Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The End of the Safety School

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D


It’s known as the calm after the storm. Once the October flurry of college applications are submitted, and you’ve done your best to offer words of support and praise for every one of the 62 gazillion students on your caseload applying to college, you somehow find a minute to review just who has applied to what college, just to make sure everyone has a place to land next year.

And that’s when it hits you. Dear Melody, that high-flying senior who came into your office with a color-coded list of colleges and a spreadsheet that would put Goldman Sachs to shame, has completed all of her applications to the colleges that admit two percent of their applicants—but somehow never got around to applying to State U, where she’s a sure admit for their honors program.

Steve, the bassoon player with OK grades, came in and freely admitted he wanted to apply to some colleges where his GPA and scores suggested he didn’t have a chance, but he wanted to see how far the bassoon thing could get him. He had an audition video file professionally produced, and the applications to the Reach schools are all done. But the applications to the two local schools that have heard the tape, waived the application fee, and basically said “send us an email and you’re in”? Not so much.

Welcome to the world of application clean-up, that gut-wrenching time around Halloween that is nearly all tricks and no treats. All of those nice lists created last spring that had the right mix of Safety, Target, and Reach schools are now just filler in a CA-60, as seniors show their proclivity to be—well, seniors, and think they will live forever, so why not take a few risks with college applications?

The real challenge here is that you get it—you understand why seniors don’t really want to deal with safety schools. Despite your best efforts, seniors don’t see safety schools as Plan B. They see them as Plan G, as in “Gee, too bad you couldn’t get into a good school.” You tell them a good Safety School is a place where they’d love to go to school where their chances of admission are incredibly good—but at the same time, you also know that since getting in is a given, that’s somehow seen by them as one less reason to want to go there.

What to do? Try this:

Stop calling them Safety schools. College is all about stretching to discover more about yourself and your relationship to the world, a place that is the right mix of challenge, opportunity, and support. Safety is in there somewhere, but calling a college Safe portrays images of maternal smothering, paternalistic decision-making about “what’s best for you”, and tapioca pudding.

A Likely college conveys a sense of a school that would *love* to have you, that would welcome you to the fun, frazzled world of higher education with a slap on the back and a crème brulee. Yes, that’s basically tapioca pudding exposed to a blowtorch, but blowtorches are cool. No more Safety schools—they’re Likely schools.

Create a new Likely list. You might be tempted to email Melody and say, “Here’s the list of Likely schools we talked about last spring”, but that list is old news she’s trying to run away from for some reason, and she isn’t coming back. Instead, review the list of schools she’s already applied to, find some common themes, and create a new list of Likelies. Make sure at least one of them will send an admission notice before Christmas, and try to get one that will offer merit money. Students are thrilled by the first school that says yes, and by a school that will pay them to go there. That makes two Likely schools that will remain in play, in case the other schools say no.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

“Why Isn’t the Transcript There?”

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D



There are very few things in life that make high school counselors wish they were still changing schedules, but this is one of them.

“Counseling, how can I help you?”

“Yes, I’m calling because my daughter applied to college this morning, and the college doesn’t have her high school transcript. What’s the hold up?”

“I can help you with that. What’s your daughter’s name?”

“Wendy. Wendy Thomas.”

“Thank you. According to our records, Wendy hasn’t applied to any colleges. Has she reported her application to her counselor?”

“No.”

“Did she tell her counselor she was thinking of applying to college?”

“Not that I’m aware of. But look, I’m telling you now. Why haven’t you sent the transcript?”

Technology has certainly allowed counselors to meet transcript requests with new levels of response time, but there are still some practical limitations to what we can do—especially if the student hasn’t told us they’ve applied to college. If your goal is to limit the number of irate transcript calls you get, try these strategies:

Get ahead of the curve A surprising number of counseling offices are very good at reminding students when *their* part of the application is due, but fewer offices are as up front about when the counseling office sends in the transcript, counselor letter, and other forms-- or the need for students to tell counselors they've applied to college. Now is the time to check your counseling handbook, newsletters, and website to see just what you tell students and parents about the deadlines you have to meet.

Give a brief explanation of the big picture It’s likely parents and students will want to know just why the student has to submit applications by October 15, but you don’t have to send a transcript and counselor letter until November 1. If your office does this, the answer is really pretty simple--- while the student may be filling out 3 or 4 applications, you are sending out hundreds of letters and transcripts, and simply can’t meet every request in 24 hours. That may seem pretty obvious to you, but it probably isn’t all that obvious to them. Make sure you explain this early, and often.

Keep a close eye out for unusual deadlines Explaining all of this ahead of time will really cut down parent and student stress, but it might also raise the anxiety of some parents who think their child is a special case. If they contact you, be sure to do your homework to see if they may be right—some colleges outside the US have earlier deadlines, and a few colleges have special deadlines that are scholarship driven.

