Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Reflections on a College Tour

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

I had a first in my college counseling career last week when I went on an organized multi-college tour.  When you’re the only person in your office—as I was for so long—getting away to see colleges is, at best, a one day commitment, so the idea of taking an entire week away from the office to see nine college campuses was new to me.  It also left me wondering if I could follow the advice I offer my students—to write down your impressions the minute the tour is over, so you don’t confuse the qualities of one campus with the features of another.

It turns out I didn’t have too much to worry about in that department.  This tour has been going on for ages, and those in charge leave no detail to chance.  We were greeted with an itinerary that would have made any logistics expert shed a tear of joy, including a booklet that included a summary of the essential statistics and vital qualities of each school.  I was free to add my own notes in the ample notes section in the back, but even if I didn’t, there was no way I was going home with nine schools jumbled in my head.

Overall, the experience taught or reminded me of three things about this profession, all lessons that were timely.

College admissions folks are pretty amazing.  A tour of this magnitude requires the organizers to pay attention to things that ostensibly have little to do with helping students choose a college—where do we park the bus, is the mascot going to be available for pictures with the counselors, what events do we hold for the tour group at night.  Each college managed these details flawlessly, and when an all-day rain soaked the tour To. The. Bone., the host school welcomed us to an hour lecture, replete with space heaters to dry our shoes, and a fresh pair of dry socks, adorning the school mascot no less.

This is going on during the busiest time of the year for these college admissions offices.  All nine schools offer some kind of early admission deadline, requiring admissions officers to give up most nights and weekends to reach decisions on each applicant—and that’s under normal circumstances.  Throw in an organized tour of 35 or so school counselors who have never seen your campus before, and the time management challenge can go from interesting to mind altering.  Not with this group of hosts, which was gracious and warm from start to finish.  If there isn’t a special level of heaven for these folks, someone should start building it now.

College students are nothing short of inspiring.  Every college visit included a tour of the campus led by a current student, as well as a panel of student speakers talking about life at the college.  Most of these students are paid by the college for their work, so it would be easy to view these events in a mercenary way, much like asking the waiter if the soup is good.  Really, what are you expecting them to say?

All the satires of college tours underestimate the x factor—the genuineness of the students running them. Each of the nine colleges was getting ready for final exams, but each tour included no less than a dozen students who were telling us their stories, not the company line.  The student studying math and science who will soon be doing currency analysis for Godman Sachs.  The many students planning on bringing their social justice interests to light in years of service.  The former Marine who will graduate a highly selective college at age 39, who basically had to talk the college into accepting a transfer student.  They all had other things to do—including the tour guide who was presenting his graduation thesis as soon as he was done giving the tour—but they also had a story, and a desire to share it.  There’s no way I’m mixing up those stories, so there’s no way I’m mixing up those colleges.

We do pretty great work.  Part of being a good tour participant is looking past the presentations- which offer summaries of the school—to understand the pulse of the place itself.  That wasn’t hard to do in this case.  The nine schools we toured were distinct in mission and tone, but they all had one thing in common—their students were thrilled to be there, and said they wouldn’t be happy anywhere else.  From interactions at the bookstore to remarks made in classrooms, it was clear the students at those schools got up every morning with no intention of leaving anything on the table.  So much for the “it doesn’t matter where you go to college” argument.

A lot of that has to do with us.  It’s easy to let the media convince the world that college admissions is a cutthroat endeavor, that there are only six great colleges in the world for everyone, and that no one can possibly hope to finish a college degree on time, unless of course they then go straight off to debtor’s prison.

