Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Parents Mean Well-- and Yet...

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

“Mr. Osborn?”


“This is Wanda Axelrod, Jimmy’s mother?”


“He’s applying to your college, and when I told his counselor Jimmy had a few questions, the counselor told Jimmy to call the college admissions office, so of course I wanted to talk to you.”

“I’m sorry.  Jimmy had some questions, so you—?”

“Yes.  Now, Jimmy’s counselor told us you superscore on the ACT, and we just wanted to make sure that was true.”

“Why, yes.  Counselors are really very reliable with that information.”

“That’s exactly what our SAT tutor said, but I just wanted to make sure.  Now, when listing extracurricular activities, should we list them in chronological order, or in order of importance?”

“Order of importance.  We think that shows us some of the intangible qualities of student.”

“That’s what I told Jimmy after we typed them into the online application, but he insisted that I check with you.”

“He did?”

“I told him, ‘Jimmy, you may have only changed planes in Ukraine, but colleges like to see students familiar with other nations, and that’s why I put that experience at the top of the extracurricular list.’”

“Ma’am, changing planes isn’t exactly—“

“This was after we spent two weeks at the Sanskrit writing seminar.  Jimmy had such a good time—I’m so glad we found out about it through the magazine at the beauty salon.”

“Your son goes to a—?”

“Now, you mentioned intangible qualities. Let’s talk more about those, since we have a list of those we’ve been working on since sixth grade.  Jimmy has extensive leadership experience as CEO of his own lawn maintenance company for the past seven years.”

“He owns a lawn maintenance company?”

“No.  He just runs it.”

“I see.  How many employees?”

“Just one.”

“Other than himself?”

“Why, no.  Is that important?”

“You could say that.”

“He’s up to five lawns this year.  Of course, he had to quit piano to make more time for lawn cutting, but I told him that leadership was something colleges like.”

“How long had he played piano?”

“Since he was three.  He was state champion at the Junior level three years straight, and had a good shot at the Senior division crown.  But we gave that up.”

“Did he like it?”

“Giving it up?”

“No.  Playing the piano. Did he like it?”

“Oh heavens yes.  He would spend hours at the piano, playing Bach from memory, composing his own songs.  It was beautiful while it lasted.”

“And now he’s mowing lawns instead?”

“Mr. Osborn, we know the value of being a small business operator in the college application process.”

“Of course.  What other intangible qualities--?”

“Well, he did display selflessness when I took him to the soup kitchen.”

“As a volunteer?  That’s great.  How many hours did he work there?”

“One. But we really grew through that experience.”

“Anything else?”

“Independence, since we’re now cleaning our own room.  Organization, when he cleaned the garage.  And adventure of course, when he had to change planes in Ukraine.”

“Mrs. Axelrod, how about initiative?”


“Yes.  You know, setting up his own appointments with his college counselor, finding his own summer programs to attend, showing leadership and selflessness by staying with the piano to offer free recitals to local retirement villages and free lessons to local children, calling the college of his choice by himself to ask his own questions—that kind of thing.”

“That—that doesn’t appear to be on our list.”


“I suppose that means his life is over.”

“I somehow get the impression that once he’s in college, his life will just begin.”

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Public Opinion About College Has Changed. Yours Shouldn’t.

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It was only a matter of time.
A recent article in The Washington Post reports that most Americans do not believe a college education is very important.  The PDK- Gallup Poll indicates only 44 percent of Americans now feel a college education matters, down from 79 percent just four years ago.  In other words, students who are now college seniors started life after high school with a country that largely thought they were doing something noble by going to college, but now, not so much.