If the student is truly an exception, work with the parent to create a turnaround time that’s going to work for everyone. If your research shows that the student really isn’t an exception, you’ll want to explain that “State U has a November 1 application deadline for all students, and they don’t start reading any applications before then. As long as we get the transcript in before then—and we’ve done that for every application for the last 15 years—your child’s application will receive full consideration.”

Make sure you tell everyone about this The best way to get a rumor started that “counseling doesn’t know what they’re doing” is for a student to complain about a missing transcript to a teacher or administrator who isn’t familiar with your policy. It’s always wise to send a reminder to them, or discuss this at the first faculty meeting of the year. This also makes it easier for teachers to send their letters with less stress.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Two Important College Application Trends

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

School counselors are starting the college application season with the discovery of two trends they may not have seen much of in the past.  While these two trends have been popular in certain parts of the country, they seem to be taking hold nationally.  So it’s worthwhile to take a closer look at them, and how to advise students on how to best handle them.

The first trend is self-reported grades.  After years and years of holding up application decisions until the student’s high school sends a transcript, several colleges have decided to let the students report their own grades on the application.  Using the self-reported grades means colleges can make a decision sooner on the applicant—and if the student is admitted, they must have their high school send an official copy of their transcript before they enroll, so they can confirm the student’s grades.

This approach is seen as a win for all kinds of reasons.  In addition to speeding up the process, the responsibility of reporting grades now lies with the student, not the school, meaning the student takes more ownership of the application process in general.  Students tempted to report grades that make them look a little smarter than their transcript might suggest know that they have to send their real transcript in for verification—and if the two transcripts don’t match, the college won’t let the student in.  Add in the savings of clerical time, and the trees saved by not printing paper transcripts to schools the student doesn’t want to attend, and this idea’s time has come.

The key to explaining this to students is to gently remind them to tell the truth when they fill in their own grades.   You’ll also need to make sure students have access to an accurate transcript, but that’s likely easy enough to do.

The second trend that’s popping up is self-reported test scores.  Test scores made a big splash a few years ago when a number of leading colleges made test-score reporting optional—in other words, if you weren’t a great test taker and didn’t want to report your test scores, you didn’t have to.

The list of test optional schools is well over 800 now, and other colleges are thinking about giving students the chance to self-report their test scores.  The process is the same as self-reported grades; the student submits their test scores as part of the college application, and only has to send an official copy of test scores to the one college they plan on attending.

The plusses of self-reported test scores are similar to  self-reported grades, along with one other big bonus—the money students will save.  Once you take the SAT or ACT, it costs serious money to send test scores to colleges.  A student applying to five or six test optional schools could find themselves saving enough to pay for another college application fee—and, once again, this is one less piece of the puzzle to go wrong.

Counselors advising students on self-reporting test scores will want to make sure they thoroughly understand which test scores each college wants.  While most colleges tell students to only send their best scores, some colleges require students to send the results of all test attempts. Failing to disclose all scores at these schools could lead to trouble later on, so it’s important to be clear.  It will also be important to make sure student send official scores to their one college in the spring.  Given how crazy spring of senior year can be, that could prove to be a very important task.


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Early FAFSA Year 2—What to Keep in Mind

By: Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


Last year’s big news about college affordability was the new deadline for the FAFSA, the form most colleges require students to complete in order to receive help paying for college.  By opening the FAFSA filing period on October 1, students and parents can now apply for college and financial aid at the same time.  This is aided tremendously by another change, where parents filing for aid can now use the tax information they’ve already submitted to the IRS—so no more waiting for forms that never seem to come.

Early FAFSA  is now in its second year, and high school counselors are ready to help families apply for college help with even stronger Paying for College programs and FAFSA completion events.  At the same time, some things haven’t changed since last year that may still offer filers some challenges.  Here’s a  quick review of what to pay attention to:

The New IRS Retrieval Tool  Last year, if you wanted FAFSA to access the tax information you already gave to the IRS, you just had to check a box, and boom—you could see all the figures FAFSA pulled from your tax reports.  Easy peasy.

It’s not as simple this year, thanks to a hacker who allegedly tried to use this system to gain access to President Trump’s tax records.  The only thing the hacker succeeded in doing is making things harder on this year’s filers.  A new security procedure still allows you to have FAFSA pull your IRS information; it’s just that you won’t be able to see the actual figures they pulled to make sure they’re accurate.  This will likely be a little frustrating to first-time filers; the best workaround is to enter the tax information yourself, which may take longer, but is also more transparent.

