Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Fixing College Admissions: If There Was Just One Thing…

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I don’t have to tell most of you November 1 is a pretty big deal in the world of college admissions. With more and more students applying Early Decision and Early Action (you know the difference, right? RIGHT?!), many high schools report they are sending more transcripts and college applications out in October than they are for the rest of the year combined. This surge in early applications leads many counselors to wonder if students are still making thoughtful decisions about where to apply, now that they feel this need for speed to get their applications in. Is it really true that you make a weaker decision if you get less time to think about it?

The larger issue for many counselors is the unintended advantage this early application mania gives to students who go to high schools with more counselors. More counselors, the theory goes, means smaller caseloads, giving counselors more time to meet with students and fine tune college plans. Does that mean students with fewer counselors lack the understanding or resources to apply early—and if colleges take as many as 60% of their students early, does that put these students at an even greater disadvantage when it comes to applying to college?

It turns out, this is just the start of the conversation about the fairness of college admission. Long ago, college counseling guru Jon Boeckenstedt pointed out how something as innocuous as the teacher letter of recommendation can give an advantage in the college application process to students in wealthier schools. I’ve since taken that theme and shown how similar advantages exist in test preparation, essay help, interviews—just about every part of the college selection process. Colleges are only well too aware of these inequities, but how they adjust for them as they wade through a mountain of applications is another issue. Does every admission officer understand how unbalanced the system can be?

This question seems to be on the minds of more than a few of our colleagues. This week, NACAC announced the formulation of an Ad Hoc Committee on Leadership in College Admission. Among their other charges, the Committee will look at the existing college admissions process and simply ask—how can we do better? The announcement of the committee has already generated a lot of buzz among counselors, as this is the first time in recent memory NACAC has looked at the current state of admission as a construct.

Of course, NACAC is by no means the only group asking this question. This upcoming weekend, the Facebook group Hack the Gates will be convening for their first group-based effort to consider what college admissions should look like. The first answer, of course, is “different,” but this weekend’s convening (if you go to the webpage, you can find out how to participate online) is the first serious effort to put meat on the bones of this proposition of change.

Early indications suggest this desire to develop new admissions methods could be fruitful. In the last few years alone, test-optional schools, schools that allow self-reported grades and scores, and colleges developing alternative admissions methods have seen unparalleled growth, with each change making access to the process easier. Changes in issues like affordability (Is there really such a thing as free college? Would colleges give up the financial benefits of Early Decision programs if doing so increased access to college for all?) and completion rates may prove to be thornier propositions, but the “one piece at a time” approach in the admissions process itself suggests there is a hunger to find a better way for higher education to serve all students.

This is an exciting time to be a counselor.


Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Gentle Art of Applying to College

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Counseling offices across the country are reporting an uptick in college application activity this time of year. What used to be the “big rush before Christmas” has now become the “big rush before Halloween,” as more colleges are offering early admission programs, and special scholarship incentives for students who apply early. Convinced that earlier is better, students are taking the colleges up on these offers in record numbers, hoping to score an offer of admission or extra scholarship that cements their future.

Much of the colleges’ rationale for doing all this is based on data. Research continues to show that a student is more likely to attend a college if the college is the first, or at least among the first, to offer the student admission. Combine that with an “unexpected” scholarship offer, and it’s easy to see how a student can get caught up in the moment. First admit, plus extra cash, makes an offer just too good to be true.

But that’s where students, and our profession, need to be careful. Getting excited about college is a natural and expected part of the process, but excitement isn’t a data point; it’s a feeling. The minute the college selection process ventures into the affective domain of seventeen year-olds, all bets are off. A college that costs less isn’t much of a bargain if it doesn’t offer the right mix of support, challenge, and opportunity. This isn’t to say every day of college is a life of bread and roses, but if a college student’s biggest daily challenge is working up the energy to get up, perhaps they’re in the wrong place in the first place. If only they had more time to think.

I thought about all this as I was reading some counselor comments about the high levels of stress students are experiencing, not only in applying to college, but with life in general. Reports (again, back to data) tell us students are using college mental health programs (now back to feelings) like never before, and the number of students turning to opioids and vaping to relieve the pain of growing up surpasses anything we’ve seen in substance abuse usage. The point of the counselor comments basically boiled down to this: In our interest to be “first—in the hearts and minds of our students, in the rankings, in the media—are colleges putting too much pressure on students?

