Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Mr. President, Here’s the Best way to End Financial Aid Misuse

By Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Dear Mr. President:

High school counselors and college admissions officers stood a little taller last week when you took your case public for federal financial aid.  Your slow jam asking Congress to chill on interest rates for student loans might be cool enough to get even Jimmy Fallon’s usual sidekick  to want more cash in his piggy bank, and your Executive Order protecting the rights of veterans to spend their college benefits wisely was the right call at the right time. 

Since financial aid is on everyone’s mind, and your Executive Order pen is still warm, I hope you’re willing to use it one more time—because the truth is, a lot of it is being wasted for no reason at all.

High school seniors have just completed the college application process, where they had to negotiate a daunting maze of tests, applications, essays, and financial aid forms.  It’s tougher for a teen to get through the paperwork needed for college than it is to get through a pick at the White House basketball games.

Many students rely on their high school counselor to guide them through the ample choices that exist in the richest land of postsecondary choices in the world.  Unfortunately, studies show students don’t find counselors all that helpful with college choice, and counselors themselves don’t feel all that well trained to be of much help with college options.   

Combine that with the country’s 459 student-to-counselor ratio  , and it’s easy to see why students can make uninformed college decisions that don’t work out. Since many of these broken dreams are paid for by federal funds, our country realizes no return on investment, and our students realize they’re starting out with lots of college debt, but no college degree.

Mr. President, if you could turn that trend around for free, would you?

Then please sign an Executive Order directing every school counselor training program to require a course in college selection and counseling.

If you’re surprised such a course isn’t already required, you aren’t alone—but only about 50  counselor training programs offer such a course, and only a handful require it.  Counselors themselves have been begging for this course for a long time, including award-winning counselor Bob Bardwell , but counselor educators don’t see the need to fix the problem, in part because they created the problem.

So we know how you feel when it comes to working with Congress.

Those who teach this class (including me) would gladly share course descriptions and teaching techniques—and since the course would replace an elective counselors are already paying for, there are no new expenses involved.

Only new learning.

It would be ideal to have more counselors in each school and to make sure they are actually talking to students, not doing lunch duty.  But counselors would still need to know how to create personalized roads to college success for all students—especially counselors in rural and urban areas .  They can’t do that without the training they want; it’s just that no one will give it to them.

Mr. President, school counselors are working hard to provide sound college advice to students, but they can’t do that without their own sound training in college selection.  For their sake; for the sake of our students; and for the sake of our government’s investment in education, please let them know that you’re Barack Obama, and you approve this message.  Give us the chance to get this training, and we’ll create transitions to college that will break students out of this slow jam, something that would be mighty cool indeed.

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