Award Letters May Not Come Any Sooner  You’d like to think that filing for financial aid sooner means you will get more financial aid packages from colleges sooner, but that hasn’t been the case.  Many public colleges relying on state money to fund financial aid programs are still waiting for legislatures to approve annual budgets, or for money to show up during the next fiscal year.  This can limit their ability to send financial aid packages any earlier than February or March.

The same has been true for many private colleges.  Even though their funding isn’t tied to state budgets, many private colleges still have late application deadlines—and many are hesitant to make financial aid offers to any students, before understanding the financial needs of all the students they’ve admitted.  This will require patience on the part of students and parents; if you want to know when you can expect an offer, call the college’s financial aid office and ask.

Net Price Calculators  One thing that also hasn’t changed is the availability of net price calculators, the magic web page each college is required to have that allows you to get some idea how much you’ll be expected to pay for college.  By answering just a few questions, you can get a rough estimate what college will cost at that college, and that’s good.

Now that net price calculators have been around for a while, it’s important to remember their limits.  Some will include merit-based scholarships in their calculations, but some won’t.  In addition, most calculators don’t tell you how much of any financial aid package you get will be loan—and that’s just as important a figure as the amount of cash you’ll pay now.  So continue to use them, but use them wisely.


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Helping Your Seniors Frozen With College Fear

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


Most schools have only been in session for about a month, but many high school seniors are already experiencing Hump Day in their college applications. The first few days of the school year were filled with excitement about the prospect of going to college, and filling out a college application even seemed kind of fun. But now that homework is starting to build up, and students are on their twelfth draft of their college essay, it’s getting a little harder to be excited about college—especially since right now, just graduating from high school seems like a pretty remote idea.

Addressing this issue from a counseling perspective is important. Completing a college application is a lot like the work students will do in college; it offers the chance to be introspective, but it also requires students to move forward. It might be tempting—and easier—to try and motivate students with a pep talk, but students will be better off learning how to work through these challenges by motivating themselves. You can facilitate this important skill acquisition with one of these approaches:

Same time next year I had a student a couple of years ago who came into my office with a major case of application block—no matter what they did, or what they thought about, they just couldn’t motivate themselves to complete a college application. “This is pretty awful” he said, “at this point, I’ll be waiting tables after high school.” “No” I responded, “you’ll be in college a year from now. It’s just a question of which one.”

That somehow broke the trance. Realizing that he was going to be sitting behind a desk at some college—any college—was enough of a motivator for him to realize things were going to be OK. In fact, knowing that inspired him, and many other students, to look at the college application process and think, “Well, OK, if I’m going to some college, it might as well be a good one.” Many of these students went on to become college application ninjas, and ended up at places perfect for them, once they could see themselves there.

Tours do it too This same approach to self-motivation can occur when students step away from the college application process to visit a campus. Filling in an application can seem like a pretty abstract exercise to some students, especially if they have never visited the campus of the college they’re applying to. Once they breathe some college air and sit it on a class, the impression can be enough to get them through the application process, writing essays that have greater authority and voice.

What’s really interesting about this approach is that it can also work if the student visits a campus they have no intention of attending. By simply being reminded of what it’s like to “go to college”, students see the application process as more real. Yes, it’s a little weird, but it works.

Write on the weekends Students who go to school all day, have sports practice, eat dinner, do homework, and then start writing college essays at 11:00 on a weeknight all have one thing in common—the essays they write are terrible. Scheduling 1-2 hours on Saturday or Sundayfor college apps makes completing them something special, and allows students time away from the process to bring fresh energy to their writing. It also means that most students can complete one application a weekend, finish all of them by Halloween, and still enjoy senior year. Now there’s a plan.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Why College Rankings Have Absolutely No Purpose

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Jason is a two-sport athlete with a B+ average.  He’s hoping to expand his interest in History in college, but he’s not sure what major to pursue.  He does know he needs to stay close to home, since his parents are close to retirement age, and he needs to help out with the family business every now and then.  He’s also looking to be an engaged spectator at a school that has, as the students say, the full college experience—for Jason, that includes a good football team.

Having been raised by a mom who sings in the church choir, Bridghette has been around music since birth, and hopes to keep her singing interest alive in college.  At the same time, she knows her talent won’t pay the bills, so she’s also looking for a school where she can study Accounting—and while she couldn’t care less about sports, she wants a school that’s near a major opera company, where she hopes to work in the front office as an intern, learning a bit more about the business side of the music industry.

Jose hopes to find a school where he can become a physician, and quickly.  Having completed all of the AP courses his high school offered as a junior, Jose is one of those students who learns with ease, which means an accelerated medical program is right up his alley.  He’s interested in becoming a surgeon, but big cities don’t interest him all that much. He was raised in one, and wants a change of scenery.

