Wednesday, September 14, 2016

A Skilled Trades Tale of Two Senators

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

As Michigan students head back to school, Michigan families need to take a minute to contact two state senators, to thank one for looking out for their kids, and to urge the other one to start to do so right away.
The topic is skilled trades, a world of work that was supposed to die during the Great Recession and never come back. Evidently, someone forgot to tell that to the plumbers, pipe fitters, and other skilled tradesmen, whose annual salaries average$41000 a year—and these fields have openings they can’t fill now.
Getting information about these opportunities to young people has been a bit of challenge, and that’s where Senator Ken Horn comes in. Rules governing the skilled trades have been added here and there for the last thirty years, creating a patchwork of state law that made skilled trade regulations confusing, and sometimes contradictory. By introducing the Skilled Trades Regulation Act, Senator Horn has taken a well-meaning mix of skilled trade regulations and made them as easy to understand as reading the newspaper.
In introducing the Act to the public, Senator Horn said “Creation of the Skilled Trades Regulation Act will update and revise the relevant laws into one universal code that would ensure they meet the highest standards for enforcement and efficiency.”
This is excellent news for everyone in Michigan, especially students who like to work with their hands. The Skilled Trades Regulation Act is one legislative effort that will help students understand the strength and viability of many important career paths in the skilled trades, and most of them are attainable with two years or less of training after high school. When it comes to creating options after high school for students, Senator Horn’s innovative thinking is leading the way, as this bill has already had one round of Senate hearings.
The same cannot be said for another bill that would do even more to help students shape their futures after high school. House Bill 4552 makes sure Michigan students and families are working with school counselors that have the latest information on career and college opportunities in Michigan. Many of Michigan’s school counselors report they receive little training in college advising, and even less in the skilled trades. By including this training in their existing requirement for professional development, House Bill 4552 would help counselors understand the latest trends in career and college opportunities, information that’s been shown to be needed by students as early as age 10.
This bill passed the House by a wide margin, and with bipartisan support, in January. Since then, it has languished in the Senate Education Committee, even though the bill has received the support of business leaders, law enforcement officers, counselors, and retired military officers. Members of the Senate leadership have indicted the bill will easily pass the Senate floor, but it has yet to even be scheduled for hearings by the Senate Education Committee, which has not met to discuss any issue in the last six weeks of legislative session.
All of Michigan’s students deserve an opportunity to understand all of the career and college options that await them after high school, and your voice can make that happen. Take a moment to contact Senator Ken Horn’s office to thank him for helping Michigan’s students, then contact the Senate Education Committee and urge them to take up House Bill 4552. In this time of incredible postsecondary opportunities, our students deserve easier access to all of them.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

College Advice to High School Ninth Graders

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

It always happens during schedule changes.

“Excuse me, are you my counselor?  My name is Josh, and I’m a new ninth grader, and I’d like to talk to you about applying to college.”

Because you’re a counselor, your response is partly one of support and compassion.  Because it’s the first day of school, and you’re up to your eyes in schedule changes, your response is also one of exasperation.

But support and compassion win, and you tell the student you’re swamped with schedule changes, but if they leave their e-mail address, you’ll get in touch.

And then, you send them this:

Thanks for coming by today to talk about your interest in college.  It’s important to think about the future every day you’re in high school, and learning more about your college options is a big part of building that future.  What’s great about learning about college as a ninth grader is that discovering more about college means discovering more about yourself.  That’s why it’s important to focus on these three goals in high school as part of being ready for college.

Learn to Be a Good Student  It’s likely at least one of your ninth grade classes is going to challenge you in ways no class has challenged you before.  Some students will see this class as hard—but good students see it as an opportunity to learn more about themselves, and more about their study skills.  That’s one of the key skills you’ll need in college—when faced with a challenge, how do you respond?

The first step in learning to be a good student is to pay more attention to how you study, and less attention to your grades?  Why?  Because there are many smart students who will get As in classes where they never have to study.  They just let their natural talent guide them to a high grade, without really thinking about the answers they put down on a test, or comparing the new ideas they’re learning with the old ideas they’ve always believed. 

