Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Higher Ed is “Out” for 2017? Let’s Hope So

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Many people tried to avoid the usual “Year in Review” columns for 2017, in part because politics seemed to color every aspect of our society, and people were hoping the holiday break would give them—well, a break.  Given our collective tendency to say “good riddance” to 2017 without much reflection, it’s noteworthy how many people saw that Higher Ed was on The Washington Post’s list of things that are Out for next year. 

The Post has long fed off many East Coast parents' obsession with getting their child into the “right” college (as opposed to getting them into a college that’s right for their child), so this news caught many by surprise.  On the other hand, given the beating higher education took in the media last year, it could be the Post is simply catching up to a trend that’s been out there for a while.  When only 36 percent of Republicans see college as a good thing, it’s clear that the standard assumptions about life after high school are up for grabs.

The Post’s actions can only be seen as good news by school counselors, who have long tried to get students to stop examining college options based on a school’s name and reputation, and think more about what the college has to offer in meeting the student’s interests, needs, and life goals.  School counselors often lament that the Post, along with its New York counterpart, are responsible for coverage of the college admission process that has created a college-industrial complex of test prep, rankings, writing coaches, lazy rivers, and more, making college, in the words of a famous admissions officer, a prize to be won, instead of a match to be made.

Now that Higher Ed is “out”, there’s an outside chance some sanity could return to our work with students—and that turns us to Sue Biemeret.  A retired school counselor, Sue runs a wonderful summer institute where the nuts and bolts of college counseling are taught in ways few others teach them.  There are about five people in the country who teach college counseling the right way, and Sue is one of them.

When college rankings and test prep were just starting to bubble up in the world of college admissions, Sue remarked that counselors should remember how most students take the SAT or ACT once; visit a few colleges that are within a gas tank of home, and end up going to college within 150 miles of where they went to high school.  Sure, there are exceptions, but any effort to make the exception the rule leads to college counseling programs that aren’t grounded in reality, and that’s just not helpful to students.

The Post’s claim that Higher Ed is out gives us the opportunity to turn our students and their families back to a saner view of what college is, and what it can be for students who are ready to make the most of it.  College is by no means the real world, but it is an opportunity for students to understand more about themselves and the world around them.  Combined with the skills and content it teaches that prepares students for the workforce, college can prepare students to contribute meaningfully to those many jobs of the future that don’t exist, while being something more than a job training experience. The public’s perception of the purpose of college seems to be up for grabs, and school counselors are uniquely positioned to shape that perception.  Let’s resolve to take up the challenge.  

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