Let’s say you are the counselor for all three of these students—something that would be hard to do, since they don’t go to the same high school.  But let’s say they’ve asked you for some help in putting together their college lists.  Do you end up giving them each the same list of schools—and will those schools be in the same order, meeting their needs in exactly the same way?

I’m really hoping your answer to this question is no.  Jose wants nothing to do with a big city, but strong opera companies don’t exactly pop up in remote areas, and that’s what Bridghette is looking for.  One of these students might end up going to school with Jason, but since accelerated medical programs are hard to come by, that likely won’t be Jose—and since Bridghette isn’t crazy about sports, it’s unlikely her list will overlap much with Jason’s.  We don’t know everything about each of these students, but based on what we know, it’s pretty unlikely one list of colleges will really help these students pursue their individual plans.

Which takes us to college rankings.  The latest lists of Best Colleges on the Planet are debuting this week, but what does any of this have to do with kids? If you handed Jason, Bridghette, and Jose a copy, would that help them with their college plans, or their lives?  Would it put them in the best position to live fuller lives, and change the world?  Is there any way the people who compiled the list could know that list is going to help Jason, Bridghette, and Jose, since they’ve never even talked to Jason, Bridghette, or Jose?
There are lots of ways data can help students make strong college choices, but our job is to find data that supports the goals of the students, not create students whose goals support the findings of the data.  College guides can do that; college rankings can’t. 

So why do we care about them, and why should we ever use them?

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Helping Students Respond to DACA

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


Writing a column about school counseling is a lot like school counseling itself. I had this great piece planned about schedule changes—it was really going to be awesome. But, just like that perfect presentation about careers has to wait when something more urgent shows up, that column’s going to have to wait.

Thanks to DACA.

I’m not going to go into detail about what DACA is, or what might happen next—if you want that information, try this link. Instead, this will be a short reminder of how to help students who are in crisis mode, either because they are DACA students, they have friends who are involved with DACA, or they’re just trying to get a hold of where all of this is heading.

Everyone responds differently to crisis. The smartest school administrator I know walked into his school the day after 9/11, and cleared out two classrooms. He put TVs in one of the empty classrooms, and told the teachers that if some kids feel the need to be informed, they are welcome to go watch TV for as long as they want. The other room was left empty, just chairs, for the students who needed a place to be quiet. Teachers kept an eye on both rooms to make sure students in the rooms didn’t go into panic mode, but that was it.

As counselors, it’s easy to think everyone wants to process their feelings about a crisis by talking. It’s very likely most everyone will want to talk about it at some time—but this might not be that time. Some students will want more information, some will just want to be left alone to think, and some will want business as usual, so they can remember what normal feels like. At this point, none of this is about avoidance; it’s about coping. Let them cope.

Do your homework. Those who will want to talk about DACA likely know more about the program, and about yesterday’s decision, than most Americans—and that could include you. That means any conversation you have with them better begin with a solid base of facts— like existing DACA permits are still good until they expire.

Some people may want to talk to process feelings, but some are likely to want to talk about facts, and what’s next for them, or for their friends. A little time reading about options, combined with a list of local resources DACA recipients can turn to, will make you the support person you want to be—so study up.

No superheroes today. Crisis times mean that the student who looks like they might need just a few minutes of reassurance might be in your office for an hour—and once they begin to open up, they don’t want to stop. That’s OK for them, but if you’re supposed to be in a meeting in twenty minutes, people can create a new crisis wondering where the crisis specialist is—and that’s the last thing anyone needs today.

It’s always good to tell someone where you are, but that’s very much the case when the wheels have fallen off the wagon. Touch base with a colleague, a secretary, or an administrator before you go into a session or a classroom. It may not be necessary, but if something comes up and you’re needed right away, it will be the best thing you can do to keep some degree of calm in your building.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

What Not to Do Over Summer Break

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D


It isn’t unusual for counselors to experience several “last days” of the school year.  From the last day the students come to school, to the last day the teachers are in the building, to the last day we are in the building, there are ample opportunities to reflect, review, and plan ahead.

It’s time for all of that to stop for a while, according to two experts.  The first one is my school principal, who concluded the end-of-the-year luncheon with this advice: “You’ve worked hard, and we’ve worked you hard.  Now it’s time to stop working.” The second expert runs an online blog I subscribe to that addresses social justice issues. About once a week, she posts something that says “It’s time for self-care.  What are you doing to take care of you?”

