well-organized fire drill of different people sending different things at different times, and hoping it all gets there on time. In the interest of helping some students learn more about responsibility, there are some things only the student can do in this process, like write the essays, and send in their test scores. That may not seem like much, but the number of students who come in asking if it’s too late to do either of these things, can be incredible, or depressing…

…or it could inspire you to reach down deep and find your inner Dana Dornburgh. It seems easier to say no during schedule changing season to requests that are a stretch. After a while, you can tell that Billy’s new interest in World Geography has nothing to do with Khartoum, and much more to do with Emily, who happens to love World Geography. If only Cupid could change schedules—but until then, it’s just me.

Believe it or not, missing college deadlines is really the same thing. Students and parents insist this is different, more serious. Billy and Emily have plenty of time to see each other outside class, and it’s likely their high school romance will fade. But denying a student the chance for admission at a college, just because they didn’t heed the dozen warnings you gave them about deadlines?

Not every student gets the attention they deserve from an overworked counselor, but it’s important to create policies about deadlines that give students the tools they’ll need to be successful at college. Will a college professor extend a term paper deadline, just because Billy never looked at the syllabus? Will Emily assume she can get more time for a project just by asking, since that’s all she’s had to do in high school? Americans are known for being inventive, but what does it say about the way students value rules if they’ve been raised to believe they’re always exceptions?

Counseling is a fine line between being supportive and being nurturing, or creating responses that lead to student growth. That may call for occasional exceptions to deadlines and processes, but if they’ve been created to provide growth, what are we saying to kids when we don’t let them grow?


Which is why I brought a mental paintbrush to my office today. Thanks, Dana Dornburgh.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Need Counselor-Focused PD? In Michigan, There’s a Law for That

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D



You’ve been through this one too many times. You get through the first nine weeks of school, and you’re truly looking forward to the in-service day. You have all kinds of ideas about what you could do with the day—online seminars, visiting a college campus, talking to local mental health professionals about community needs— and you’re just about to run these ideas past your administrator, when the agenda for the day hits your inbox:

9-11:30 Learning the new online grading book

12:30-3 Reading across the curriculum

Important? Yes.

Good to know, so you can be a more supportive colleague for classroom teachers? You bet.

Directly applicable to your work as a school counselor? Absolutely not.

PD budgets are tight, so the school wants to get the biggest bang for their buck. That means the day is scheduled to help the 93% of the educators in your building who teach in classrooms, and the other 7% is just going to have to grin and bear it. Again.

That’s likely to change in Michigan in the next few years, thanks to a bill that was signed into law yesterday. House Bill 4181 was created in response to three clear needs. The first need came from state business leaders, who felt the state was putting too much emphasis on the value of a four-year college degree. Since students didn’t learn about vital career options in fields like manufacturing and skilled trades, businesses found themselves with thousands of vacancies in jobs that required as little as six months training, many with starting salaries of $40-50,000 a year.

The second need came from the public in general, who also had the feeling that maybe four years of college wasn’t the cure-all for Michigan’s economic woes. Polls showed an overwhelming majority of citizens felt the quality of college and career advising had a long way to go—and even though many realized part of the problem was due to the huge caseloads counselors worked with, there was still a sense something more could be done.

Combined with the frustrations of school counselors who were looking for professional development opportunities that spoke to their professional needs, House Bill 4181 found the essential support needed for passage. Michigan school counselors have long needed to complete 150 hours of professional development every five years to maintain their license or certification. This bill keeps that number at 150 hours, but requires that 25 of those hours focus on updated training in college counseling, and 25 hours focus on training in career counseling, with 5 of those 25 focused on careers in the military. The remaining 100 hours of professional development can be in anything else—including topics focused more on teachers—but the 50 counselor-focused hours is a big change, and a good start.

The bill now requires the state to develop guidelines for what kinds of professional development will meet these new requirements. Testimony on the bill focused on activities like counselors using professional development days to visit college campuses and job sites, participating in online seminars and “make and take” workshops, and taking greater advantage of the free professional development options that already exist in the state.

There are already enough free PD options in Michigan to have counselors meet these new requirements for the next 15-20 years. House Bill 4181 is expected to free more counselors from the bonds of teacher-based PD to take greater advantage of these programs, and the new ones that will come about as a result of the bill’s passage—all for the betterment of Michigan students, and Michigan’s economy.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Responding to “Our Records Indicate”

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D



November is one of the most challenging times to be a high school counselor.  With so many students applying to colleges that have early deadlines, it can be impossible to get all of their transcripts sent on time—so, of course, you tell the students that if they are applying to a college with a November 1 deadline, they have to tell you this by October 15.