Nine colleges and five days letter, I’m reminded how little is understood about the college search—and how much we do to shed light on it.  Our caseloads aren’t always optimal, the “other duties as assigned” are nothing short of maddening, and there is never enough time or resources to serve every deserving student.  Stepping away from the office to see the After effect of our work—including a reunion with one of my former students, who works at a college admissions office—I’m remined of how much good we are doing in this world, making a big process personal to so many, even as there is more good to do. We have much to be proud of, and much to be grateful for.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Of Course It Matters Where You Go to College

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

There’s an article making the rounds on social media, claiming it doesn’t really matter where you go to college, as long as you apply yourself and make the most of the opportunities available at wherever you end up going.  Given the timing of the piece, it’s safe to say the article is designed to cushion the blow when the first round of application decisions start coming out next week.  I imagine the intent is to offer support to students when a college tells them No, or worse yet, Maybe.

That intent is very important, but it is also a little misguided.  Students certainly need to understand there are probably several colleges that offer what they’re looking for in terms of size, location, cost, atmosphere, major, and more.  In developing this list of qualities, the student may come across one school they see as Perfect, where an offer of admission will be seen as making the sacrifices of high school more than worth it, and a No will lead to the conclusion that all of that hard work and learning just wasn’t worth it. That can be dangerous, no matter what decision the college makes, so a conversation about Perfect schools is important, to be sure, and should be had throughout the counseling process.

That’s very different from telling a student “Pick anywhere, and you’ll be fine.”  A student interested in Criminal Justice isn’t going to get excited about a school that doesn’t offer that major, no matter how likely they are to change their major once they start college.  The same is true for a student who is looking for a college rich with school spirit who ends up at a commuter campus.  The classes may be the same as at the more spirited school down the street, but for that student, the college experience won’t be.  And students who end up at a school that calls for more financial resources than their budget can allow?  They will never spend a day in class without worrying how they’re going to pay all of this off.  That isn’t college; that is a state of perpetual anxiety.

Before labeling this concern as a defense of a generation of unresilient snowflakes, think about the process most counselors use when helping students pare down the list of colleges they should consider.  Effective college counselors ask students strong open-ended questions that limit the range of possible schools.  “What are you looking for in your next school?,” “Do you know what you’d like to study?,” and “Does the location of the school matter to you?” are all designed to get a student to think about the aspects of college that will offer the right mix of opportunity, challenge, and support for them.  What does it say to a student who has embraced online college research, college fairs, and campus visits in search of the right colleges—things you encouraged them to do-- when you now tell them, in essence, hey, just kidding?

For most students, college is the first time in their lives they have some say about  where they go to school, or at least want to go to school.  A well-developed college list reflects the student’s best understanding of who they are, what matters to them, and how they see the world.  Telling them now they’ll be fine no matter what college they go to disrespects their aspirations, their understanding of self, and their investment in the college search.  The college selection process started with the student’s vision of what success looks like. It’s best to use that as a guide until the process ends. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Making the FAFSA More User Friendly

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

It’s always exciting when a solution to a long-standing problem not only works, but is pretty simple to implement.  That’s the impressive promise Colleen Campbell offers in a paper that suggests an easy cure to the sometimes-complicated issue of applying for financial aid.

Most efforts to simplify financial aid have focused on the length of the FAFSA—either there are too many questions, or it’s too hard to find the required information.  Campbell’s research takes a different approach, and asks, why does a student have to complete a new FAFSA every year, especially if their financial information doesn’t change that much? Merely asking a student to submit the same information again can take its toll, reminding some low-income students of the high price of college, and leading others to forget about reapplying, causing them to lose their aid all together.

Anonymous financial aid data was collected by The Center for American Progress for about a quarter of a million students.  The results showed that about 70 percent of all students likely to be eligible for a Pell grant (the most popular Federal government financial aid program) had a change of income totaling less than $500—and that didn’t affect their eligibility. 

While the report suggests this is reason enough to consider going to a one-time FAFSA for all students, others aren’t so sure.  It’s easy to see how low-income students would benefit fairly from filing the FAFSA once, but what about students whose financial circumstances change a great deal?  In addition, since Pell Grant eligibility also depends on how many dependents a family has in college, wouldn’t all Pell recipients have to fill out a new FAFSA when brothers or sisters start going to college—or stop?
This leads to another idea that’s long been floated around—the renewable FAFSA, where students don’t have to complete an entire FAFSA every year, but simply update the information they’ve already provided.  This would make FAFSA completion much easier—to the point where students could complete the updating process when filling out other registration information when they enroll for classes.