Counselors aren’t always the best clients, so it’s likely more than a few of you are trying to sort out just how much work you need, or want, or (dare we say it) should do.  If the first few days or weeks of vacation have been more unsettling than unwinding, consider these key steps to making the most of your summer:

Voicemail Most phone systems don’t allow you to turn voicemail off.  Even if yours does, you may want to consider keeping it on, since many people who call over the summer are looking for help they need right away.  If your voicemail is active in July and August, your outgoing message should be helpful and clear:

“I’m out of the office until late August.  If you’re calling for a school issue, please call the main office at (phone number). If you’re looking for counseling resources, look on the counseling website/community mental health website at (web address). If you’d like to leave a message for me, please remember I’ll be listening to it in late August.”

Once that’s done, don’t check voicemail.  Trust the system you’ve set up, or you’ll be checking every day—and that’s not restorative.

Email  The same message on your voicemail goes on your email autoreply, since parents and students might be reaching out to you for help, and need direction.  Since I’m on several professional committees that meet year-round, I check email over the summer, but only respond to professional commitments—if I weren’t on these committees, my summer would be both email and voicemail free.  A clear autoreply gives students and families the help they need.  Once again, it’s time to trust your ability to guide them to the right resources. ( I also scan email for spam and advertisements and delete as I go.  It saves all kinds of time that first day back in the office.)

“Dropping By the Office.” The simple rule here is that if you don’t have to be in the office over the summer, don’t go in.  The temptation may be strong to go in for “just a minute” to develop that one lesson plan or answer that one email—and then, somehow, you’re there for the day.

If you just have to spend some time developing new units or presentations, find a way to do it at home, or at the local library.  Schedule the time, and once the time is up, head back to vacation, and pick up where you left off later.  If your contract requires you to be in the office, save all of your preparation for the office time, and let the rest of the summer be about you.


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Five Counseling Trends to Watch for This Fall

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


Last week, we looked back at this school year, and talked about five trends and issues that shaped our world of work, and the lives of our students.  This week, we look forward to the fall, and anticipate what new challenges lie ahead—and make sure you read to the end for a special announcement!

ESSA changes could affect counselors and counseling  Few counselors shed a tear when the federal government finally retired No Child Left Behind last year, since the program put an incredible emphasis on testing—testing generally left to counselors to administer.  Replaced by the Elementary and Secondary School Act, states were asked to develop their own plans for how they would use a lump sum of federal money known as Title IV funds, and if they planned to use that money to continue to support counseling programs.

Most counselors don’t know what their state proposed to the federal government—and those that do likely know that President Trump has proposed giving states no Title IV money at all.  It’s worth a moment of your time this summer to find out who your state’s ESSA contact is; the money you may have been getting for your program may not be there, come fall.

Return of Year-Round Pell  On the other hand, the federal government has done students and counselors a huge favor by restoring the right for students to use Pell grants and other federal funds to pay for college throughout the year, including the summer.  For the past few years, students using Pell funds in Fall and Spring terms received no Pell funding for summer.  With summer funding restored, more students can return to a year-round, part-tine approach to college attendance, allowing them to work year-round as well.

Return of IRS Retrieval Tool Thousands of students completing the FAFSA got a huge boost this year by checking a box that allowed the federal government to use IRS data submitted by the student and their parents to verify FAFSA eligibility.  This verification tool was taken down for security reasons this spring, but it will be back and ready to go come this October 1—good news for counselors and families alike.

Earlier Applications Counselors are reporting an increase in students asking for high school transcripts as early as June of the junior year, since some colleges are now accepting applications that early.  What’s going to happen when panicky parents find out school records offices are closed for the summer?  Stay tuned, and be ready to remind parents that any application submitted by October 15th must receive equal consideration.

Free College Programs on the Rise  Counselors may also want to plan on using part of August to get caught up on the many free college programs springing up throughout the country.  Most are only for in-state students, most only cover tuition, and most have lots of details to follow—but it’s clear your families will want to know more. Make sure you’re ahead of this curve, and remember that free isn’t always free.

Finally, a big thank you to Gene Kalb and the readers of this column.  Word about Counselor’s Corner has   spread, and Counselor’s Corner has been named one of the top mental health blogs for 2017 by Online Counseling Programs.com.  This is due to the loyalty and active engagement of our readers, and the enthusiastic support ofHS Counselor Week editor Gene Kalb. 

An interview about the column can be found here, and more information about the organization granting us this recognition can be found at https://onlinecounselingprograms.com/ .  Thanks for reading, and it’s gratifying to know the column is making a difference in your work with students.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The Big Five—What Shaped Our World This Year

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

This isn’t the last column of the year, but this is the last column when at least a few counselors still have students in the building. Since that’s often a time when computers get closed to focus on year-end activities, here’s a review of what made a counselor’s life more interesting this school year.