It would be great if this works, but it doesn’t.  There are those students who will never, ever understand that applying to college is a team activity.  As far as they are concerned, if they wake up on Halloween and decided to apply to a college with a November 1 deadline, there’s no reason they could possibly think of that would prevent you from submitting their transcript, along with a personalized letter espousing their talents.  After all, they reason—they gave you a day’s notice!

What’s even worse is when these very same tardy students come back into your office November 4 and say “I just checked my application portal, and it says you never sent my transcript!” Try as you may, the student just won’t believe it when you try to point out that the college has just received 3,000 transcripts in the last three days, so they haven’t had a chance to file them all yet.  This is also a perfect time to point out why you set an October 15 deadline for November 1 applications, but they won’t understand that either.  In fact, that likely only increases the chances of their parents calling wanting to know why you didn’t send the transcript, and why you yelled at their child.

There’s only so much you can do to try and keep students organized, and the key is to be organized yourself.  Once you figure out how much November 1 stress you can handle, take these steps to implement your plan:

Start early  There are tons of students who won’t pay attention to any reminders, but there are many who will.  Since every obedient student makes your job that much easier, set up a calendar of college application due dates and share it with students and their families as juniors.  Announce it at parent programs, put it in the college handbook, text it, post it on your Website, remind students if you meet with them individually.  Ample coverage is your best defense for any student or parent who says they were never told.  Remind them there’s a difference between not knowing, and never being told.

Give them something to do  No matter what your best plans, there will always be a student applying late, or a college erroneously saying they are missing something.  Reading a “we don’t have it” email from a college is a pretty helpless feeling—so give your students help.  Every time you talk about college deadlines, tell them that colleges make mistakes, and sometimes claim to be missing things they have.  If you get a notice, call the college, and have them double check.  There’s a good chance one part of the computer wasn’t talking to the other part of the computer, and it’s there.

Give them something else to do  If the college insists something is missing, you also want to empower your students to solve the problem.  Give them a process—“Email me, call me, contact the department secretary”—and when they come in with a problem, make them follow it.  Knowing something can be done is good; knowing what to do is better, and will make for an easier time for everyone.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Counselors Can Help Students? Yes, They Can. That Isn’t New News.

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


The most popular school counseling piece I ever wrote was for National School Counseling Week, where I talked about the behind-the-scenes work school counselors had done to help out a student struggling with an eating disorder, and a high school senior who was struggling with the responsibilities of being an unexpected father. This column resonated with a lot of people, especially counselors, who know that much of their work as mental health professionals must, by definition, go unrecognized. That’s been the case ever since we’ve had school counselors, and it was absolutely the case in the 1980s, when a counselor helped out the two students alluded to in that column.

The long-standing reputation school counselors have as advocates for the personal well-being of students makes me wonder about the recent spate of new articles like this one that are trying to portray our mental health role as if it’s something new. What’s even more interesting is that most of these articles take the same approach to explaining this “change”, by saying “You may remember your school counselor as the person who sent out transcripts and told you where to go to college, but…” The articles then go on to explain how the “new” school counselor focuses on four (or five) areas of student growth, presents lessons in classrooms, and partners with other school officials to create a positive atmosphere of personal growth for all students.

It’s hard to say just why there’s an effort to re-cast school counselors in this new light, especially since school counselors have been playing these “new” roles for decades. It’s certainly true that some schools haven’t used school counselors to their full capacity, occupying their time instead with administrative duties like schedule changes and test oversight. But that isn’t a reason to convince administrators that counselors can do “new” things that aren’t really new. If anything, it would be wiser to use the success and history of past school counselors as examples of best practices a struggling school can adopt, knowing that this model has been successfully used at hundreds of schools in the past. With school administrators, familiarity breeds comfort, while innovation often leads to doubt.

Part of this framing of counselors as mental health advocates may be a desire to have the public see school counselors as something other than college and career advisers, but counselors pursuing this path will also want to proceed with caution. School counseling continues to enjoy renewed interest by the public at large thanks to the work of former First Lady Michelle Obama, who praised the value of school counselors, especially in their capacity to help students go to college. Combined with the high expectations parents have for counselors to play this important role, now is the time to embrace this opportunity, and meet those expectations. The goodwill and trust created with the parents and the larger community can then be used to advance the other parts of the school counseling curriculum in ways that would otherwise be hard to achieve.

The media may present images suggesting school counselors have a history of being well-meaning but somewhat clueless, but that image overlooks the long record of support and success counselors have extended to students for years, in everything from individual counseling of family concerns, to group counseling of mental health challenges, to classroom lessons on common challenges facing students as they grow up. Affirming the media's false portrayal, and using this straw man approach to advocate for a “new and improved” approach to school counseling is not only professionally dishonest; it portrays a lack of respect for the counselors who changed as many lives then as counselors do today. As a profession, we’re better than that.