The article goes on to indicate a generally less supportive tone of education in general (greater disapproval for Common Core, a belief new teachers should spend a full year with an experienced teacher), but both the article and the poll overlook an important question—why has public support for college dropped so much so quickly?  Some of the possible reasons are important for school counselors to consider, as they continue to advise students on postsecondary plans that will shape their careers, their lives, and their lifestyles:

Four year college degrees were oversold for years.  
The Great Recession left many students of middle class families scrambling for new career options, as the factories that offered good union wages for high school graduates downsized or went out of business in droves.  Looking at the high wages earned by workers with a Bachelors Degree, desperate families and policy makers placed an emphasis on going to college that was based more on the needs of the country than the needs of the individual student.  Much of that bad advice has led to high dropout rates—clearly not what was hoped for.

New college graduates can’t find jobs in their field.  It wasn’t just the factories downsizing in 2007, as the white collar managers of those plants and their suppliers also lost their jobs.  This led to a decrease in entry level jobs for those just completing colleges, driving many of them to become the best educated baristas around.  It isn’t hard to understand why an average high school student would look at that and decide college isn’t for them—especially since…

The cost of college skyrocketed.  College tuition has been on a steep upward climb for years, but every price hike in the last few years has received greater attention, once cumulative debt for college students surpassed the hefty watermark of $1 billion.  A high priced product (college) that could no longer promise high benefits (a good job) is a strong reason for consumers (students) to look elsewhere to spend their postsecondary dollars—like community colleges and training programs, where some technology jobs start graduates out at the very reasonable rate of $40,000 per year.

Four year colleges may be looking at some kind of correction, but counselors will have to keep a close eye on the “college isn’t worth it” movement to make sure students don’t overlook all college has to offer.  This can best be done by remembering the mistake society made in deciding that college was the “one size fits all” solution to the Great Recession.  It wasn’t—just as putting every student through technical training isn’t the answer to the challenges we’re facing now.

A carefully designed college counseling curriculum will help students understand the different kinds of colleges and the purpose each kind has—as well as key factors in deciding if college is for you.  It’s long past time for students and counselors to let public sentiment decide our students’ futures.  We know better, and it’s our job to teach our students better, no matter which way the winds of public opinion blow. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

College Counselor to Parents: Relax

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It must be September, because the parents of high school seniors are panicked about college. As a high school counselor, I did everything but give away free gas to get parents to visit me in the spring, but usually to no avail. Now, I'm buying my groceries in the next county because so many parents want to solve their senior's college woes in Aisle 6 of the corner supermarket.
The stress of applying to college is not lost on me. But unlike running from a burning building or scoring a Harry Potter book at midnight, stress doesn't help the college selection process. If you feel you're behind, the best thing to do is forget about the stress and start talking to two important college experts.
The first expert is your high school senior, the person who will be going to college. You may have missed the February college night for juniors and the college fair last May, but chances are your child has picked up more than enough information to bring you up to speed – plus, they know what they're looking for in a college.
Of course, this might not be easy. Teenagers often seem feisty, uncommunicative, and embarrassed by your every move. Ask them about college plans, and you may as well be doing the Macarena at the bus stop. You need an approach that shows respect for them as independent people, interest in their opinions, and an understanding of their values.
So go buy a pizza.
Sitting down with a pizza creates a common interest (food), a relaxed atmosphere, and something to do in the event of an awkward silence. In the middle of their second slice, tell them you want to help them apply to college, but you don't want to hassle them. As a result, you'll sit down once a week for 20 minutes to talk about college, and unless they bring it up some other time, that will be it.
The 20-minute weekly meeting is the only time you nudge them about application deadlines (NOT on Friday night as they're heading to the game), and ask how college plans are going. In return, they use the meeting to ask if you wrote the check for the application to State U., or why you asked that embarrassing question when you visited a college last week. You get the information you need, they don't feel you're invading their turf, and everyone gets a snack. VoilĂ !
After about two or three of these meetings, you're ready to meet the second expert, your child's school counselor. If you haven't met the counselor before, don't worry; the goal here is to make sure everyone knows how to help your child find a college that's right. Since most school counselors have far too many students, the challenge is to reach that goal in a short period of time – about 18 minutes. But since you've found a way to talk with your senior about college and not look like a dork, you can do anything.
When the meeting comes, you and your child greet the counselor and you ask these questions:
1. What should my child focus on as a student this year? The counselor can talk about your child's schedule, what teachers think of your child, and what they think your child should do to grow as a person – it's wide open.
2. Can we tell you a little about our child that we think would help you with their college plans? This is a forced question few counselors say no to, and they shouldn't. If you talk about your concerns and interests for just a few minutes (practice at home), the counselor can ask questions, and really get to know what you're thinking about for your child's life after high school.
3. Does my child have a realistic list of colleges? Your child should drop a copy of this list off to the counselor three days before the meeting – that way, the counselor can prepare a solid answer.
4. What are the deadlines for submitting applications to you? This is probably in the school's college handbook or website, but ask (and write down the answer) so everyone knows the deadlines.
5. What's the best way to get in touch with you? Most counselors are either e-mail or phone people, so here's their chance to share their preference, and your chance to further respect their time. Two big no-nos here for parents are asking "quick questions" if you see the counselor at a school function (or the supermarket) and dropping in at the counselor's office without an appointment. Counselors want the chance to serve you well; give them that chance, and send the quick questions in via the counselor's preferred way.
Feeling bad about getting a late start on college won't help your child. Instead, use that energy to consult with two local college experts, and the rush will make you want to do the Macarena.
Just not in front of the children.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Three Big College Changes You May Have Missed This Summer