Renewed interest in career development dominated the second half of the school year, as increasing college debt and a shifting need in workforce have led society to reconsider the “four years of college is for everyone” mantra of the Great Recession. Economists still insist jobs that require four-year degrees will improve a state’s bottom line, but the message that plumbers are important is alive and well.

Testing trends also kept counselors on their toes, as College Board announced the first August administration of the SAT in about 50 years, and ACT announced plans for a July administration in 2018. What this will do to the testing plans of future juniors and seniors is anyone’s guess, but it does suggest a shift in test prep to the summer months. How will high schools respond?

Test prep managed to make its own headlines late this year, as a College Board report suggests students using the free online SAT prep through Khan Academy for 20 hours of guided tutoring can see impressive gains in their SAT score. If these findings stand the test of time, these 110 point increases will be a game changer.

Politics made a rare impact on the affective element of the counseling curriculum, as legal actions from travel bans to immigration raids have put man first generation families on edge. Counselors were asked to walk a fine line between supporting students without making political judgments—as a whole, they walked that line with dignity and professionalism.

Early FAFSA Filing allowed a record number of students to file for the FAFSA this year. By moving the filing date up to October 1, families were given more time to file the form, and to shop colleges by price. While some of these efforts were diminished by the removal of the IRS Data Retrieval Tool this spring, the new attention that was focused on FAFSA served its purpose, as the ability to pay for college continues to be on the minds of students, counselors, and policymakers alike.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Summer Melt: A Step-by-Step Guide

By:  Patrick O'Connor


It’s an all too familiar situation. You see your seniors off at graduation, they thank you for all you’ve done, you wish them luck at college, and you wonder when you’ll see them again—until you see one of them at the local grocery store on a Tuesday night. In October.

Welcome to the world of Summer Melt, a mysterious world where new high school graduates swear in June they are college bound, but never show up for class in the fall. As is the case with too many things in our world, Summer Melt affects more low-income student and first generation students—as many as 40%.

This leads counselors and researchers to believe that a big part of Summer Melt occurs because students don’t complete some of those crucial steps in the summer that are needed to begin their college careers. If they don’t check their emails (and they don’t), students will miss the summer notices about orientation, requests for tax returns, notices of scheduling, and more little things—little things counselors remind them to do during the school year, but now school’s out.

Several research studies on reducing summer melt are easy enough to find. There are also plans out there about creating summer melt drop-in centers and getting colleges to do more to prevent summer melt (and that’s the real answer). But if you’re looking to slow down summer melt right now, here’s your three step strategy:

Open a Remind account. Most counselors are well aware of the great programs that are out there where you can text your students without knowing their cell phone numbers—and, more important, where they don’t know your cell phone number, either. Remind is likely the most famous one of these accounts, but look around, start one, then invite all your seniors to sign up with their cell phone numbers. Better yet, ask around—someone in your school may already have the senior class on their Remind account.

Buy a disposable cellphone. Summer Melt is the ultimate problem for school counselors who really want to help kids, but need their summer to recover—and let’s face it, we all need recovery time. The happy compromise here is to buy a disposable cell phone, the kind you put a certain amount of minutes on with a charge card that doesn’t require a contract. You want to make sure you can text on it, but that’s all the frills you need—and let’s face it, a texting cellphone isn’t exactly hard to find.

Schedule your messages. The first day school is out, send a text on your disposable cell phone that tells your seniors what’s up. “It’s Mrs. Jones, and school’s out! Look for weekly reminders from me this summer that will help you make an awesome start to college.”
After that, your task is to put the phone in a place where you’ll be able to find it every Monday (or pick another day). On the appointed day, turn the phone on, text the message of the week, and turn the phone off before you hit the pool. If you’re looking for a comprehensive texting curriculum:

Week 1 “It’s Mrs. Jones. Have you signed up for college orientation? Check your email and see what to do. Still not sure? Call the college.”

Week 2 “It’s Mrs. Jones. Does your college have everything for your financial aid file? Check your email and see if they’ve sent you something. Not sure? Call the college.”

Week 3 “It’s Mrs. Jones. Does your college need a health form from you? Check your email and see. Not sure? Call the college.”

Week 4 “It’s Mrs. Jones. Are you rooming with someone at college? Do you know who it is? Have you been in touch? If any of these are no, it’s time to reach out!”

Week 5 “It’s Mrs. Jones. Do you have a schedule of classes yet? What about books? What about money for books? Check your email and see. Not sure what to do? Call the college.”

Week 6 “It’s Mrs. Jones. Will you be working at college? If so, are your job plans all set. Are you sure? If not, call the college.”

Week 7 “It’s Mrs. Jones. We’ve sent your final transcript. Does your college have it? Are you sure? If not, call your college.”