Two students come to mind. The first one was wise beyond her years, someone who glided through the college selection process without a care in the world. She’d started visiting college campuses in ninth grade, and while she wasn’t obsessed with choosing a college, she thought about it often enough to make sure she was doing everything she needed to do to keep her college options aligned to her interests. She took the tests and completed the applications with time to spare. By mid-October, she was back to being a high school student. By January, she’d been accepted to the five colleges she applied to early.

The second student saw applying to college as more of a performance art experience. Every step of the process was a life and death decision, a surprise, something they hadn’t thought about until it was almost too late to think about it. Applying to six colleges (without having visited any of them) was an experience that dragged out through after Christmas, and choosing among the three colleges that offered admission in April almost required an all-school assembly for them to decide what to do. Throughout their meetings with their counselor, their mantra was all too familiar—“The college application process is killing me.”

Thankfully, the student wasn’t speaking literally—but the differences between the two approaches are telling. What are we, as school counselors, doing to make sure students have the opportunity to pursue their college interests more like the first student, as an attitude one embraces, as a natural part of growing into self? Media portrayals of the Angst of Senior Year may seem to be the more popular approach to college choice, so much so that students may feeling they’re missing out on something if they aren’t in there, freaking out with everyone else. But are they really?

Counseling offices throughout the country are looking forward to a little down time next week, and rightly so. As we catch our collective breaths, November might be the time to consider how our existing counseling curriculum treats college choice—is it more a natural part of who students are, or is it an event thrust upon them, ready or not? Doing what we can to make it a more gradual, gentle experience may be the best thing we can do for all involved.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Advising the Transfer Student

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It’s National Transfer Student Week, a great time for students and counselors to remember that the college where you begin doesn’t have to be the college where you graduate, as long as you have an effective plan.

That last point can’t be emphasized enough. I typically hear from one or two of my students this time of year, students who graduated last June and made a strong college plan, who somehow find themselves on a college campus without much of a plan at all. Using phrases like “This isn’t quite what I thought it would be”, or “they sure didn’t tell me about this when I took the tour”, these students are turning to their counselor to once again be their compass. Do they stay and stick it out? Do they go somewhere else? Do they stop and try some other path, hoping a life experience other than college might give them some sense of direction?

As is the case with all college counseling questions, the answer lies in exploring other questions.

Why are they unhappy? There’s very little in life that can compare with the buzz and energy of a college campus in the fall. Returning students are eager to get back in the routine they love, freshmen bring in the energy that makes them, well, fresh, and there’s this air of new starts and possibilities that’s nothing short of empowering.

Then along comes October, with the first round of exams, a few rainy days, and the realization that maybe the football team isn’t going to go all the way. This makes it easy for the newness of the year to feel a little old, making college seem more like a routine than an opportunity—and let’s face it, that’s not as much fun.

For some students, the absence of that start-of-the-year excitement is what they’re missing. The school may have everything they need, but what they really want is the thrill of a fresh start at a new school—not realizing that the high of the next new start will fade as well. Students wanting to transfer because they fear the routine may need some counseling about the purpose of school, and the nature of long-term commitments. On the other hand, if they simply say they hate the place, a new start might be just the thing for them.

Where do they want to go? This question has its own share of tricks and turns. On the one hand, a student who has researched other options may have an answer for this question based on what’s missing from their current school. “I had hoped to do research as an undergraduate, but I can’t really do that here” shows a student who is looking with purpose to go somewhere else, while “I don’t know—anywhere but here” suggests a need to explore more of what they’re looking for in a right fit.

Either way, be especially careful if the student wants to transfer to a school where they applied as a high school senior. In many cases, the desire to go to that school is based on the high school friends who are going there, and the student is assuming that transferring there will guarantee a return of the good times of senior year. Those days were great, but they are now past. It’s time to think ahead.

When do they want to go? This can be a pretty telling question. A student who plans on finishing the term out where they are is more likely to have thought out their reasons for why they want to make a change. Students who answer this question with some version of “I just want to go home now” are more likely reacting to a setback they haven’t completely processed. That setback may be more than enough reason to decide it’s time for a new start, but the student needs to consider the time, energy, and money they’re invested in their current college. Are things really so unbearable that you’re willing to extend your time in college by walking away with no credits and more debt?