Good students are always asking key questions, like how does this relate to what I already know, do I agree with what’s being said, or how does this idea apply in the real world. The answers aren’t always easy to find, but in looking for them, you’re learning more than you ever could just studying to get by.

Participate in Extra Curriculars  Too many people think colleges are impressed by students who join twelve clubs, but that isn’t the case.  They see clubs, sports, and other activities of other ways to learn and interact with others.  These are key parts of learning more about yourself, and by focusing on just a few activities (including work, if you’d like), you’re making the most of these learning opportunities, and maybe even taking on some leadership positions.  That’s real growth.

Work in Community Service  Whether or not you’re go to college, you’ll need to understand more about other people, and community service is a special way to do that.  Giving to others gives you a view of the world you just can’t get in a classroom, especially if you’re working to improve the quality of life for others in your own home town. Mission work in another country is important, for sure, but don’t overlook the needs of those nearby.  In addition to making a difference in their lives, you’ll be sharpening your skills to be a member of a community—and a college is really just a community of learning and living.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Financial Aid is Due When?

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Counselors often describe their work as exciting, and that can go both ways. The changes in financial aid are supposed to fall under the good kind of exciting, but as we come back to offices , we’re slowly discovering the FAFSA changes might not seem so great after all, since the FAFSA can be filed onOctober 1.
You know—right after schedule changes, right before Homecoming, right in the middle of applying to college?

The approach still makes sense in theory—b what better time to get kids to apply for money to pay for college than right after they’ve applied to college?  Still, the changes have raised anxieties among both students and counselors. Since our job is to ease anxiety, let’s meet this head on.

Issues for Students

·         I’m not even sure where I’m going to college, and you want me to fill out the FAFSA.  This one is pretty easy.  No matter where you’re going to go to college, it’s going to cost money to do that.  FAFSA is the first step to allow the government and the colleges to help you do that.  You want that help, no matter where you go—so filling out the FAFSA makes sense.

·         I’m too busy getting good grades and filling out college apps to fill out the FAFSA.  This is actually a pretty good point.  The good news here is that filling out the FAFSA is more of a Mom and Dad job than a student job.  Chances are, the student can share their FAFSA information over a pizza dinner, while a parent works on a laptop.  Plus, with Mom and Dad focused on the FAFSA, they’ll be spending less time, um, “helping” you complete your college application.

·         I have no idea what “Prior Prior Year” means.  Yeah, the government really blew it when they gave the new FAFSA this title—if you’re filing the FAFSA in Fall of 2016, that means they want your 2014 taxes, right?  You’ll be working with your 2015 taxes.  Think of it that way.

Issues for Counselors

·         I don’t have time to sleep in the fall, let alone run financial aid workshops, Part I.  Believe it or not, you probably do.  If you’re running a College Application Month (it’s like a Spirit Week for college—here’s some information), you already have the support of your teachers and administrators to get college things done, and you probably have a ton of volunteers coming in to help out.  Adding a FAFSA program, and bringing in a few more financial aid experts, is easiest to do right there—and it keeps the college ball rolling.

·         I don’t have time to sleep in the fall, let alone run financial aid workshops, Part II. Another option (not my idea, but wow, what a brilliant one) is to run your financial aid programs in spring of thejunior year.  They may not be going to college in the fall, but by filling out the Spring FAFSA, they can actually walk in to high school as seniors, open the fall FAFSA, check the box that says “I already applied, and my information hasn’t changed”, and you’re done.  Boom.