Week 8 “It’s Mrs. Jones. How are you getting to college? Is your ride all set? Will you be commuting to school? Confirm your plans—especially if you’re car pooling.”

Week 9 “It’s Mrs. Jones. You should be starting college soon. Have fun, and let me know what you need!”

You’ll want to talk with nest year’s seniors about Summer Melt in March and April, and you might want to put together a plan for how students can get hold of you, since Remind won’t let them text you. Then again, you might not, if you really want students to test their wings over the summer. Either way, these 9 texts will help get them on their way to what’s next, without doing serious damage your time at the beach.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Collarbones and 200 Valedictorians: Too Many Shiny Objects

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It started out simply enough. The student had worn a shirt that exposed her collarbones, a violation of the school dress code. The principal called this to the student’s attention, and asked her to put on a jacket, and she complied. Now we can get back to learning, yes?

Evidently not. Dissatisfied with the effect the jacket had, the principal changed his mind, and told the student she’d have to change. She wasn’t interested in doing that, so they tried to call her mother, all to no avail—so the principal called a security guard and told the student either to change the shirt in question, or be taken into custody. As a result, she will not walk the stage for graduation…

…even though she is the class valedictorian.

This would likely be less of an issue at the graduation ceremony at any of the three high schools in Dublin, Ohio, where 222 valedictorians—20 percent of the senior class—is being honored. The high school established a policy where anyone in a certain grade point range is considered a valedictorian. This, despite the fact that the definition of valedictorian is the one student who gives the valediction (or class) speech at the graduation ceremony. That’s one student, not 222.

All of this requires us to ask the question, just what on earth is going on in schools these days? Unless I’ve missed something, the purpose of school is to provide some reasonably orderly way for students to learn more about themselves and the world. Once the basic rules are put together allowing that to happen, everyone should get way out of the way, and leave the teachers and students to the task at hand—creating strong learning relationships.

That doesn’t seem to be the case with either of these schools. Once the principal told the student to put on the jacket, that was the end of his opportunity to influence the learning atmosphere. If it would have been better to ask her to put on a sweatshirt, well, that’s a learning experience the principal can apply next time. No student is going to be nearly as critical of the jacket-shirt ensemble as the principal, so moving on was the right thing to do. Instead, the student gets a lesson about the world, for sure. When someone in power uses poor judgement, they often see to it that they aren’t the ones who pay.

It’s really hard to say just what’s going on with the schools in Dublin. Just about every high school has been in the tough spot where one student has a 4.00 GPA and another student has a 3.99 GPA. But that’s a little different than deciding every student with a high GPA gets to be called a valedictorian. “Valedictorian” doesn’t mean you’re smart; it means you’re the best student in your class. That’s what colleges mean when they offer a valedictorian scholarship—send us your one best student, and they’ll get help paying for college. Deciding a word means something else isn’t really up to a high school.

There’s a flood of stories around, talking about how schools are failing students, and how they could do better. One place to begin the turnaround would be for schools to look at what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it, and see if it has anything to do with students learning something. If it doesn’t, maybe that’s one less shiny object we could all do without, so we could get back to the matter at hand.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

College Advisers—Helpers to All Students

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

She wanted to encourage her students to think about going to college, but after a while, she realized her words were only going to go so far. Taking her students to visit a college campus seemed like a great idea, but her district wasn’t exactly awash in field trip money, and the nearest college was a two-hour ride away. Clearly, it was time to think out of the box.
And that’s just what she did. She called the flagship college in her state, and explained her situation. “You’re too far away” she explained, “so instead of us coming to you, could a couple of your professors come see us?”
It turned out that a couple of professors didn’t come see them—an entire bus load did. For one full day, every single student in that rural high school sat in on college lectures from professors tenured at one of the top schools in the nation. When the professors left to head back to campus, no student at that high school could ever again say they didn’t know what college was about; they had just experienced part of it firsthand.
If you’re thinking, “that’s one smart school counselor”, you’re not quite on track. This brainstorm came from a college adviser, a twenty-something recent college graduate whose job supports the college advising activities of the high school counseling office where she works. Often compared to students in the Teach for America program, college advisers often come from low income backgrounds, and are the first in their family to go to college, let alone earn a degree. In providing assistance to schools and school counselors, these young advisers offer a perspective on going to college high school students can relate to, since the advisers were just on campus as students themselves. They talk about the good times, the challenges both in and out of the classroom—and they talk about whether a four-year college is the right plan for a particular student.
The college adviser movement was the focus of a recent New York Times article, but the Times felt the need to focus on the success advisers were having on getting students into top tier colleges. A broader look at the work of the advisers shows a more balanced record, where a vast majority of students working with advisers end up in quality public colleges in the student’s home state. Some will earn merit scholarships, to be sure, but almost all will have completed a FAFSA, a significant step forward for a cadre of students who often think college isn’t for them, either because it costs too much, or because they don’t see themselves as college ready.
The Times piece also leaves two key questions unanswered. First, a college adviser isn’t a college counselor or a school counselor. As part of their training, advisers understand what they can and can’t talk to students about, and how to make sure students receive the support they deserve when a counseling issue comes up in working with the students. Knowing when to say when is a vital part of being an effective adviser.
The second point is the training most advisers receive. Since most advisers don’t have an education background, most training programs start from scratch, with a comprehensive approach to college advising that usually goes on for weeks the summer before the advisers set foot on campus. From how to choose a college to how to write a college essay to paying for college and more, advisers hear from seasoned school counselors and college admissions officers, typically completing more training hours in college advising in one summer than most school counselors receive in graduate school.
By partnering the fresh college insights and the role modeling of college advisers with the institutional wisdom and multidimensional viewpoint of the school counselor, college advising is taking on a more active, relevant role in schools across the country—further proof of the need for all of us to think outside the box.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

