Wednesday, January 16, 2019

5 Admissions Questions to Ask on a College Tour

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

With the end of college application season, juniors are anxious to jump in to the college selection process with both feet—and that’s a good thing.  Exploration of college options is an integral part of personal growth.  If done well, it helps a student understand more about the options available to them—college and otherwise—and gives them better insights into their talents, their interests, and their needs.
One of the best ways to begin this process of self-discovery is to visit an actual college campus or two.  Online searches are great, but there’s an intuitive part of the college search that only a campus visit can fill. 

Fall or winter visits are still the best, but no matter when you go, it’s important to make the most of each visit by preparing a list of questions ahead of time that are based on your interests. ACT and College Board offer a nice set of starter questions, but you’ll want to add these five questions to any list you build:

Does my major affect my chances of admission? Students often gauge their chances of admission on college-wide information, like average GPA and overall percentage of students admitted. But some colleges limit the number of students they’ll admit to specific programs, and that could include the major you’re interested in. Engineering, honors colleges, and accelerated professional programs are the usual suspects, but the only way you know History is wide open is if you ask — and if your major is limited, ask what they’re looking for.

Do you offer residential programs? Many big colleges know some students thrive best in smaller classes where they can get to know their professors — and that’s why they offer residential programs, or living-learning communities. Often based by major, these programs typically hold classes in the student’s residence hall, which is where their professors have their offices, and many offer research opportunities students wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. It’s the best of a big and small school, all in one campus.

Do you ask what other colleges I’m applying to? Students are often surprised when colleges want to know where else they’re applying — and while most colleges don’t ask, it happens often enough that students should be ready for the question. If a college of interest tells you they do, don’t be shy; ask them what they use the information for. They may just use it for statistical purposes, but it may play a role in your admissions decision or scholarship package. It’s better you know.

Does your net price calculator include merit scholarships? The U.S. government requires all colleges to have a net price calculator on their website (can’t find it? Search for “(Name of Your School) Net Price Calculator”), but not every calculator takes the same factors into consideration when giving you a price tag. If you think a college will offer you merit money (check here to see what your college might offer), make sure you know if that’s part of the calculation, or bonus money.

Do you consider ability to pay when reviewing my application? Colleges would like to give all students the aid they need to attend, but school budgets just don’t allow for that. As a result, some schools will look at the financial need of an applicant as part of the admissions process. This changes from year to year and varies from school to school, so make sure you know what the policy is for each of your colleges—and if you get an answer you don’t understand, your very appropriate follow-up question is “what does that mean?”

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Safe Schools Report and School Counselors—What’s Next?

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Amid the whirl of preparing students for December break, school counselors haven’t had the chance to digest the Federal Commission on School Safety. Counselor organizations and civil rights groups have largely responded with disappointment over what the report included, and what it didn’t include:

  • The report did recommend the removal of guidelines for school punishment policies that had been put in place by the Obama Administration. These guidelines were installed to help address the imbalance of school discipline practices that adversely affected students of color. Civil rights advocates see this as a step backward in the efforts to support underserved populations.
  • The report offered little guidance on removing guns from school, or policies to strengthen current gun control efforts. While the report also backed away from President Trump’s recommendation to arm teaches, counselor groups viewed the lack of recommendations on gun control as a huge void.
  • While mentioning the need for additional mental health resources in schools, the report did not recommend specific funding targets or service goals for either the states or the federal government.
It would be easy to see the lack of specificity in these key areas as limitations on our abilities to move local efforts forward in school safety. At the same time, the simple presence of a national report on school safety is more than enough to fuel counselor efforts to begin local discussions on this important issue. This is particularly true if counselors keep these key points in mind:

  • The Trump Administration has long believed that education is primarily, if not solely, a state responsibility. Since that’s the case, it shouldn’t be a surprise that ED has developed a report that creates a framework for discussions the states need to fill in with programs, policies, and goals that are tailored to meet their unique needs. Since that was clearly the objective from the day the Commission was created, viewing the report as an invitation for local discussion is the best way to go.
  • Safe schools is still a hot topic among state legislators and policy makers. While the Commission’s report contains no specific funding recommendations, Congress has already provided the states with additional Title IV A Funding, money that can be used for everything from offering AP classes to increasing student mental health services.  States are currently deciding just how to use that money, so now is the time to find out which agency in your state is overseeing the distribution of those funds, and make the case for using more of that new money for safe schools.
  • State funding for safe schools is still on the table. The increase in Title IV A could be reason enough for state officials to decide they don’t need to break open local coffers to support this effort.  On the other hand, elected officials who made safe schools a campaign issue at the state level could be persuaded to see the Federal money as a good start—one that needs state support to really make a meaningful difference.
  • This is a huge issue with principals. School counselors lament that principals don’t provide counseling programs with enough budget, support, or credit for the important work done to advance their building’s mental health goals.  With safe schools dominating the headlines, any principal would gladly welcome a counselor-constructed plan to advance safe schools as a department goal.  That can pay big dividends for students and counselors alike.
We often tell our students to find a way to make lemonade when life hands us lemons.  The Safe Schools report, if nothing else, gives us an opportunity to practice what we preach.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Five Trends to Watch in the Year to Come

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

It’s the annual December toss-up- do you write about the year in review, or do you write about the year to come?  A little advanced planning would allow me to do both, but the life of a school counselor means planning ahead is a luxury.  Let’s just look ahead, shall we?

The Harvard Case Comes to Its First Resolution  The first few months of 2019 will undoubtedly bring a decision in the Harvard Admissions case, where plaintiffs claimed Harvard had shown bias against Asian Americans.  This case will likely be appealed to the US Supreme Court, but the initial decision itself could be more than enough to lead colleges to alter the tools they use in reviewing applicants.  Most likely up for consideration is the use of standardized testing, where assigning a number to a student’s ability is one of the easiest ways to create a comparison among students, even if the basis of the comparison is faulty. Advocates of test optional admissions see a ruling for the plaintiffs as one more nail in the coffin of standardized testing, and a rise in the use of the more amorphous holistic review.

Other College Testing Likely to Change  A large number of colleges stopped requiring students to submit the writing portion of either the SAT or ACT in 2018, leaving the number of school requiring the test at around a dozen.  Since nine of those schools are the UC colleges, keep an eye on what, if anything UC does with their policy.  Combined with the ever-shrinking number of colleges requiring Subject Tests, 2019 could see a major shift in the role testing plays, and in the development of home-grown alternatives for those who will want to see expertise in specific areas (we’re looking at you, engineering schools.)

Self-Reporting Scores and July Application Windows  Colleges allowing students greater control of their own application (and the chance to save some serious money) are letting students report their own grades and test scores, requiring verification as a condition of enrollment.  This welcome news makes it easier for students to apply, but when paired with the new trend of colleges offering incentives for students to apply as early as July 15 of their junior-senior summer, there could be an increase in incentives for students to complete their college plans before senior year even starts.  This change would throw a real wrench into the logistics and staffing of most counseling offices, and has led some counselors to wonder if early has finally become too early.  Keep a close eye on this.

The Reality of Free College  Colleges and policy makers continue to look for ways to make the financing and paying of college more manageable and palatable for students and families.  Of these options, the Free College movement is likely to gain some traction, thanks to the rise of several progressive candidates in Congress.  A balanced evaluation of current efforts will include an assessment of who really pays for free college, and if it advantages those who aren’t already advantaged by the current system.  Early findings in both these areas are murky; bringing the issue to light can only help all involved.