·         I don’t have time to sleep in the fall…Part III.  OK—don’t.  Most colleges and state funding agencies don’t have their financial aid budgets ready anyway, so in most cases—that’s in most cases—FAFSAs filed in October won’t get processed by colleges until February anyway.  It’s wise to call colleges to double-check, but if you really think this can’t work, it might be able to put it on a brief hold.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

College Readiness Checklist Fails to Make the Grade

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

While we’ve been away this summer, the School Superintendent’s Association (AASA) has released a series of National College and Career Readiness Indicators. These three checklists can be used to determine if students will succeed in their chosen post secondary path of college or career, along with one checklist to determine if they are, according to the Website, ready for life.
AASA calls these research-based metrics, but doesn’t cite the research on their Website or indicate the involvement of counselors or college admission officers in the creation of the lists. They go on to state “the campaign is a response to dismal college and career readiness scores reported by standardized test makers that fail to portray a comprehensive picture of student potential.”
The comprehensive picture AASA has drawn for college readiness reads as follows:
GPA 2.8 out of 4.0 and one or more of the following benchmarks:
Advanced Placement Exam (3+)
Advanced Placement Course (A, B or C)
Dual Credit College English and/or Math (A, B or C)
College Developmental/Remedial English and/or Math (A, B or C)
Algebra II (A, B or C)
International Baccalaureate Exam (4+)
College Readiness Placement Assessment*
The College-Ready list then goes on to site minimum scores on the ACT, as well as “other factors” that contribute to college success, including completion of the FAFSA.
The stated goal of the indicators is to prove “Our students are more than a score”, a slogan that seems to refer to deciding a student’s college readiness based exclusively on the ACT or SAT. Given the list they’ve created, AASA seems to be suggesting students are indeed more than just one score; they are three scores. If the list is an accurate indicator of college readiness, students are ready to take on the rigors of college as long as they have a minimum score on the ACT; a minimum GPA, and a C in any class from Algebra II to an AP course.
This position is completely counter to the one taken on by school counselors and college admission officers, who have long felt that college readiness is a much more intricate construct, and never determined by just one score, or by just three. Directly involved in the college selection process, these educators have long held, for example, that a student is more likely to be college ready if they’ve taken rigorous classes across the curriculum, not just one AP class.
In addition, a number of colleges are convinced that a C in an advanced class suggests the student is unlikely to succeed in college, since average college grades are typically one full grade level below what a student earns in high school. Given that data point, is AASA really willing to say a student with a C in Algebra II is a success if they earn a D in their first year of College Algebra, or if their high school GPA of 2.8 turns into a 1.8 at university? This would rebuff years of institutional data that has been created and verified by thousands of colleges, data that includes the role of personal maturity and socialization as measures of college readiness.
In addition, this college readiness list will undoubtedly lead parents to reconsider what they thought they knew about choosing a college in ways that can be harmful to students. Since the list doesn’t answer the question “Ready for which colleges?” parents will now safely assume that the college readiness list will prepare their child to succeed in any curriculum at any college, from community college to research universities to the Ivy League.
I for one am not looking forward to the first phone call from an ebullient parent who advises me that I was wrong about Johnny’s college prospects, since the Superintendent’s Association has decided that Johnny’s 2.9 GPA and C in Algebra II really does make him ready for Yale, no matter what I think. I don’t mind having the conversation; I do have concerns what that conversation will do to Johnny.
Helping students with the very personal experience of discovering colleges that are best suited to advance their goals, talents, and dreams has never been an easy thing to do, if it’s done well. A vast majority of school counselors and college admission counselors will readily admit that the many Best Colleges lists haven’t helped that cause, since those rankings are based on factors that either have little to do with a student’s college experience, or don’t take the unique needs of each student into account when creating the list. Counselors and college admissions officers do that; lists don’t.
Well-meaning as it may be, this checklist of college ready attributes does little to help the cause of college readiness. It may be news to some superintendents and principals that there’s more to being ready for college than a good score on the ACT, but that’s only because those school leaders have never had a serious conversation with their counselors about the purpose of college, and the process of creating a successful college fit between student and school.
The creation of this college readiness list may create that opportunity, as administrators may use its rollout as an occasion to advise counselors how to “do” college counseling. School counselors are going to want to be ready for that conversation with armloads of data and the insights of college admission officers. If they are, that conversation could lead to new levels of support for college counseling programs —one of the few outcomes of the creation of these checklists that could be considered a plus.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A Good and Bad Spring for Diversity on Campus

