Thursday, April 30, 2020

National Signing Day is Different This Year

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Eric Hoover is at it again. The one writer in America who truly understands school counselors has written a terrific piece on the challenges counselors are facing in the quarantine age, as our work to support students continues, in spite of—or arguably, because of—the closing of the physical plants where school happens. His latest piece is here, and if you can’t get to it, sign up for the free account you need to read it. You will be inspired.

This isn’t the first time I’ve sung Eric’s praises, and his coverage of College Signing Day continues to be one of my favorite pieces of his. Where the Journey to College is No Fairy Tale talks in part about what it’s really like in a public high school on College Signing Day. How exactly do you honor all the seniors on May 1 when only half of them have firm plans for college, complete with how to pay for it? Eric spent nearly as much time at this Texas high school as the counselor did for a couple of months, and the results are worth another read. His words have, as usual, stood the test of time.

This is particularly important to remember this year, as we face College Signing Day under the most dizzying of circumstances imaginable. While May 1 has long been the day many students stake their claim to one particular college by sending in a required enrollment deposit by May 1, this date means a great deal less than it has in years past. Part of that has nothing to do with the quarantine, since the Justice Department made a ruling last fall allowing colleges to recruit students after May 1, even if they’ve committed to another school. That’s a big change in building and maintaining a freshman class, so everyone who heard the announcement last fall figured this summer was truly going to be looney tunes.

Then March came along and said, hold my mask. With college campuses closed and college funds tanked, most colleges still don’t know what the fall is going to bring, many families who thought they could afford college aren’t so sure, and students who were looking forward to their first tailgater are wondering about the merits of online learning from their couch at home over a bag of broken cheese doodles. Thinking a brief quarantine might lead to greater college clarity, about 350 colleges moved their deposit day to June 1, while many others stuck to May 1, convinced that students would be in a position to make a serious institutional commitment by then.

We’re here now, and it’s clear that nothing is clear. So what does that do to National Signing Day when 350 colleges don’t really care about May 1 anymore, most seniors don’t know how or if their college will be open in the fall, and the job and stock markets make college uncertain for many?

It means two things. First, this better be the biggest celebration of a senior class in The. History. Of. Education. Any eighteen year-old who has emerged from the last two months still in school, replete with anything resembling a plan for life after school, has shown the mettle of immortals. Unlike their predecessors, this year’s class really can lay claim to being able to do anything, since that’s exactly what they had to do to get here. If we can’t really celebrate where they’re heading, let’s celebrate how they got this far. There’s the reason we party this year.

Second, it’s going to be really important to pay attention to the seniors who are quiet during the Signing Day hoopla. This is a common concern among counselors every year, and one that Eric Hoover nicely highlights in his Texas piece. Not every student’s life is tied up with a bow on May 1, and many who are supposed to feel honored by the day don’t feel that way at all when their dream college said no, or when the money needed to go there disappeared.

If that’s the case in any given year, imagine the chaos going on in the heads of even more students this year. Getting them to buy into the brightness of the future will be an understandably tough sell, since most of them don’t really know what that future will look like. Better to focus on what they’ve done this far to keep all the many, many options open that they’ll have to sort through long after May 1, and to watch closely for the ones who are clearly uncomfortable with the uncertain. Their need for assurance doesn’t make them party poopers; it makes them human, and that is where school counselors shine.


Just ask Eric Hoover.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Now That the Online Dust is Settling

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It is very comforting to see the parent posts on social media lavishing well-deserved praise on teachers and counselors. Though few and far between, it’s clear a good number of people have figured out that this isn’t “time off” for educators. In fact, those educators with dependents at home report working and using after-dinner time to write, record, and post lesson plans, grade assignments, and respond to student requests for one-on-one time.

As we begin to find the new rhythms of this new approach to counseling, it’s interesting to read the responses of counselors, who are finding themes in online counseling that are strikingly familiar to those they experience in the building:
  • Counselors are surprised they aren’t hearing from more seniors about their college plans. This isn’t new for this time of year, as many seniors quietly enroll in the college of their choice, then get back to the business of finishing up senior year. In this case, senior silence could be due to the uncertain, where students are waiting for their colleges to announce their plans for the fall, or parents are double-checking on the affordability of the original college plan.

