Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Assumptions Can Kill a College Search

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It’s been a long, cold, lonely winter in Michigan, even though we haven’t had our share of snow this year.  The blizzard began in early January, when the Michigan Department of Education announced plans to drop the ACT as the statewide college readiness exam. Within hours, school officials—largely district superintendents—were throwing themselves in front of every TV camera in the state, making bold proclamations that all sounded the same:

“Well, if the state is going to require our kids to take the SAT, it’s about time our state colleges started accepting the SAT as part of their freshman application process.”

There is no doubt these spokespersons are sincere, well-meaning educators who are very busy people.  Having said that, how long would it have taken to call someone in their district who works more closely with college admission—say, a school counselor—and ask “The state is changing to the SAT.  Is that going to hurt our kids?”

There is nothing like knowing what you don’t know.

The avalanche has turned into light flurries, but it’s still enough to make a counselor feel snowbound.  Just the other day, a school principal supported the test change by saying “Think of the opportunities this creates for students to look at colleges beyond Michigan”, assuming that colleges beyond our borders had never heard of the ACT, let alone knew what to do with the scores.

This entire test-switching adventure is a gentle reminder of two keys in college counseling.  First, it is always important to challenge the assumptions of our students.  How many students come through our doors having picked up the idea that they aren’t “college material”, making it that much harder for them to understand all of the options available to them after high school? 

This is especially true when it comes to college costs.  Too many students limit themselves to the schools they think they can afford, when a full exploration of college options can turn up scholarships or other programs that make dream schools affordable, as long as the student is willing to look.

Second, it is essential to begin college awareness at an early age.  Attitudes about college costs and the “right” kinds of college begin early in our society; this is why applications for admission always increase at whatever college wins the football national championship. By talking to 7th and 8th grade families about college options and costs, counselors are giving students the tools to evaluate options after high school that put their interests, talents, and needs at the center of the search.  That’s the best way to make sure students are asking assumption-free questions.

Counselors looking for a college curriculum that makes sense to 7th graders can turn to the National Association for College Admission Counseling.  Their Step by Step curriculum walks students and parents through the college exploration process from grades 7-11, and includes downloadable Power Points in English and Spanish—all for free.  No curriculum will make sure every student has an assumption-free college search, but NACAC offers a tried and true way to keep most students and families on the straight and narrow, no matter what college test they take. 

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