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

It’s been an interesting and rocky spring for college diversity.  Efforts to improve diversity through college admissions received an unexpected boost this week, when the US Supreme Court affirmed the right of the University of Texas to use race as a factor in some of its undergraduate admissions decisions.  Since the Supreme Court had already heard this case before, this second hearing hinged on a pivotal question:  was the way Texas used race designed to affect as few people as possible?
The answer came from the unlikely voice of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has never voted in favor of an affirmative action case in college admissions in his long career on the bench.  Given this surprise ruling came as the result of a vote of support from an unlikely source, it’s easy to understand why champions of diversity are thrilled, in fact downright giddy, over this week’s decision.

The Fisher decision certainly gives new life to affirmative action, but Justice Kennedy’s opinion also included some warnings that too many analysts are overlooking.  After granting the University of Texas the right to continue their admissions program, Justice Kennedy went on to advise the university to “use… data to scrutinize the fairness of its admissions program; to assess whether changing demographics have undermined the need for a race-conscious policy; and to identify the effects, both positive and negative, of the affirmative-action measures it deems necessary.” Combined with other comments in the opinion that were thoughtfully picked up by the Chronicle’s Andy Thomason, the overall effect of Justice Kennedy’s opinion is less a genuine embrace of affirmative action, and more an acknowledgement that affirmative action serves an important, but what the Court hopes will be a short-lived, purpose. It is safe to say Justice Kennedy had a change of vote.  Given his past concerns about affirmative action, and the halting tones of support in his opinion in Fisher, it is unclear that he has had a change of heart. 

Beyond the actions of our legal system, several articles published this spring suggest diversity of opinion is having a tough time on college campuses.  From articles about trigger warnings on campus (notices about class content that some may deem controversial) to job actions taken against professors who try to present all sides of an issue in classroom debates, authors across the political spectrum are concerned that more and more students want to hear less and less about opinions that disagree even modestly from their own.  Whether it’s the result of coddling or simple lack of exposure to dissenting opinions in the past, student backlash to the presentation of ideas that cause them to question their core values seems to be at an all-time high, as is the expectation that it is the job of the college administration to shield students from opinions the students might find offensive.

No one can say with any true authority how the Founding Fathers would view affirmative action, but it is clear from their writings and their conduct that the discussion of difficult subjects and the willingness to find common ground are cornerstones of the founding and successes of our country and our society.  As the Supreme Court tries valiantly to grapple with key elements of college access, those with access to a college education seem less and less interested in using those opportunities to engage in genuine discourse.  The poor role models of Congress and Jerry Springer may have led them to take this posture, but it is one that is contrary to the purpose of higher learning, and to the betterment of our world.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

You’re Worried About the Changes in College Admission. Your Students Aren’t, and Don’t Need to Be

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It’s easy to understand why some school counselors are nervous about next year.  SAT changes, a new multi-school college application, and major changes in financial aid deadlines are more than enough to concern those of us who have been involved in the college application process for a long time.

But here’s the thing.  Next year’s seniors haven’t been involved in the college application process for a long time.  They are bringing new eyes and new energy to a process that has exactly one purpose:  help them build what’s next in their life.  It may mean more than that to you, but that’s all it means to them, and that’s all it should ever mean to them.  That’s why they don’t really care about all the changes – and that’s why our task is to make sure they never do.

I know, I know.  “But there will system glitches with the new SAT and the new FAFSA deadline.”

Maybe.  But in case you missed it, this wasn’t exactly the smoothest year for standardized testing, even before the new SAT rolled out.  Colleges didn’t get test scores from both ACT and College Board until well after many application deadlines.  That wasn’t because anything was new; it just happened, we told the students, and they went back to English class.  Once it showed up, we dealt with it and moved on, minimizing student stress.  That goal is the same for this year.

“But kids need to know what their score on the new SAT means to colleges.”

Yes they do.  Just like last year’s students needed to know what their score on the old SAT meant to colleges.  They asked; the colleges told them, and the student had their answer.  This year shouldn’t be any different.