  • Ditto with high school juniors and their college plans. As a rule, counselors are hearing from more juniors, typically with questions about testing. Colleges are changing their SAT/ACT requirements daily—yesterday alone, four colleges announced they’re going test-optional for at least next year—so it’s easy to see why students may be feeling they are trying to hit a moving target.

  • The students who are having a hard time adjusting to change, but aren’t reaching out for help. This is a group very familiar to counselors, as students experience change and loss of all kinds when school buildings are open. Most counselors can rely on the caring hearts and students-first posture of their teaching colleagues to make sure these students find their way to the counseling office. But most of those referrals are based on cues teachers pick up by evaluating the student’s physical presence in class. That can be tough to do when instruction is online.
The solutions to these familiar patterns aren’t new—walk the halls, wander through the lunch room, check in with teachers during a break in class—so it should be no surprise counselors have created online solutions designed to replicate these approaches:
  • Online office hours, where counselors sit in an online office—through a program like Zoom, or simply by actively checking email—for an announced period of time a few times a week. Send the link to students, parents, and teachers alike, and see what happens.

  • Online coffee time for teachers. A similar idea is to hold a one-hour online time for teachers to drop in and share their new and concerns about their students. This isn’t quite the same as an in-person concern, but if a teacher has picked up an online vibe that a student has needs, this gives them a clear, safe space to discuss it.

  • Production of a weekly newsletter/video. The college needs of juniors and seniors can largely be anticipated at this time of year, and covered in a one-page newsletter, or a two-minute video. I just sent out a newsletter all about enrollment deposits; while only a few students have asked about them, it’s safe to say there are many unasked questions about the topic. It’s easy enough to provide advice and resources on these issues, starting with a one-size-fits-all approach.
It’s a little weird to think we’ve been in our new school approach long enough to see the emergence of familiar student needs. The good news is we have ample resources at hand to try and meet them.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

College Advice for Juniors

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Last week, we provided a list of college ideas and updates to share with this year’s seniors. This week, we turn our attention to this year’s juniors. Not all of these will apply to all students, but here’s the list:

AP Testing Schools that offer AP classes already know this year’s test has gotten a haircut. The 3 hour, multi-part test goes to a 45 -minute session of free response questions only, and it’s all online, done in the comfort and safety of home.

The big question here is if colleges will still accept the same scores for the same level of college placement or credit, and the answer is: it depends on the college. Students should find the AP page of the college’s website to check. More important, students should ask themselves if a mid-range score on a shortened AP test really tells them they’re ready for a more advanced class in college—or will they be so busy doing homework, it would make more sense taking the intro class.

SAT and ACT Testing Yes, this was covered last week, but there are new issues to consider here. With April and May testing cancelled, juniors are looking to June to fulfill their testing needs. It’s possible June testing will go by the boards as well, leaving July and August in the summer testing calendar—and those seats are always hard to come by. SAT and ACT are trying to open more test centers for the summer, so keep an eye on the registration pages for more test center options.

Meanwhile, the list of test optional colleges for next year (and in many cases, next year only) has grown significantly. The latest version is here, but even if your college isn’t on that list, call them if it looks like your testing plans aren’t going to come true. They may have other options for you.

Pass/Fail Grades for This Year High schools across the country are discussing the idea of making all classes Pass/Fail, since students won’t have a chance to catch up on work they’ve missed, or fully improve on a slow start to the term. As a rule, colleges understand this, especially since many colleges are doing the exact same thing. As long as the college knows your high school went to all Pass/Fail grades, they’re going to do all they can to work with you. Make sure you work with your school counselor to let the colleges know.

The one tricky area here is NCAA eligibility. Right now, the NCAA gives all Pass/Fail classes the lowest passing grade possible—and that’s usually a D. Since that’s going to mess up the eligibility of many athletes, high schools are urging the NCAA to come up with a new set of guidelines, which is allegedly in the making. Again, stay tuned.

