Wednesday, May 15, 2024

40 Years Later

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

There’s a teenage kid
No matter what he did
Nobody ever understands
And he don’t measure up
And he’s had enough
Can’t be his daddy’s little man
So he pulls out that hot rod Chevy
Puts in his favorite cassette
He ain’t goin’ to no college
The world is waitin’ up ahead *

It's hard to believe it’s over 30 years since Bob McDill wrote those lyrics as part of the Leroy Parnell hit, On the Roadand while some of the references are dated (cassette tapes?), so much of it is still true today.

I’ve been thinking about that, as I complete year 40 as a college counselor. When I started, I saw what our work was doing for-- and, unfortunately, to-- so many students who weren’t at the top of the socio-economic heap. I remember chuckling to myself and thinking, well, all that will be fixed by the time I hang it up.

And then I went to my first College Board fall counselor update, the annual program that let counselors know what was new and exciting in SAT land. The presenter gushed, as she talked about how the SAT had been recentered, and was designed to better measure what it purported to measure. We then took a break, so I thought I’d let them know their message really hit home.

“Wow, it’s great to hear about the changes to the SAT.”

“Yeah” she said, warily.

“So, you can fix the cultural, gender, and racial biases in the test, and create a level playing field.”

She looked at me like I was the stupidest guy on the planet. “We’re not doing that” she scoffed. “If we did, there’d be no way to compare old SAT scores with new SAT scores.”

And that, my friends, is one of the major themes of the world of college counseling—we can’t change anything, because—well, we can’t.

The goal with some of the few changes (test-optional policies, college access organizations) was clear—to de-snootify college admissions. This is an uphill battle, since—let’s face it—there’s so much money and prestige involved in making college admissions an American caste system. It’s how The New York Times education section stays in business (its latest piece on college admissions in six words or less: Harvard is hard to get into); it’s how too many (and by no means all) independent consultants charge an average of $4200 per student; and it’s how test prep organizations guilt blue-collar families into paying way too much for a test they might not even need. The message is the same: College is about being one of them.

The funny thing is, I’ve tried to spend the better part of my career telling students—and many, many, many families—college isn’t about being one of “them”. College is about being more of yourself. College can help first-gen kids make more money, but it can also help them understand the world better, and maybe be more comfortable with the gifts they may have that make them remarkable—something that isn’t always embraced in our blue-collar world. College can help upper class kids find the grounding so many of them need, getting past who they think they are, or what their trust funds say they should be, discovering an air of authenticity we all long for.

That’s why I went into the field—so students could explore their college options, and see if it opened up avenues of identity. 40 years later, it could still be much better at doing that.

I may be at this for a while.

* from "On the Road" by Bob McDill © 1992 Bob McDill, PolyGram International Publishing, Inc. & Ranger Bob Music.

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

College Counseling for First Generation Students

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

There isn’t a lot of research on the best way to talk about college with students who would be the first in their family to attend, but it’s a research field that’s growing. The Journal of College Access is a space devoted to such research (full disclosure—I am a founding editor), so I’ve had a chance to peruse some quality work on this topic. Combined with conversations with professionals who work with these students, here’s a quick guided tour of things to do to shape a college counseling curriculum for first gens:

Start early Students who only know about colleges thanks to the NCAA and what they’ve “heard” about Harvard need a full-blown introduction to college—what it is, the kinds of colleges that exist, and why people go.

For high school counselors, the challenge here is that this education for first gens needs to start way before ninth grade—ideally, no later than fifth-or sixth-grade. This means working with your K-8 counseling colleagues on college awareness—or, if push comes to shove, going down to their buildings to present it yourself. It’s better if they buy in, but either way, it has to get out there, and early.

Involve parents A good number of parents who didn’t go to college are convinced of three things:

  • They can’t afford college—any college
  • Their child doesn’t have the grades for college
  • College is a waste of money if their child doesn’t know what they want to major in

You likely address all these topics with your 9-12 students when you talk college, and the same presentations will work with parents and younger students. Hint: Some of these parents will not come to a night presentation held at school. Instead, think about a Zoom presentation, or a presentation in the mall, the laundromat—or the local bar. Wherever it’s offered in person, bring raffle prizes, serve food (pizza works), offer childcare, and include case studies of students from your school who went on to college—there’s nothing like familiar faces to encourage families to open up.

Affordability, Part 2 A nice add-in for first gen presentations is a walkthrough of the Federal Student Aid Estimator and a Net Price Calculator. The Estimator asks 10 questions that give an estimate—yes, it’s an estimate—of how much Federal aid the student could get. Net Price Calculators are college-based estimators of aid the student might get at that college—take a look at this one for Michigan State.

