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.

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