“But the new FAFSA deadline will really change things for students.”

Not really.  It will give this year’s students different opportunities and responsibilities, but this year’s class doesn’t have that knowledge—so they don’t have to change anything.  We have to change what we say to this year’s students, but it doesn’t change their existing mind set.  It’s all new to them.


OK.  Perhaps we should just talk about the real issue.  You aren’t worried about what the changes are going to do to your students, who don’t know the history of college admissions.  You’re worried about what the changes are going to do to you.  Interpreting the new SAT.  Helping students apply for college and financial aid at the same time.  Hoping the Coalition application allows you to send a transcript, and that it gets there.  All perfectly understandable.  All perfectly reasonable.

All having nothing to do with your students.

It makes perfect sense that you’re nervous about all of this, because it changes the way you do your work, and that means your programs, newsletters, and calendar all need to be updated, and may not be perfect this year.  It’s your first time doing things this way—just like it’s the first time your students are applying to college.  That means you’re in this together.

Use this to your advantage.  Combine your wisdom with your students’ sense of wonder and endless possibility, and see where it takes you.  It will be new, it may be unpredictable, and it may take you somewhere you least expect—but you will experience all of this together, with the student’s best interests as the ultimate and only goal.

In a time where college admissions seems more and more like a pricey game, what more could you possibly want than a chance to start fresh?

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

College Access and Your Principal: An Essential Partnership

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

The Internet is already full of the pictures that hold a special place in the hearts of school counselors.  Dressed in cap and gown and beaming ear to ear, an incredibly delighted high school graduate is standing next to an equally delighted, somewhat older, and often slightly slouching adult.  Off to college, perhaps with a counselor-discovered scholarship in hand, the caption under the picture reads “Thank to my counselor Mrs. Smith, I’m doing something I never thought I would do—go to college.”

It does our hearts and our stress levels a world of good to see a counselor’s hard work pay off for a student with college dreams.  As we think about professional goals for next year, we can’t help but wonder what we can do to help more students realize that dream, if that’s what they want to do.

That’s where your building principal comes in.  Long recognized as an essential element of a successful school counseling program, strong counselor-principal bonds are a must in order to create the college-going atmosphere that gives all students the chance to consider college as a viable postsecondary choice, understand what it takes to be ready to make the most of college, and walk the sometimes winding path of applying to college and finding the resources to pay for it.  When it comes to setting college goals for next year, here are three reasons why you need to start with the principal-counselor relationship:

College Access Isn’t A Program; It’s an Atmosphere  There are some programs counselors can run without anyone else’s assistance, but creating a college-going atmosphere simply isn’t one of them. We may be the masters of college awareness, but students knowing which college they like best means nothing if they don’t have the skills and attitude necessary to make the most of the college experience.  That’s largely built in the classroom, through extracurricular activities, and in conversations about learning that need to go on outside the counseling office in order for students to truly be college ready.

It’s important for counselors to have strong relationships directly with teachers, but when it comes to integrating college readiness into every assignment, building time in the annual schedule for events like College Application Week, and sending the right message about the role of college to parents, principals can move the college access needle as no one else can.

Your Principal is Your Boss  It’s also important to remember that principals control the one commodity counselors never have enough of—time.  From assigning tasks like schedule changes and test administration to creating policies for when colleges can visit your students, principals play a significant role in deciding what gets done in the college curriculum, when it gets done, and what doesn’t get done.  Any college program that requires more counseling time, or more building resources, ultimately happens only with your principal’s OK—and it will only get done successfully with their enthusiastic OK.  Give your administrators take a personalized tour of your college counseling curriculum.

Your Principal is Well Connected  A growing body of research shows that an effective college-going culture is best created in the community, not just in the school.  Since the principal is seen as the face of the school in the larger community, it’s essential counselors make the most of the relationships principals have with business leaders, the local media, faith leaders in the community, and heads of area government.  A world of partnerships, internships, job shadowing, professional connections, and program resources await the counselor who builds strong bonds with caring community members, and that relationship begins through the principal’s office.