Thousands of students transfer colleges every year for healthy reasons, seeking new opportunities based on their desires to grow as a person and as a student. Supporting those students is important, and easy; making sure that’s the posture of all transfer students might take a little more work on our part, but it’s more than worth it.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Oktoberunrest: Completed the Application, But Won’t Hit Submit

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Did anyone else have a weird week? Just as I was getting used to managing the college counseling crisis du jour—anxiety over wealthy parents inventing odd ways to get their child into college, major changes in the way students are recruited by coltleges, and a testing giant doing a 180 on their long-standing policy about superscoring—the world of college counseling experienced no major changes last week, leaving me with no other choice but to—you know—do my job.

I have to admit, I was kind of at a loss. But then a parent called with a crisis, and I was right back in the saddle.

“I don’t get it” she said, “he’s written wonderful essays, gone over his activities list three times, and secured what I know are two great letters of recommendation (Note: I decided not to ask how Mom was so certain of this.) But every morning, I ask him if he submitted the application, and I get the same answer. ‘Nah. Tomorrow.’ What’s going on?”

Welcome to mid-October, the time of year when Homecoming, homework, and home expectations about life after high school turn even the strongest of seniors into quivering masses of uncertainty. Six weeks ago, they were ready to rule the school. Now, two Physics tests and word that some seniors have already been admitted to college have students wondering all kinds of things:

Am I really ready for high school to be over? This is when some seniors start to see this year as a series of lasts—last school picture, last big game against the crosstown rival, last fall dance. Mentally, they know there’s a lot to look forward to; emotionally, they wonder if it’s going be as good as it’s been. In this interesting scenario, high school starts to end the minute they apply to college. If you don’t hit submit, there’s still time to live out the good.

Could I have done more? For other students, this time of senior year isn’t about the end of the good times—it’s about wondering if the times could have been better. It isn’t uncommon for students to want higher grades or more awards when they see their accomplishments in writing-- Why didn’t I do more? Why didn’t I study longer? That leads to a pretty natural next question—am I really ready to make the most out of college, if I didn’t make the most out of high school? If not, why apply?

What am I doing with my life? Still another version of Oktoberunrest lies with students who aren’t wondering in the least about what they’ve done, but start to doubt what lies ahead. Imposter syndrome runs rampant this time of year, and seniors who want to avoid being “called out” with a college rejection know there’s only one way you can’t possibly get outed; don’t apply.

It’s easy to understand why parents are flipping out about this dearth of college activity, especially if everyone was Just. So. Buzzed. about college a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, parent responses sometimes miss the larger point, and their well-meaning responses—“But you love this college”, and the highly dreaded “The longer you wait to apply, the harder it will be to get admitted”—can actually do more harm than good.

Our task is to get everyone back on the same page. Give the student floodtides of reassurance. Senior year will not end tomorrow, and if it does, there are class reunions; the good you’ve created may not be perfect, but it’s still good; that good will be part of you forever, and is something you can build on to make an even better life in college.

If that doesn’t work, there’s this. Hold up the nicest writing instrument you have in the office, and say “I have to sign a form as part of your college application that says I recommend you for admission. If I didn’t think you were ready, I wouldn’t sign it. But I’ve got my pen, right here.”

Mom and Dad come next. Tell them what happened when you met with the student— and make sure that meeting occurs without any parental presence—then give them the inside scoop. They may not understand right away (“He’s had such an easy life! Why does he see this as hard?”), but ask them if they ever had doubts about the big decisions in their lives. That makes it real.

Nothing earth shattering happened in the world of college admissions this week, but we still have a chance to make a world of difference in college admissions this week. Let’s help some folks move forward.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

ACT Announces Testing Changes. What They Mean to Counselors

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

The world of college admission is typically busy enough in the fall, but this year is bringing major changes to the way counselors work with students, and they show no sign of slowing up. After last week’s changes to the way NACAC regulates ED and recruiting after May 1, it’s ACT’s turn to throw us a few wrinkles. Spoiler alert: If your building administers the ACT, sit down now.

Students can re-take individual sections of the ACT. A number of students end up taking the entire ACT more than once for one reason only—to improve one subscore that’s dragging down their overall score. Now, as long as the student has taken the entire ACT once, they will be able to sign up for re-takes of individual sections of the test. If your Science subtest went badly, there’s no longer a need to give up your whole Saturday and put in four hours to improve it. This new option allows you to sign up just for that section, take it, and get on with your life.

Once this is in place, students will be able to take 3 subsections this way per sitting, and they can retake them as often as they wish. Most important, this option is only available online. Students hoping to take just one subtest by the pencil-and-paper mode are out of luck.