Athletic Recruitment With the NCAA extending eligibility for an extra year to spring athletes already in college, it’s going to be interesting to see what happens with recruiting patterns in those sports. This might be the time to reach out to the coaches of the colleges that interest you and find out.

Admissions and Deferral for This Year’s Seniors Some colleges are thinking a number of this year’s seniors will be holding off on college for a year, asking the schools that have admitted them to hold them a spot for next year. This happens all the time, but if it happens much more this year, that means some colleges get harder to gain admission next year. This is something colleges won’t likely know about until fall, so make a note and ask them then.


Early Application Programs There’s also some question if colleges offering Early Action and Early Decision programs are going to offer them again, or perhaps move their deadlines closer to December or January. Since Early programs really help a college predict enrollment, it’s unlikely a college will do away with their Early programs completely, but stranger things have happened. Again, keeping an eye on the admissions page of the college website—and checking for updates—is the way to go here.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Kids Are in College. Now What?

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It’s hard to believe just two months ago, we were all wondering just what this year would bring in college admissions, now that colleges can continue to pursue students who have deposited at other colleges. We were SO convinced that would be the game changer of our year.

Seems kind of quaint now, doesn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong—that’s likely to still be a big deal—but there are a few more factors colleges now have to take into account before they decide how far to poach, and if to poach at all. Since those are the same issues we have to think about it, let’s review what we should be asking our students about in this week’s version of reality.

For seniors, it’s important to ask:
  • Are you reconsidering your plans for life after high school, and if so, why? Recent surveys show up to 1/3 of seniors are reconsidering their college choice. We need to know who, and why—and you have to believe, most of them won’t be telling you voluntarily, so we’re going to need to ask. Especially if it’s about…
  • Has the recent financial downturn affected your college plans? Stock market plunges have changed the value of college funds, and closed businesses have led to layoffs by the millions. That’s more than enough reason to get families to think twice about the college plans made just two months ago—but, again, money is the last thing families want to talk about with us. We have to find a way to make that conversation happen, and be as comfortable as possible.
  • Has the cancellation of SAT and ACT changed your college plans? Most colleges always take students the summer after graduation, but the cancellation of the spring—and, most likely, June—SAT and ACT might make summer admission more difficult. If this is what’s holding a student back from applying, now is the time to connect the student to their dream school and find out how the college is handling this change. Chances are, they’ve got a Plan B.
  • What about plans for visiting campuses? There isn’t a lot of point of visiting a campus that’s closed, even if they would let you do that. Many colleges are offering virtual tours; combined with live Q&A sessions after, this can help a student understand more about a college. These online tours get mixed reviews, but they’re generally worth it—especially if the online tour gives the student the feeling this isn’t the place for them. If a college can’t make a campus look great to you in cyberspace, it’s likely time to move on.
  • Are you ready for online classes? More than a few colleges already have plans in place to offer more classes online in the fall, even if they are physically open. Many colleges are expecting lower numbers of international students on campus, in part because most have to pay full price, in part because some won’t be able to get the required paperwork to study in the US. One way to still enroll overseas students is to offer online courses—but that could mean domestic students might HAVE to take online classes to get what they need for a degree. Of course, that’s also the case if the college doesn’t reopen campus in the fall, something many public health officials are seeing as a likelihood.
  • Are you thinking about taking a year off? Students who are looking at all these variables might decide to give things a semester (or a year) to get back to normal before they start college. Deferring is OK, but most colleges will likely be reviewing their deferral policies this year. It’s one thing to get a dozen requests to wait a year, but if this turns into the hundreds—as it could—that means all kinds of things for the college’s budget for this year, and for the juniors applying to college next year. Call the college and ask about deferral. The policy they have today probably isn’t on their website yet.
And what should you say to your juniors? Tell you what—get your seniors settled in this week, then come back for a discussion about juniors next week. Be safe.