Liberal Arts Colleges Limping Along?  A few well-placed college counselors are hearing about colleges who are experiencing the pain of discounting themselves into near bankruptcy.  Unlike past predictions that the “college bubble will burst”, this reality is expected to affect small liberal arts colleges only, and over a number of years.  Continuing declines in some high school graduation rates might only exacerbate the problem, as colleges may have to spend more to get the attention of fewer students.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Reflections on a College Tour

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

I had a first in my college counseling career last week when I went on an organized multi-college tour.  When you’re the only person in your office—as I was for so long—getting away to see colleges is, at best, a one day commitment, so the idea of taking an entire week away from the office to see nine college campuses was new to me.  It also left me wondering if I could follow the advice I offer my students—to write down your impressions the minute the tour is over, so you don’t confuse the qualities of one campus with the features of another.

It turns out I didn’t have too much to worry about in that department.  This tour has been going on for ages, and those in charge leave no detail to chance.  We were greeted with an itinerary that would have made any logistics expert shed a tear of joy, including a booklet that included a summary of the essential statistics and vital qualities of each school.  I was free to add my own notes in the ample notes section in the back, but even if I didn’t, there was no way I was going home with nine schools jumbled in my head.

Overall, the experience taught or reminded me of three things about this profession, all lessons that were timely.

College admissions folks are pretty amazing.  A tour of this magnitude requires the organizers to pay attention to things that ostensibly have little to do with helping students choose a college—where do we park the bus, is the mascot going to be available for pictures with the counselors, what events do we hold for the tour group at night.  Each college managed these details flawlessly, and when an all-day rain soaked the tour To. The. Bone., the host school welcomed us to an hour lecture, replete with space heaters to dry our shoes, and a fresh pair of dry socks, adorning the school mascot no less.

This is going on during the busiest time of the year for these college admissions offices.  All nine schools offer some kind of early admission deadline, requiring admissions officers to give up most nights and weekends to reach decisions on each applicant—and that’s under normal circumstances.  Throw in an organized tour of 35 or so school counselors who have never seen your campus before, and the time management challenge can go from interesting to mind altering.  Not with this group of hosts, which was gracious and warm from start to finish.  If there isn’t a special level of heaven for these folks, someone should start building it now.

College students are nothing short of inspiring.  Every college visit included a tour of the campus led by a current student, as well as a panel of student speakers talking about life at the college.  Most of these students are paid by the college for their work, so it would be easy to view these events in a mercenary way, much like asking the waiter if the soup is good.  Really, what are you expecting them to say?

All the satires of college tours underestimate the x factor—the genuineness of the students running them. Each of the nine colleges was getting ready for final exams, but each tour included no less than a dozen students who were telling us their stories, not the company line.  The student studying math and science who will soon be doing currency analysis for Godman Sachs.  The many students planning on bringing their social justice interests to light in years of service.  The former Marine who will graduate a highly selective college at age 39, who basically had to talk the college into accepting a transfer student.  They all had other things to do—including the tour guide who was presenting his graduation thesis as soon as he was done giving the tour—but they also had a story, and a desire to share it.  There’s no way I’m mixing up those stories, so there’s no way I’m mixing up those colleges.

We do pretty great work.  Part of being a good tour participant is looking past the presentations- which offer summaries of the school—to understand the pulse of the place itself.  That wasn’t hard to do in this case.  The nine schools we toured were distinct in mission and tone, but they all had one thing in common—their students were thrilled to be there, and said they wouldn’t be happy anywhere else.  From interactions at the bookstore to remarks made in classrooms, it was clear the students at those schools got up every morning with no intention of leaving anything on the table.  So much for the “it doesn’t matter where you go to college” argument.

A lot of that has to do with us.  It’s easy to let the media convince the world that college admissions is a cutthroat endeavor, that there are only six great colleges in the world for everyone, and that no one can possibly hope to finish a college degree on time, unless of course they then go straight off to debtor’s prison.