Online versions of the entire ACT. At this point, you may be asking yourself, “Well, it you can take single subsections online, why can’t you take the whole test online?” Your wish is granted! ACT is rolling out an online version of the entire test for national testing days. Once it’s fully functional, students going the online route will be able to get their test results in two days, not the three week minimum most are dealing with now.

ACT Superscores for you. Many students are familiar with the concept of superscoring, where a college takes the best subscores from all the ACTs you’ve taken, and creates the highest composite score you’ve earned based on those subscores. Trouble is, in order to that now, the student has to send multiple scores to the college (that costs money) and the college has to compute the superscore by hand (costing time and money).

As of next year, that’s out. ACT will compute a superscore for all students who take the test more than once (or retake only parts of the ACT). It’s not clear if ACT will charge students to send this score, or if students have to order it, but this is a real break from recent ACT’s once long-standing belief that superscoring was a bad idea.

Why the changes? It’s hard to say. Some insist this is ACT simply trying to keep up with reality, where students take the whole test twice just to improve one score. Others say these are all customer service initiatives, with ACT trying to recapture its reputation for being the more “user friendly” of the two testing agencies.

What does it mean for counselors? It’s a little early to tell, but think about these implications:

Testing proctors will have their hands full finding more proctors to test rooms with online, paper-and-pencil, full, and partial test takers. Combined with needing separate rooms for students with extended time and other accommodations, and it may take an entire high school faculty to make sure tests are administered properly.

Policies where student test scores are placed on transcripts really need to be reviewed. Many school attorneys have argued this is a lawsuit waiting to happen, since the high school doesn’t own the test scores (“I only told you to send my August test, and you send the bad July one as well!”) If ACT is going to provide the superscore to colleges for free, it’s time to put this policy in the rear view mirror.

Strategies for test taking will now take a different turn, likely for the worse. For example, students who see themselves as “bad at science” may decide to deliberately underperform on the Science portion of the test the first time they take it, planning on re-taking the Science section once they have time to prep exclusively on that section of the test. But then the student gets busy, or forgets, or takes the test but doesn’t report it, and they’re in worse trouble than ever.

New options are generally created to improve life, but there’s no telling what kind of gamesmanship thinking can do to do exactly the opposite. Make sure your students’ thinking about these options is healthy. That could be the biggest challenge of all.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Changes in College Admissions Deadlines Mean Changes for Counselors

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

A couple of major changes were made this weekend to the code of ethics for the National Association for College Admission Counseling. It’s hard to say what real effect they will have on school counselors, but here’s what you need to be ready for.

Change 1—how long colleges can pursue students Under the old rules, most colleges gave students until May 1 to pick the college they were heading to in the fall. After that, if a student told your college “I’m not coming”, the college had to leave the student alone. No more mailing, no more phone calls, and no additional financial aid incentives to try and buy them away from another school.

That’s the way it was until this weekend.

Now, even if a student tells a college “I’m not interested anymore,” the college can still contact the student to get them to change their mind. They can offer more scholarship money, better housing, first shot at scheduling classes, Patriots tickets—you name it. This can go on even after the student starts taking classes at another college. Under the new scenario, colleges can continue to pursue students as transfer students, even though the student hasn’t expressed an interest in transferring.

Colleges can still ask students to submit a deposit by May 1, to be sure, and it’s pretty likely some colleges won’t keep talking to students who have said “thanks, but no thanks”. But now, they can if they want.

This has happened because the Department of Justice has determined the old way of doing things could have prevented students from getting a better deal from another college. By extending the time colleges can offer students incentives to come, the argument goes, more students might be eligible for better financial aid packages and more—so now they get more time.

Change 2—what colleges can offer students who apply Early Decision A handful of colleges have a special application program called Early Decision. This means the student applies early to the college—typically in November or December—and promises to attend that college if they are admitted early. For the colleges, this is a great deal, since they know way ahead of time who’s coming to their school, and how much financial aid they need. Students accepted ED get to relax the rest of senior year, knowing their college plans are all set.

As of this weekend, colleges can now offer special incentives to get more students to apply ED. It used to be they couldn’t entice students with more scholarship or better housing or anything—they just got to apply early. That’s out the window now; if the college wants to give you a bonus for telling them “You’re the one”, they can.

What does this mean to school counselors? It’s hard to say, but it likely means you’ll have more students in your office after May 1 with brand new, better financial aid offers from some colleges they had stopped caring about. But now that the reality of paying for college is settling in, a couple thousand additional dollars in scholarship sounds pretty great—so, Counselor, what should I do?