College Admissions Isn’t Fair. It Also Isn’t Simple.

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D



A new article about college admission is gaining a great deal of attention among college counselors. Posted on Georgia Tech’s admissions website, the goal of the article is to admit what many students have long felt—that college admissions isn’t fair.

After acknowledging that all colleges look at test scores and grades, the article goes on to suggest the real driving factor behind admissions is the school’s mission, or the reason the college says it exists. Yes, you could be a great student with high grades in AP Everything who was president of every club in your high school. Still, if your essays and teacher letters don’t indicate that you understand the college’s reason for existence, the Georgia Tech piece suggests that would be reason enough for them not to take you, since their review process would likely reveal that there isn’t a “fit” between what the college is looking for, and what you have to offer.

The piece certainly offers a great explanation for why Joey in the locker next to you got into your dream college and you didn’t, even though your grades and scores were higher than his. In connecting admissions decisions to the school’s mission, the article even offers a strongly-principled reason for why they took your sister five years ago with her lower grades and lack of extracurriculars, but didn’t take you this year. The school has a different sense of purpose now.

So, the article puts together a nice argument, with only one small problem. Admission at most colleges doesn’t work like this at all. Instead, it depends on other factors that are a little more basic, but somehow more complicated—like:

How many people apply. The article tries to emphasize the role of mission at highly selective colleges. This suggests that if these same colleges only had 600 applicants for 500 seats, they’d likely take everybody, no matter what their essays said. That doesn’t make their decisions based on mission; it makes them based on numbers. Simply put, they don’t take everyone who applies, because they don’t have to.

What the college is looking for. It’s certainly true a college is looking for certain qualities in a student, but that search is a little more pragmatic than the article suggests. An admission officer from an Ivy League college once told me “If we’re graduating three hockey goalies this year, and you’re a high school senior applying as a hockey goalie, your chances of admission just went way up.” So what happens if the essays in the hockey goalie’s application don’t reveal a deep understanding of the school’s mission? Is this still a fit?

This has less to do with mission than it does institutional priorities—the particular need the college has that year for Philosophy majors, a bassoonist, or someone who wants to do Neuroscience research. These priorities may have something to do with the mission of the college, but they aren’t as closely related as the article suggests, once numbers come into play. The virtues of athletics may be integral to the college’s existence, but they aren’t going to admit every one of the 18 hockey goalies that apply; they’re only going to take as many as they need in any given year—and this year, that may be none.

Rankings. The last ten years of college admissions have seen an increase in all kinds of devices used to get more students to apply. Snap apps, on-site decisions, and the rise in early application programs all point to a desire on the college’s part to attract more applicants, even though very few colleges are actually enrolling more students than they were ten years ago.

What’s behind the need to do that, if admissions decisions are driven by mission, and not by rankings? Is it impossible to be a solid B+ student and have a better understanding of a school’s mission than your National Honor Society counterpart? If not, why are so many highly selective colleges now denying so many—in fact, nearly all-- the B+ students who used to fulfill the college’s mission with distinction?

When most families start looking at colleges, they think the admission process is simple—take strong classes, get good grades, make sure your test scores are strong, join a few clubs, and you’re good to go. That perception works at an incredible number of colleges, but the highly selective colleges have a process that’s less clear, because they don’t have to take everyone who applies. It would be easy to assign this cause to the college’s mission, but that doesn’t reflect reality—and it also doesn’t explain why all kinds of schools say no to some B students and say yes to C students who average 21 points a game.

It would be great if mission was the only reason college admissions doesn’t seem fair, but it isn’t. Like life, it’s more complicated than that, and our students deserve an explanation more representative of that complexity.