Nine colleges and five days letter, I’m reminded how little is understood about the college search—and how much we do to shed light on it.  Our caseloads aren’t always optimal, the “other duties as assigned” are nothing short of maddening, and there is never enough time or resources to serve every deserving student.  Stepping away from the office to see the After effect of our work—including a reunion with one of my former students, who works at a college admissions office—I’m remined of how much good we are doing in this world, making a big process personal to so many, even as there is more good to do. We have much to be proud of, and much to be grateful for.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Of Course It Matters Where You Go to College

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

There’s an article making the rounds on social media, claiming it doesn’t really matter where you go to college, as long as you apply yourself and make the most of the opportunities available at wherever you end up going.  Given the timing of the piece, it’s safe to say the article is designed to cushion the blow when the first round of application decisions start coming out next week.  I imagine the intent is to offer support to students when a college tells them No, or worse yet, Maybe.

That intent is very important, but it is also a little misguided.  Students certainly need to understand there are probably several colleges that offer what they’re looking for in terms of size, location, cost, atmosphere, major, and more.  In developing this list of qualities, the student may come across one school they see as Perfect, where an offer of admission will be seen as making the sacrifices of high school more than worth it, and a No will lead to the conclusion that all of that hard work and learning just wasn’t worth it. That can be dangerous, no matter what decision the college makes, so a conversation about Perfect schools is important, to be sure, and should be had throughout the counseling process.

That’s very different from telling a student “Pick anywhere, and you’ll be fine.”  A student interested in Criminal Justice isn’t going to get excited about a school that doesn’t offer that major, no matter how likely they are to change their major once they start college.  The same is true for a student who is looking for a college rich with school spirit who ends up at a commuter campus.  The classes may be the same as at the more spirited school down the street, but for that student, the college experience won’t be.  And students who end up at a school that calls for more financial resources than their budget can allow?  They will never spend a day in class without worrying how they’re going to pay all of this off.  That isn’t college; that is a state of perpetual anxiety.

Before labeling this concern as a defense of a generation of unresilient snowflakes, think about the process most counselors use when helping students pare down the list of colleges they should consider.  Effective college counselors ask students strong open-ended questions that limit the range of possible schools.  “What are you looking for in your next school?,” “Do you know what you’d like to study?,” and “Does the location of the school matter to you?” are all designed to get a student to think about the aspects of college that will offer the right mix of opportunity, challenge, and support for them.  What does it say to a student who has embraced online college research, college fairs, and campus visits in search of the right colleges—things you encouraged them to do-- when you now tell them, in essence, hey, just kidding?

For most students, college is the first time in their lives they have some say about  where they go to school, or at least want to go to school.  A well-developed college list reflects the student’s best understanding of who they are, what matters to them, and how they see the world.  Telling them now they’ll be fine no matter what college they go to disrespects their aspirations, their understanding of self, and their investment in the college search.  The college selection process started with the student’s vision of what success looks like. It’s best to use that as a guide until the process ends. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Making the FAFSA More User Friendly

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

It’s always exciting when a solution to a long-standing problem not only works, but is pretty simple to implement.  That’s the impressive promise Colleen Campbell offers in a paper that suggests an easy cure to the sometimes-complicated issue of applying for financial aid.

Most efforts to simplify financial aid have focused on the length of the FAFSA—either there are too many questions, or it’s too hard to find the required information.  Campbell’s research takes a different approach, and asks, why does a student have to complete a new FAFSA every year, especially if their financial information doesn’t change that much? Merely asking a student to submit the same information again can take its toll, reminding some low-income students of the high price of college, and leading others to forget about reapplying, causing them to lose their aid all together.

Anonymous financial aid data was collected by The Center for American Progress for about a quarter of a million students.  The results showed that about 70 percent of all students likely to be eligible for a Pell grant (the most popular Federal government financial aid program) had a change of income totaling less than $500—and that didn’t affect their eligibility. 

While the report suggests this is reason enough to consider going to a one-time FAFSA for all students, others aren’t so sure.  It’s easy to see how low-income students would benefit fairly from filing the FAFSA once, but what about students whose financial circumstances change a great deal?  In addition, since Pell Grant eligibility also depends on how many dependents a family has in college, wouldn’t all Pell recipients have to fill out a new FAFSA when brothers or sisters start going to college—or stop?
This leads to another idea that’s long been floated around—the renewable FAFSA, where students don’t have to complete an entire FAFSA every year, but simply update the information they’ve already provided.  This would make FAFSA completion much easier—to the point where students could complete the updating process when filling out other registration information when they enroll for classes.