Since these new offers can be made throughout the summer, it’s possible—possible—you’re going to need at least one counselor on duty throughout the summer to help students make sense of these new offers. You’ll also need to make sure someone is around to send final transcripts to more colleges, since students could be changing their minds in July and August—and that will be perfectly OK.

It’s also important to make sure you tell parents about these changes. Mom and Dad may be used to the old rules working for their older kids who already graduated. If they suddenly get a mid-May offer from a college, they may automatically decide it’s a scam, unless they know about the new rules. Be sure to bring them up to speed.

For the new ED rules, make sure the student understands that applying ED still means the student will attend that school, and that school only, if they are admitted. ED is only for students who love, love, love the school. It doesn’t matter how pretty the incentives are. If the student finds out January 15 they’re admitted ED, then spends January 16 wondering if they made the right decision, that’s going to be a problem. Make sure they understand the commitment.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Aunt Becky and Company Didn’t Hurt Anybody? Baloney.

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Well, it finally happened. I thought I was going to get through the college admissions event known as Varsity Blues—you know, “here’s $2.5 million, please get my child into college”—without having much to say about it, since none of it involves college admissions officers or school counselors. 

If that has been lost on you, I’ll say it again.  At this point, no college admissions officer has been accused of wrongdoing, and the only school counseling official involved is the one who asked the questions that led to the whole plot unraveling.  The entire scandal is the result of outside do-gooders with no background in education, convinced they had a better way to get into college, provided of course that better way involved their making money along the way.

In any case, I was all set to let the rest of the events unfold without notice or comment—but then along came last week, when one of myriad Aunt Beckys was sentenced for her role in this very sad drama.  While she pled guilty, Felicity Huffman argued she should get no jail time at all for her illegal behavior, because, at least to her way of thinking, no one really lost anything as a result of her actions.  Sure, maybe one student lost a seat at a college or two, but that student likely ended up at college somewhere else.  “No harm, no foul” should therefore mean no jail time—right?

A few things came to mind when this interesting defense was offered.  First, the notion that her actions were innocent is nonsense.  If her behavior didn’t have the potential to harm someone, it wouldn’t be illegal in the first place.  Driving 30 in a 25 zone has the potential to hurt a kid dashing out in the street to catch an errant ball, a dog breaking off his leash, or a car backing out of the driveway.  You don’t have to hit anything to earn a ticket if you’re going too fast through a neighborhood.

And that’s the second point—Felicity Huffman did a ton of damage in lots of neighborhoods.  Think of all those families that school counselors, Michelle Obama, and the Reach Higher program have been talking to, trying to convince low income and first-generation students that college is more than possible.  How many of them heard about the million-dollar deal to get a fake tennis player into college and said, Yeah, sure it is. 

Do you have any idea how much energy it’s going to take to get them back to the table now, how many future doctors and accountants have lowered their expectations, just because someone of means wasn’t willing to settle for a “lesser” college?  How much loss will those shifts to Plan B inflict on our society, and our future?

That’s just the start.  There’s always been a number of upper-income parents convinced that college admission is less about hard work and more about finding the right angle.  They may not be millionaires, but they have enough spare resources to spend on the “right” overseas community service trip, or the name brand internship experience, that, at least in their minds, will open up doors at America’s most selective schools. 

Until Varsity Blues broke, there was a sense that a slew of articles, interviews, and social media posts with counselors and college admissions officials were just starting to get through to this group, helping them understand that the key to an effective college application is for the student to be their authentic self, not some hyped up resume.  You think they’re buying that argument now—or are they back to their back-door approach to finding the right “thing” that will make their student stand out?

Felicity Huffman’s argument didn’t exactly win the day in court, since she was sentenced to fourteen days in jail—that’s jail, not prison.  Then again, there’s another woman who tried to use her resources to help her kid get into a better school.  In this case, it was kindergarten, and the school had an empty place—so it could be said that absolutely no one was hurt by this action.  What did this woman get?  Five years in prison.

I’m not here to decide whose sentence is more just.  I can tell you that, given how hard it can be to get low income families to think college, and how challenging it can be to get upper income parents to see college as a match to be made, and not a prize to be won, all the Aunt Beckys have caused plenty of damage to the futures of a lot of kids, and a lot of society.  And that’s going to take way more than fourteen days to repair.