Both of these solutions are reminiscent of a recent effort for FAFSA reform that made completing the form a matter of answering two questions. Studies from a few years back claimed that most students, regardless of income level, would receive the same level of aid they currently receive if they answered two questions:  How many people live in your household, and what is the household’s combined income? One study went so far as to claim that 95 percent of all students would qualify for the same level of aid (including no aid) if the FAFSA consisted of just these two questions.

These three very promising efforts at FAFSA reform deserve further consideration, while also reminding us of the very glacial pace of policy change. Combined, these studies question key assumptions of the current FAFSA process, including its necessity for detail, and for refiling annually.  These kind of bedrock changes never go over well with those charged with implementing policy.  While they’re willing to admit the current system is less than perfect, they’re also hesitant to risk what they have to make changes that could lead to something even less perfect than the status quo.

The Department of Education will likely wait and see what effect recent FAFSA changes have on aid eligibility—specifically, the use of income information from two years ago, and the implementation of the FAFSA app for smart phones.  While we wait to see what role those play, additional research in this more radical options would be a wise investment.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The College Applicant’s Guide to Surviving the Holidays

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Completing college applications can be hard work, work that often runs through the holiday season. Since everyone else is taking some time off, this would seem to be the perfect opportunity to hang out with your family, especially since this could be your last Thanksgiving/New Year/Kwanzmasakah as a full-time occupant of your parents’ home. How could this possibly be a bad idea?

“My friend,” says you, “you clearly don’t know my parents, or my Uncle Bob.”

And yet, I actually do. Here are the three keys to thriving (not just surviving) this holiday season:

Treat Uncle Bob Like You, and He, Are Adults If you’re smart enough to go to college, you’re smart enough to sort out how Uncle Bob operates — and that’s the key to success. Once he’s through updating you on his thriving business and gloating about the political party of his choice, he’s going to put a large piece of turkey on his fork and ask, “So, how’s the college hunt going?”

You’re now thinking this is the end. You haven’t heard from the college that was supposed to decide in October, and your other colleges are small schools Uncle Bob hasn’t heard of — heck, you hadn’t even heard of them until last year.

And this, my friend, makes for a wonderful foundation for your response.

“Well, Uncle Bob, I applied to Eastnorthern State U, and thought of you when I answered the essays, since you’ve told me how much you love the school. I guess everybody’s uncle feels that way, because the college is weeks behind in admissions decisions, but I should hear by Super Bowl.

“I know Mom has told you about my other schools, where some of the students major in the History of Haiku and take classes like Fruit Leather in a Modern Society. I won’t hear from them until spring, but if I decide to attend one of them, I’ll be sure to bring a flare gun with me to campus, in case they try to force feed me with tofu.”

At this point, Uncle Bob will look at you, chuckle a little, and then go back to talking about the glory, or evils, of Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Welcome to adulthood.

Your Applications and Black Saturday The next holiday hurdle is the Saturday after Thanksgiving (or Christmas, or...) when even the adults are ready for a break from each other. This is typically the time when your parents — who love you — will say, “Honey, Uncle Bob is going out to lunch with us. Don’t you think this would be a good time to work on your college essays?”

This requires preparation. Put together a spreadsheet ahead of time with the name of every college you’re applying to, the date each application is due and the date you will work on that application. Print out a copy and keep it in your back pocket, saving it for this moment, when you open it with a modest flourish, hand it to your parents, and say, “I’ve got it covered. Have a great lunch.”

And as you put your earphones back on to fall under the spell of Lady Gaga, you will see your parents weep with amazement and joy. Their widdle baby is all growed up.

Remember the Reason for the Season You have parents who love you, an Uncle Bob who is the lovable kind of crazy, and a world of possibilities awaiting you in college. If ever there was a time for gratitude, it is now.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Before You Yell at Your School Counselor

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

You’ve worked so hard to schedule, prepare, and nudge your high school senior to apply to college on time. You shared that small thrill when they hit Submit with time to spare, and you thought you were all set.