These are both estimators, and some students and families may jump at the idea of loans, so you need to talk about what that means. It’s also wise to direct them to a college that’s more affordable for your average family, since the goal is to educate, not intimidate.

Take College Classes in High School The very best way to help students understand what college is all about is to have them go to college while in high school. Programs like Early College and Dual Enrollment allow students to do this, with the school district typically paying for all related costs.

It’s best if these classes are offered on a college campus—that offers the student the full experience. It’s also important to work with the student to take classes that will likely transfer for college credit when they go to college after high school. Not nearly all classes transfer, so work closely with the students to choose wisely. If they can take 3 or 4 college classes in high school, for free, they’ll see college as something doable, because they’ve already done it.

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

Advice for College First Years

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Welcome to college! The opportunities you have here to learn about yourself and the world—from exploring the world of entomology to trying your first naan—are vast, and your goal is to finish your college experience without saying “Gee, I should have tried…” too often. That means staying open to the possible, all while using sound judgment, so that you will also get to the end of your college experience and say “Gee, I’m glad I didn’t try…” (translation: cans filled with mixed liquor should be avoided at all costs).

In terms of life in the classroom, the rules are few, and pretty simple. A vast majority of students who don’t do well in college don’t consistently apply these rules. Sometimes that’s not their fault, but it’s still the reason why college turns out differently than they expected. Ready?

Read the syllabus. The syllabus is the roadmap of how class is going to work. Each class is a different destination, so each roadmap will be different. This will require you to be flexible, and it will require you to understand each roadmap as different. Read it before class starts, and at least once each week for the first four weeks of class.

Go to class. Some colleges actually take attendance, which is silly—any professor who runs a class you can pass without showing up should not be teaching. Either way, being there means you are creating a space in your busy life to shut everything else out (yes, turn off your phone during class) and focus on the task at hand. Do that

Schedule study time. There was once a book called Making College Count that suggested students treat school like a 9-5 job. Schedule every moment for 5 days, and you get weekends off, either for a social life, or to make up for the times during the week where things fell off track.

This approach may be too strict for you, but you get the idea. You’ll need 2-3 hours outside of class for every hour you’re in class to study, take notes (by hand), copy your notes over (yes, writing them again makes you know them better), and complete assignments. Scheduling the same time each week to do these things—preferably right before or after class—helps you learn.

Use office hours. Professors hold times for students to come by and ask questions. Students only go there right before exams, and ask questions that were already answered in class. It’s vital to go to a professor as the class progresses and say “I heard what you said about elasticity, but I didn’t quite understand this part.” Focus your questions, and you’ll get more from the visit. It’s also OK just to go and say hi. Profs like that, too.

Be honest. If you get behind and need help, don’t pretend you aren’t. Ask for help, and see if the college has tutors or an academic support center to help support your efforts. If life gets overwhelming for any reason (academic or personal), mental health resources abound. Use them—and if a roommate or pal is hurting, get them to those resources right away.

Embrace humility. If the syllabus says late work isn’t accepted, it isn’t. If papers have to be written in multiple paragraphs, and yours isn’t, it won’t get credit. There are reasons for these rules, and if you don’t understand them, ask your professor. They aren’t being unfair; they told you the rules at the outset, and now they are just being incredibly fair by being consistent. Understanding this leads to personal growth.

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Parenting a College Student

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

This is the time of year when many parents aren’t quite sure what to do with themselves. Years and years—and years—of chauffeuring kids here and there created a portal into their lives college doesn’t offer. In a way, that’s good; kids aren’t raised to be perpetually dependent. On the other hand, it’s wise to want to be there when their reality of adulthood is less than their vision of what it’s supposed to be.

The adult phase of parenthood is less about doing, and more about watching. You going to campus, and their coming home, are vital parts of your relationship. But the bigger part is stepping back and considering the big picture, not always easy to do when you aren’t in their lives every day.

Experienced college parents suggest this approach:

  • Make sure they don’t settle socially The best college experience comes for students who don’t simply trust their first roommate, dorm colleagues, and classmates will be lifelong chums. It does sometimes work that way, but if they come across brooders, or the high school students who still think they need to be on the fringe, it may be time to sit at a new dining table, or find a different place to hang out. Many first-year students have a heart that may feel the need to be the one sane person a challenged student needs to keep going. They certainly can do that, but they can do that *and* meet their own needs for growth. Keep an eye out—and if you sense they’re in a relationship where the other party needs help, find a kind way to say that, or to help your child connect their friend to the college-based help they need. 

