Wednesday, February 26, 2014

An Update on the State of Counselors and College Admission Training

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It’s been a little over two years since The Chronicle of Higher Education published a column on the lack of training counselors receive in college admission counseling. The piece concluded with a call to policy makers to determine how counselor readiness could be improved in college admission counseling, since less than 10 percent of all counselor training programs in the US offered any preparation in this area (you can see the entire article at

The column has inspired a great deal of discussion and seed-planting.  Informally, dozens of school counselors have reached out to the colleges that trained them and offered to teach a college counseling class as an elective.  Formally, counselor educators and school counselors have joined together to create the Transforming School Counseling and College Access Interest Network.  The group meets regularly online to determine how to improve training in college counseling. 

At the same time, mounting evidence suggests progress could continue to be too small, and too glacial.  College Board’s second survey of school counselors showed little change in counselors’ perceptions of professional readiness in college counseling.  This sentiment was echoed in the recent book Top Student, Top School, where valedictorians from urban schools gave a scathing assessment of their counselors when it came to college advising.

If counselors are aware of the paucity of training, and students keenly feel the impact of this void, what can be done to make sure another two years and six million high school graduates don’t pass by without meaningful change in the availability of quality college advising?  These steps would lend crucial momentum to the effort:
  • A White House Summit on Counselor Training The White House held a January summit highlighting colleges and universities committed to making college more affordable.  A natural follow up is a second summit, where the leading voices in college admissions advising would develop a blueprint for action that would lead to more coursework in college advising.  Conversations have occurred with the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the Council for the Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs, and the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision.  The next step is to put action behind those discussions, and develop a timeline-based commitment to change.

  •  Offering More Training as Topics Courses  Counselor educators in ACES and TSCCAIN don’t have to wait for a summit to give a green light to college advising classes.  Every counselor training program offers a course in current topics; offering a college advising course in this slot would show the vitality and viability of the class.  Ample course outlines exist, and practicing school counselors are eager to teach the course; all that’s missing is the opportunity.

  • Engagement with State and Local Policy Makers  Online offerings of a college advising course make the course available to all corners of the world, throughout the year.  This access means school boards can easily change their hiring policies to require new counselors to take a course in college advising in their first three years of employment; state legislatures can do the same. 

Two years have shown an increase in interest in more training in college advising, along with six million reminders why better training is more important than ever.  It’s time for the conversations to shift into action; the opportunity is nigh, and the stakes have never been higher.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Top Ten Trends in College Admissions (with a few bonus references on Michigan)

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

  1. Competition for college admissions is up at many colleges.  More students are applying to college—and when they do apply, students are applying to more colleges than ever before.  Since most colleges aren’t admitting more students, this makes it harder to get admitted to selective and highly selective colleges.
  2. This is especially true in Michigan, where Michigan State University and The University of Michigan are on track to receive a record number of applications this year, making admission more challenging.  This means more students are likely to start at another four-year college or a community college to transfer to U-M or MSU, a process that requires them to work closely with the transfer advisors in Ann Arbor or East Lansing.
  3. More colleges are actively recruiting students from overseas. This is especially true among private colleges, making the applicant pool bigger and wider than ever before.
  4. Test scores seem to matter more now than ever before at highly selective colleges, but students need more than high test scores to gain admission.  See
  5. Colleges report that students are writing essays that don’t really tell the college all that much about the student, and that has a negative impact on the student’s application.  See
  6. Students are looking past a small question asked by many colleges that is a key part of the application process.  Known as the “Why Us?” question, this essay is used to make sure the student has really looked into what a college has to offer—but many times, the student doesn’t do enough research to provide a strong answer.  See
  7. Students are borrowing more money to pay for college, making reliance on scholarships and merit scholarships more important than ever.  There are ways to cut the cost of attendance—look for colleges that offer merit scholarships ( is a good place to begin), or think about other ways to earn college credit—see
  8. Parents are asking for more information about paying for college.  Now is the time to make sure paying for college is discussed with parents well before 11th grade, using resources like and that financial aid officers from colleges are usually thrilled to come talk to high school parents about paying for college, and make great guest speakers.
  9. Many colleges have stopped requiring ACT or SAT scores as part of the admissions process.  Many colleges are realizing that these scores don't give much additional information about a student the college doesn't already know from grades and letters of recommendation.  For these schools, students can can send the scores in if they want to, but they don't have to take the tests at all for purposes of admission. See
  10. Many school districts are forming college-going partnerships with Local College Access Networks (LCANs) and the Michigan and Michigan State College Advising Corps.  These groups supplement the college-going efforts of school counselors in important ways, and create a larger sense of community support for college-going students.  For more information on LCANs, see . College Advising Corps information can be found at 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Four-Year Degree is Worth More Than Ever

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

The world of higher education was thrown yet another loop this week when the Pew Research Center released a study on the value of a four-year college degree.  It’s long been known that four-year college graduates make more money than students who stopped going to school after earning a high school diploma, but the report suggests that gap is widening for two reasons:  the salaries of college graduates are going up, and the salaries of high school graduates are going down.