Until they got the e-mail.

“Our records indicate your application is incomplete. Unless we receive a copy of your high school transcript in the next five days, we will be unable to process your application.”

At this point, you’ve decided this is personal, so even though it’s 7 at night, you pick up the phone and leave The Mother of All Voice Mails for your school counselor.

Boy, did you just blow it. Here’s why:

Your entire reaction is based on a wrong assumption. The college hasn’t said “Forget it”; they’ve said, “We need something.” You can help them get what they need. Was that voice mail helping the college? Was it helping your child?

The college likely has the information. Even with advanced technology, admissions offices get backed up—so the transcript might not be in your child’s file, but it is in the college’s application system somewhere. That means your high school counselor—the one you just called incompetent—sent the transcript, and in a timely fashion.

If the college already has one copy of your transcript, they don’t want another one. If the transcript is already in the college’s system, they really don’t want a second copy, since that would just increase their backlog. The only way to double check is for someone to call the admission office, and see if the first copy has found its way to your child’s file.

You just berated the person who can help you the most. To be honest, the person who should call the college is your child (it’s their application), but it’s likely you want the school counselor to call. You know—the one you just described as incapable of doing their job.
This isn’t to say they won’t help you and give your child their full support, but if you’ve just given them a big, and very angry, piece of your mind, you’ve now put them in a spot where they need to start keeping a paper trail of your, um, complaint. That takes time; so does recovering from being told by someone who last applied to college 20 years ago that you don’t know what you’re doing. You want the problem resolved now, but you’ve just prevented that from happening. Is that really a good idea?

You’ve just left an impression you can’t erase. Let’s say the transcript is already there, or that a second one is sent, making your child’s file complete. The college is now considering your child carefully, but they’d like a little more information about them. How does your child react to setbacks? How well do they speak up for themselves? Do they demonstrate flexibility?

The person the college will be talking to is—you guessed it—the school counselor, who is now only able to extol the virtues of your child’s ability to hand their problems over to Mommy and Daddy to solve, simply because that’s what the counselor has experienced. This isn’t about a grudge; this is about their experience.

It’s easy to freak out about the college admissions process, but just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should. That’s even more true when challenges arise, and your child looks to you to set the model for handling adversity they should take with them to college. This assumes the college still wants them. Part of that is up to you.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The School Counselor’s Role Next Tuesday

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It is a crazy busy time for school counselors.  At the high school level alone, counselors are busy trying to make November 1 college application deadlines, and are on the verge of dealing with the end of a marking period.  This is also the time of year most students start to notice that Thanksgiving—and the first sustained school vacation—is just around the corner.  Throw in the end of Daylight Saving this weekend, and it’s just hard to get students to focus on much of anything right now.

I’m asking you to try very hard to do just that next Tuesday, when the democratic process calls on all of its beneficiaries to engage in the modest, but important, task of voting.  Thousands of schools are polling places, and it’s hard to understand why more educators don’t take advantage of this real-life learning opportunity.

That’s where we come in.  Connections with the larger community is an integral part of social-emotional growth, something counselors do best. With a little forethought, and some quick team building, Tuesday’s activity can help students make strong connections between the power of voting, and the opportunity it brings to shape our country.

How can counselors advance the cause of raising engaged citizens?