  • Keep an eye on the relationships with high school chums Some students leave high school intending to keep close with their friends, while others are looking for a fresh start. This is a delicate balance. Too much reliance on high school chums stunts the college experience. Running far away from unexpected high school faces on campus may deny them a chance to see that person in a new, better, and delightful light. The kindergarten song rings true—make new friends, and keep the old, as long as they are healthy and true relationships.

  • Don’t settle academically I went to a summer basketball camp that, I believe, scarred me for life, but the one piece of good advice I got was “always play people better than you”. College opportunities are rich, and the only way students make the most of them is to seek them out. I had a student who got underfunded at their first college choice, so when they attended their second choice, they owned the place, ultimately being the first student to run their much-vaunted foreign policy summit. Those experiences don’t come to those waiting for an invitation.

It's also important to see college years as something beyond a campus experience. Colleges are in communities that need volunteers; colleges have departments with professors eager to help students publish in academic journals; parts of the world have college campuses to attend as a guest student or study-abroad participant. Students were admitted to college in part because they used their high school years to think about “what’s next”. A similar attitude about college will yield the same success and rich experience.

  • Schedule a regular time each week for a phone call They get their life, you get your lifeline, and it’s well organized. Generally, anything more than weekly is excessive. You helped them grow wings. Time for them to fly.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

FAFSA Foul-Ups? Apply Anyway (For Your Students)

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Students, I get it.

I used to work for the US Department of Education, and they’re supposed to be helping you get an education—but it sure doesn’t seem that way, if you’ve applied for financial aid for life after high school. They changed the FAFSA form—the one used to apply for aid—and it was supposed to make applying easier.

It didn’t work. The new version had flaws, and more flaws are discovered nearly every week. Those students who did manage to apply have now been told there weren’t one, but two, incorrect formulas used to calculate eligibility—and this means many colleges won’t be sending out financial aid awards until May. This isn’t the fault of the colleges—and it isn’t your fault, either.

Colleges understand this, and they are doing everything they can to let students know two things:

  1. We want you to apply to our college.
  2. We want to do everything we can to help pay for it.

Students and families applying for aid are understandably frustrated with everything that’s happening. Given that, here’s my advice:


It’s never great when the people who are supposed to help you actually get in the way of you achieving a goal, but that doesn’t mean the goal is less important—it just means it’s a little harder to achieve. Some of you didn’t pass your driver’s test on the first try, but you still got your license, because it mattered. Some of you weren’t exactly LeBron James when you first picked up a basketball, or played the guitar like Prince when you first picked up your musical instrument. But you stayed with it, and you got better.

Applying for financial aid, at least this year, is kind of the same thing. It’s only supposed to take one try, but for some reason, this year it’s going to take more than that. If you’re completing a FAFSA to go to college, college is still cool, and you still deserve to go. Persist.

If you’re using your FAFSA for technical training, that training is still cool, and that job is still going to pay way more than the local sandwich shop now, and will pay way, way more over 30 years. Persist.

No matter why you’re completing your FAFSA, you’re likely going to end up making more money, living a better life, and understanding more about yourself if it helps pay for the experience you’re looking for. That’s still cool. Persist.

Help is here if you need it. Start with your high school counselor—and yes, I know they see a zillion students, so getting to see them might be a challenge. You’re worth putting in the time—persist.

If that doesn’t work, call the financial aid office of the college or program you’re applying to, or thinking about applying to. They want you to apply, and if FAFSA is getting in your way, they will likely have some advice on how to overcome that hurdle.

This FAFSA nightmare was never supposed to happen, and many of the adults involved with helping students go to college are asking for big changes to make sure it never happens again. It’s hard to say how long that will take—but then again, that kind of doesn’t matter. For now, we’re going to focus on you, and what we need to do to help you reach your goal for life after high school.

For better or worse, the next step is yours to take, but we’re here, with real help, when you take it. Persi—well, you get it.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Giving Back

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Hamtramck is a Detroit enclave with Polish roots, a part of town where, in the day, neighbors would scrub their sidewalks together until you could eat off them. It’s a wonderfully diverse neighborhood now, still hosting a Paczki run each Lenten season, named after the Polish donut with a zillion calories you eat on Fat Tuesday. The route runs through neighborhoods, and your 5K effort is rewarded at the end with a table of Paczki to the left, and a table of beer to the right.