How much of a difference are we talking about?  $17,500 a year, among full-time employed 25 -32 year-olds. Since the average college graduate with debt owes about $30,000 at the time they complete their degree, the numbers suggest students are still better off to borrow that high amount, since the costs will more than pay for themselves within a few years of full-time employment.

Combined with the lower unemployment rate among four-year college graduates (4.5% vs. the national average of 6.8% in 2012), the message is clear—four years of college is worth it.

What does this do to current conversations about training after high school?  A great deal. The recent White House Summit on college affordability called on colleges to find ways to make college more affordable for all students, and to create solutions to slow annual increases in tuition.  Minimizing the increase in college costs is always a good idea, but these survey results show that students can engage in thoughtful borrowing plans to pay for college with the assurance they’ll have jobs to pay off the loans, and have significantly higher salaries throughout their careers.  Colleges certainly have a role to play in keeping costs low, but students don’t have to defer their college dreams, as long as they develop a strong educational and financial plan.

The report also gives something more to consider for the “not everyone needs 4 years of college” movement.  After seeing increases in the number of students dropping out of four-year colleges without a degree, some policy makers are promoting other training programs as viable alternatives to four years of college.  Citing the importance of many of the careers available to students without a Bachelor’s degree, leaders are pointing to the vital role community colleges can play in the development of the workforce.

Students with talents and interests in the trades should by all means pursue their passions—but those looking to two-year colleges for a financial advantage over high school graduates are sure to be disappointed.  The Pew research indicates full-time employed 25 to 30 year-olds with an associate’s degree or some college training are making $30,000 a year, while high school graduates are making $28,000—an annual difference of only $2,000.  While some career fields will be exceptions to these numbers (plumbing and spot welding come to mind), the data point a clear path to financial security—and that path runs right through the doors of a four-year degree.

These results offer an alternative approach for policymakers to consider.  Rather than emphasize the importance and financial vitality of education programs other than four-year colleges, perhaps policy makers could find ways to support the efforts of school counselors and others to teach students the necessary skills for college completion.  Too many students approach college thinking their studies will be “just like high school.”  With improved training in college advising, and relief from non-counseling duties, school counselors could present seminars and simulations that teach students how to build the skills of persistence, networking, and problem solving that will lead to a four-year college degree, and a brighter economic future. 

Monday, February 3, 2014

Ten Things Teachers Can do to Improve the College-Going Culture in Their Building (Leave a Copy of this in the Faculty Room)

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

1.      Understand your school’s college counseling curriculum.  It may seem like college counseling is all about “getting in” and finding a way to pay for college, but there’s much more to it.  Ask to see your counseling office’s curriculum; they would welcome the chance to show it to you.

2.      Consider your role in the college counseling curriculum. Counselors teach students how to communicate to colleges, but that curriculum is built on a solid foundation in English.  Counselors help students research and compare colleges, using critical thinking and analysis taught in literature, the social sciences, math, and science. It takes a team to build the skills and excitement that gets a student to—and through—college.  Your part of that teamwork is critical.

3.      Know that college awareness is a K-12 process.  Students and parents develop their attitudes about college early—especially in low income communities, or towns where few parents went to college.  College isn’t for every student, but every family needs to understand what college is about before making an informed decision—and some of that understanding needs to start in elementary school. 

4.      Talk to students about your college experience.  Most students know you went to college—but where, and why?  Hearing your stories—successes and challenges—makes the college search more real to them.  It also encourages them to ask questions, and makes them less fearful of making mistakes. 

5.      Talk to parents about your college experience.  Parents are always interested in hearing about college experiences, especially if you were the first in your family to go to college, or if you have children who are in (or finished with) college.  A word or two from you at parent conferences or the basketball game can give them important perspective on the value of college.

6.      Suggest your school participate in College Application Week.  This fall event helps seniors apply to college, and shows all students everything college can be.  Teachers wear their college gear, hold college trivia contests—in short, they work with counselors to create a spirit week for college.  There’s a nice introduction to CAW here—and most of the advice applies to all states:

7.      Create counselor/classroom partnerships.  You need every minute of your period to teach your curriculum—but what if you have a spare 15 minutes at the end of a quiz, where a counselor could present a lesson on doing a college search?  How about using that essay unit to work with counselors to teach the basics of a college admissions essay? Talk to your counselor for more ideas.

8.      Share your community connections. Students are always asking counselors for help finding internships, job shadowing experiences, college contacts, and money for college.  Your neighbor, college roommate, or membership in a community foundation could make a difference to that student’s college plans.  Share your contacts with your school counselors, and watch all the good that will come.

9.      Keep the college application calendar in mind.  College application crunch time usually occurs one fall weekend, and one December weekend—and students aren’t always the best time managers. The same is true for visiting college campuses; there’s never a good time to go, but they need to see their next school, which will double as their next home. When these events come up, see if you can go easy on the homework.

10.  Keep your counselors in the loop. Students are more likely to tell you—or their friends—about college decisions.  Make sure you pass that information along to your counselors—especially if a student seems upset about it.