Both of these solutions are reminiscent of a recent effort for FAFSA reform that made completing the form a matter of answering two questions. Studies from a few years back claimed that most students, regardless of income level, would receive the same level of aid they currently receive if they answered two questions:  How many people live in your household, and what is the household’s combined income? One study went so far as to claim that 95 percent of all students would qualify for the same level of aid (including no aid) if the FAFSA consisted of just these two questions.

These three very promising efforts at FAFSA reform deserve further consideration, while also reminding us of the very glacial pace of policy change. Combined, these studies question key assumptions of the current FAFSA process, including its necessity for detail, and for refiling annually.  These kind of bedrock changes never go over well with those charged with implementing policy.  While they’re willing to admit the current system is less than perfect, they’re also hesitant to risk what they have to make changes that could lead to something even less perfect than the status quo.

The Department of Education will likely wait and see what effect recent FAFSA changes have on aid eligibility—specifically, the use of income information from two years ago, and the implementation of the FAFSA app for smart phones.  While we wait to see what role those play, additional research in this more radical options would be a wise investment.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The College Applicant’s Guide to Surviving the Holidays

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Completing college applications can be hard work, work that often runs through the holiday season. Since everyone else is taking some time off, this would seem to be the perfect opportunity to hang out with your family, especially since this could be your last Thanksgiving/New Year/Kwanzmasakah as a full-time occupant of your parents’ home. How could this possibly be a bad idea?

“My friend,” says you, “you clearly don’t know my parents, or my Uncle Bob.”

And yet, I actually do. Here are the three keys to thriving (not just surviving) this holiday season:

Treat Uncle Bob Like You, and He, Are Adults If you’re smart enough to go to college, you’re smart enough to sort out how Uncle Bob operates — and that’s the key to success. Once he’s through updating you on his thriving business and gloating about the political party of his choice, he’s going to put a large piece of turkey on his fork and ask, “So, how’s the college hunt going?”

You’re now thinking this is the end. You haven’t heard from the college that was supposed to decide in October, and your other colleges are small schools Uncle Bob hasn’t heard of — heck, you hadn’t even heard of them until last year.

And this, my friend, makes for a wonderful foundation for your response.

“Well, Uncle Bob, I applied to Eastnorthern State U, and thought of you when I answered the essays, since you’ve told me how much you love the school. I guess everybody’s uncle feels that way, because the college is weeks behind in admissions decisions, but I should hear by Super Bowl.

“I know Mom has told you about my other schools, where some of the students major in the History of Haiku and take classes like Fruit Leather in a Modern Society. I won’t hear from them until spring, but if I decide to attend one of them, I’ll be sure to bring a flare gun with me to campus, in case they try to force feed me with tofu.”

At this point, Uncle Bob will look at you, chuckle a little, and then go back to talking about the glory, or evils, of Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Welcome to adulthood.

Your Applications and Black Saturday The next holiday hurdle is the Saturday after Thanksgiving (or Christmas, or...) when even the adults are ready for a break from each other. This is typically the time when your parents — who love you — will say, “Honey, Uncle Bob is going out to lunch with us. Don’t you think this would be a good time to work on your college essays?”

This requires preparation. Put together a spreadsheet ahead of time with the name of every college you’re applying to, the date each application is due and the date you will work on that application. Print out a copy and keep it in your back pocket, saving it for this moment, when you open it with a modest flourish, hand it to your parents, and say, “I’ve got it covered. Have a great lunch.”

And as you put your earphones back on to fall under the spell of Lady Gaga, you will see your parents weep with amazement and joy. Their widdle baby is all growed up.

Remember the Reason for the Season You have parents who love you, an Uncle Bob who is the lovable kind of crazy, and a world of possibilities awaiting you in college. If ever there was a time for gratitude, it is now.