As I ran past these very-close-together houses with kids in their pajamas sitting on the stoops, cheering for the runners (remember, this is February), I wished there was something I could do for this old-school, blue collar community. I was born in a neighborhood in northwest Detroit that wasn’t too different from this one, with houses owned by people who had been raised in the Depression, most of them having served in World War II, Korea, or both. Once they came home, there were only three things they wanted in life: a house with indoor plumbing (no, I am not kidding), a small yard to cut on sunny Saturday mornings and drink beer in on sunny Saturday afternoons in a folding chair, and the chance for their kids to go to college. Hamtramck was screaming the same vibe. If only I could figure out how to help.

It turns out I didn’t have to do much but wish to make it so. About a week later, and completely out of the blue, the Hamtramck PTA president somehow tracked me down, and asked if I’d give a college access talk at their high school. We talked to set things up, and it was clear she was a go-getter, one of those moms who talked on the phone to set up dentist appointments with a baby on her hip, while gesticulating to her other children to get ready for school. It turned out Donna Reed wasn’t dead. She was now Greek, and living in Hamtramck.

I was ushered into a barren auditorium that was rich with the memory of ten thousand assemblies that all started with the Pledge of Allegiance. The walls were undecorated, likely holding their color from the Eisenhower administration, and the kid from the AV club set up a microphone the Andrews Sisters could have used. Students filtered in, many of them girls with covered heads, accompanied by mothers with covered heads, and several younger siblings. I shifted my gaze back and forth, seeing the face of each parent in the face of each student, and caught my breath. I was witnessing an illustration of the dictionary definition of family.

My presentation was warmly received, but only a handful of audience members came up to ask questions. At first, I wondered if my talk had met the needs of those in attendance, since most of my other presentations were concluded by go-getter parents lurching to the front of the room to ask about Harvard or something like that. It then occurred to me: this neighborhood doesn’t work that way. You make the most out of what’s given you, and express gratitude for the chance to do just that.

The PTA president was the last to talk to me, energized by the presentation, overflowing with kindness and gratitude. My payment was a handwritten thank you note and the best homemade Greek pastries I’ve ever had…

…and a reminder how lucky I am to be in a profession where I can make a difference, if only I put myself out there a little.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

FAFSA Foul Ups? Enough—Someone Needs to Go

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I can’t think of a single school counselor who wouldn’t be disciplined, even fired, if they prevented half of their seniors from applying to college. These students want to go to college, and they’ve navigated many hoops and hurdles to build academic and extracurricular records that not only show their ability to be successful in college, but give them the skills, knowledge, and attitudes to be successful once they arrive on campus. Some take tests, some give up summers for additional learning experiences, some beg their parents to let them at least try college, and all understand what college can do for them, as well as what they can do for college. They’re about as ready as they can be, but they aren’t going to go, because their counselor created an application system that wouldn’t allow them to apply, or gave the impression they shouldn’t bother.

You likely see where this is going. Last February 1st, 6 million students had filed a FAFSA. This February 1st, that number was 3 million. The December 31 “rollout” of FAFSA was really part Beta-test, part blackout, with the site up for a while, then dark for hours, like electricity in a developing nation. Parents without Social Security numbers couldn’t apply at all for quite some time, and, depending on who you talk to, still can’t. Those students who did manage to apply have now been told there weren’t one, but two, incorrect algorithms in the formula used to calculate eligibility. Colleges were notified that, in all likelihood, they won’t get the FAFSA information they need until May 1 to put together final, real financial aid packages.

Counselors who work with low-income and first-generation students will tell you it takes a lot to convince most of them that college is worth a try, and that it doesn’t take much to derail their interest in the process if it gets too complicated. This isn’t just about writing drafts of college essays; it’s about the messages they receive from the adults involved in the admissions and application process. Many of these students are convinced they aren’t really welcome in the world of higher education. Give wrong advice on a Web page, or tell them to come back later with the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West, and you will simply not hear from them ever again.

Most colleges get this—it’s too bad the Department of Education doesn’t. Apologies and claims of underfunding aside, the Department had three years to bring the new FAFSA online. I know nothing about computer programming, but I know about project deadlines, and I know about kids. If a project is due Friday, you complete it by Tuesday. If the project involves kids, you bring in a half-dozen of them, give them pizza, show them the project, and say “Does this make sense at all?”, then fine tune it so it’s really done by Thursday.

The absence of planning on the part of the Department of Education regarding FAFSA upgrades is more than embarrassing. It has already cost students, families, and our nation’s economy dearly. Many of the students who survived COVID are eager to build brighter futures for themselves, only to find a bureaucratic plague preventing them from doing so.

High school counselors who build barriers to college access get fired, and rightfully so. I don’t want another “Isn’t FAFSA great” social media post from the Department of Education. I want to know who’s getting fired for this nightmare—and I want their apology to America’s students on the front page of The New York Times.