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It’s always good to be so busy having a great summer vacation that you lose track of the bigger world.  Relaxing is important, and helps school counselors maintain perspective.

Of course, August then rolls around, and like the student who missed the first day of class, it’s a good idea to ask someone who’s been paying attention, “Did I miss anything important?”

As a welcome back from those of you just straggling in from the beach, here are a few new trends to keep your eye on:

Veterans and Families Pay In-State Tuition  One of the biggest changes to the GI Bill happened this summer, as President Obama signed a bill allowing veterans to pay in-state tuition at any public college in the country.  Individual colleges and states had these policies in place, but this new law opens up more affordable educations to veterans from coast to coast.

Of special interest to school counselors is the bill’s provision that extends in-state tuition to the spouses and children of veterans as well.  Since the law goes in to effect in the Fall of 2015, counselors will want to announce this change to all of their students, but especially budget-conscious seniors, who can now think again about public institutions that may have been out of reach just a month ago.

Big Sports Colleges Gain Strength  Another change less than a month old is the NCAA’s loosening of some economic limitations on large college athletic programs.  Starting next fall, colleges in what’s known as the Big 5 athletic conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, and SEC) can offer more health insurance, scholarship, and cost-of-attendance aid to athletes.  This change will clearly make successful programs even more successful, making it that much harder for colleges with smaller programs to land top athletes.  Then again, it was always a tough sell getting a student to come to a college with hundreds of fans, versus one with thousands.

Top players in the Class of 2015 will likely pay even less than before for college, making competition more keen among the biggest programs.  At the same time, more athletes may be interested in these bigger benefits whose skill levels might not make them top-notch recruits.  This makes it more important than ever to make sure all athletes have college options that don’t rely on an offer that might change with a coach’s new job offer or an off-season injury.

College Athletics, Part II  Another August NCAA ruling isn’t likely to impact next year’s athletes, but it’s worth paying attention to for 9th and 10th graders.  A federal court has ruled that the NCAA’s policy forbidding athletes to share in the profits of their college’s athletic program violates anti-trust law.  This policy has long kept athletes from asking for part of the revenues colleges get from TV contracts and Bowl appearances.  This summer’s ruling is the first step toward allowing that to happen.

The final word on this ruling will likely come from the US Supreme Court in a couple of years, but the implications are important as school counselors advise their youngest athletes.  While current policies often create financial gaps for athletes to fill, a change in profit-sharing policies could leave find some athletes attending college while making a hefty profit.  Combined with an earlier decision allowing college athletes to unionize, the field of college athletics is likely to see many changes in the near future, making it more challenging to encourage high school student athletes to hit the books as hard as they hit the gym.