  • Talk to school administrators about their plans for Tuesday. It’s likely a few teachers (probably the Social Studies team) have already been doing some preparation for election day in their classrooms, so now is a good time to find out what they’re doing, and see how you can support their efforts.
  • This is also a good time to talk with your leadership about their security plans for Tuesday.  This is one of the rare days when  students have to share the building with the public, and that interaction can be rich with educational opportunities, as long as it’s   safe.  Understanding how students and the public can, or could, interact that day is key to building future plans.
  • Once that’s done, it’s time to get the larger faculty involved. There will be ample opportunities for teachers and students to get updates on the election from social media and cable resources.  In addition, classes can set aside time to go to the voting area and see the democratic process in action.  Sample ballots are typically posted outside the polling place, offering students a first-hand chance to see just how voting works.  Any ballot initiatives create more than enough opportunities for teachers to lead critical thinking discussions that bring in the expertise of their fields.  Offering different lenses on the task of voting gives students multiple perspectives to consider, a key element to growth in their understanding of the world around them.
  • This is also a chance for you to shine. One of the reasons people don’t vote is because they don’t want to get involved with the tensions associated with politics.  This is a perfect opportunity for counselors to talk about conflict resolution skills, and the importance of students using the right mix of empathic listening and strong self-esteem to allow others to have their say, while not letting them walk all over them.  Letting your colleagues know you’re available for classroom demonstrations of these key skills can make Election Day a lifelong lesson for students and adults alike.
Recent articles suggest the historic apathy of young voters is only getting worse, all at a time when the need for all voters to participate in the process couldn’t be greater.  Encouraging participation, and providing ways to manage the shape and tone of political dialogue, are critical elements counselors can bring to the success of the day.   

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

College Counseling is a Dying Art. We Are to Blame.

By Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

I’m on a planning committee for an annual college update program for school counselors in the Metro Detroit area.  As I was waiting to check participants in the day of the event, I looked at a page from the registration list, just to see if I knew anyone who was going to be there.  The list included the names of 25 registrants, along with their job titles. 

4 were school counselors. 21 were not.

Knowing schools hire counselors but often call them something else, I scanned the list for possible overlaps. Instead, I saw titles suggesting those holding the job are counselors, when they really aren’t. College Adviser.  College Success Coach.  Manager of Postsecondary Planning.  Well-meaning professionals, yes, all engaged in some kind of college advising.  But not school counselors, engaged in college counseling.

I caught up with one of my colleagues at the conference, who said the same thing is happening in her district.  “My district knows we don’t have time with our other duties to help kids with college during the day, so they’re training the afterschool managers to help kids apply to college. They could have hired parapros to do scheduling and testing so we could do the college advising, but they didn’t go that route.”

I’m trying to figure out just when it was decided to concede college counseling as someone else’s job. I’m not talking about college advising, where young college graduates assist students with the nuts and bolts of the application process.  I think that’s a great idea, and badly needed.  But looking at a student’s high school experience to help them choose the right atmosphere where they’ll keep learning and growing?  When was it decided that wasn’t our thing anymore?

Before you get out the usual torches and pitchforks of large caseloads and inappropriate duties, you may want to start a little closer to home.  There isn’t a lot of research on how much training school counselors get in college counseling, but what’s out there suggests the answer is not much.  A new summary of the state of counselor readiness to be effective college counselors sums up the findings nicely: “(S)chool counselors rarely receive training in college readiness counseling during their master’s program in school counseling.”

This shouldn’t surprise anyone, least of all school counselors.  Look at the titles of the 15 or so classes required to earn most school counseling degrees, and you’ll see myriad courses focused on mental health counseling and developmental psychology, but typically none that include the word “college” in them.  Some programs offer a course in career counseling that includes a unit—one class period—on college counseling, while many counselor educators insist college counseling is taught “throughout the curriculum”, scattered in here and there as an afterthought, like poppy seeds in a muffin recipe.

It’s certainly true students are bringing serious issues to school requiring the full weight of well-trained mental health professionals.  It’s also true more than a few school counseling programs would benefit from a building administrator who sees school counselors as more than just a spare pair of hands.  But somewhere in our desire to become something other than “guidance counselors”, it seems we ourselves have decided helping young people consider life after high school is too pedestrian a task to be worthy of genuine study.

That decision is killing us.  Two-thirds of respondents labeled the quality of career and college counseling in Michigan schools as “lousy” or “terrible.”  That’s us, and that’s what the public expects us to do.

When did we decide as a profession that didn’t matter?