Thursday, May 26, 2011

Do Your Get Your College Advice From US News? Think Again

By Patrick O'Conner PhD

The long-time feud between high school counselors and US News and World Report took a new turn last week with the release of a survey measuring the value of the annual college rankingsproduced by US News.

Since the early 1980s, US News has produced ranked lists of what it considers the best colleges in the world, the US, and regions with the country.  School counselors have questioned the value of these rankings from the beginning, finding fault with just how US News compares colleges, and claiming the rankings confuse students and parents more than help them, since the college needs of each student are different.

Thanks to a new survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), counselors had an opportunity to turn the tables.  When asked to rate the rankings on a scale of 1 (low) to 100 (high), school counselors gave the rankings an average score of 29.  When asked about the rankings, counselors found fault with everything from the name of the publication (“Americas Best Colleges” suggest one kind of college is best for all students) to the factors used in the rankings.

These factors include the number of applications a college receives (the higher the better), the percentage of students admitted (the lower the better), and the prestige the college is given by other college presidents.  Since US News rewards colleges for having more applicants *and* for *rejecting* more applicants, counselors claim some colleges are encouraging more students to apply, even though the college knows the student’s qualifications are unlikely to lead to an offer of admission.

Reporters and other observers feel counselors are envious of the power of the rankings—but the results of the NACAC survey indicate otherwise.  Another part of the survey asked admissions officers at colleges to rank the US News Report, and the average score given by college personnel was a 39—better than what the high school counselors gave, but still a failing grade.

The results suggest many college officers understand they have to improve their rank because US News rankings are widely read, yet they feel the rankings don’t have any real value for parents or students in the college selection process.

The survey strikes a final blow to US News by asking college admission personnel if they believe colleges do things to improve their rank that are “counterproductive”.  90 percent responded by saying colleges make changes designed to hold or improve their rankings, but only 46 percent believe these changes occur in the classroom.

This finding suggests colleges are doing things to look better in the rankings that, in the end, don’t improve the quality of education for students. Many of these strategies require the investment of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in marketing programs—money that comes from tuition increases, or money that could have gone to strengthen instruction or improve financial aid offers.

It’s too early to tell just how the results will impact college recruiting efforts, but the survey comes along just in time for high school counselors to tell parents, with authority, that high school *and* college personnel think the US News rankings are of little if any help when it comes to choosing a college.

More than just saving parents the cost of the magazine, this message tells college-bound families to invest their understanding of the college selection process in more reliable, individualized resources, including the advice of a trained high school counselor who knows the student’s needs. That may be the biggest pot of gold at any rainbow in this rain-soaked spring.

The survey is at

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Need to Keep Your Seniors Focused on School? Try This

By Patrick O'Conner

Seniors, I realize you’re engaged in serious academic pursuits, like planning senior skip day and sneaking a Whoopee cushion on the principal’s chair at graduation, so I’ll quickly address two issues I have for you, and you can be on your way.

First, congratulations again on your acceptance into college.  A record number of students applied to college this year, so your admission letter really is an affirmation of the hard work you put in, the risks you took in challenging yourself with tough classes, and the many contributions you made outside of the classroom. 

I’m repeating this because many students are coming by my office to thank me for “getting them in” to college. I think I know what you mean when you say that, but I’m not sure you do.

As I’ve said before, too many newspaper reporters try and make the college application process more “interesting” by shaping it like a reality TV show ( “Survivor:  Showdown on the Quad”).   This explains why your parents gave you SAT flash cards for your first communion, or a gold bracelet for your bat mitzvah with the inscription  It also explains why your mother’s therapist can send his daughter to Cornell without taking out any loans.

Thanks to the fourth estate, college counselors are viewed as the Dumbledores of College Access, the College Whisperers who bring you into their offices only to get a sense of your aura.  Later, at a time when they sense the Force is with them, they call the college of your choice on a special red phone, whisper  the Greek equivalent of “Baa Ram Ewe” into the mouthpiece, and voila!—you’re admitted.

Of course, we make you jump through the hoops of earning good grades, getting up on several Saturdays to take tests where the correct answers always form a Scantron silhouette of Snoopy, and writing several drafts of college essays designed to get you to communicate your understanding of yourself and the world around you,--but this is window dressing.  The real work happens in our offices, when the moon is but a thin crescent in the southern sky and the wind blows towards Harvard Yard, Touchdown Jesus, orfraternity row at Faber College.

The world would have you believe this, but it isn’t true.  Yes, we help you find the right mix of challenge, support and opportunity at your next school.  We also help you understand how to give colleges a complete picture of your life through the right mix of letters of recommendation, personal essays, and genuine interviews.

But we are not the ones who “get you in”—you earn the grades, write the essays, and make it happen.  That’s as it should be, since it is who you are and what you do that not only gets you into college; it keeps you there as well…

…which leads me to my second point.  I’ve just reviewed your course grades since you were admitted to college, and if this keeps up, your decision to turn down the full ride scholarship to Daisy’s Dog Grooming School will prove to have been a poor one.

If you need help remembering what it was you were studying or why finishing high school with strong grades is important, you might want to track down Dumbledore and borrow his Pensieve.  But remember, I ain’t Dumbledore—I honestly told the colleges you were a hard worker, and I’ll have to honestly tell them you’ve stopped being so, if that’s the case.

So how about if you forget about the Whoopee cushion, and get back to class?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Supporting Students through World Events

School counselors are responding to the news of the death of Osama Bin Laden with a wide variety of programs for their students.  While the Sunday night event caught many counselors off guard for managing and supporting student response for Monday, many forums and discussion opportunities are planned or underway at this point, all designed to help students make sense of this event and what it may mean to the daily lives of students, both today and in the future.

If you’re in the process of creating a program for your school, consider these key elements that have helped other 
counselors meet the needs of their buildings in the past:

Don’t do this alone.  School principals are certainly wise to include school counselors in the creation of a building response to unexpected events, but the best constructed plan is one that’s team-based.  Not everyone considers this issue to be a crisis, but it’s a good idea to look at your building crisis plan for guidance here—bring your crisis team together, determine who else may have important expertise to add to the team (like Social Studies teachers familiar with the situation), and plan as a group. If you don’t have a building crisis plan, pull your principal, social worker, and two teachers you respect into your office, and start from there—and make sure constructing a crisis plan is on next fall’s “to do” list.

Think back on what’s worked before.  A good way to brainstorm possible approaches to working with students through this issue is to consider how the school addressed a previous high profile issue.  It’s been almost ten years since 9/11, yet every teacher can remember where they were, what they were doing, and how they helped students through that time of crisis (if in fact they were teachers at that time.)  This event has its own dynamics, but approaches that were successful then could be a place to begin here.

Consider your audience.  It’s clear that strategies to help elementary school students work through these issues will be different than the approaches used with middle schools or high schools, but it’s important to go deeper than that.  Does your community have a number of families with members on active duty?  Are there political or religious divisions in your community that need to be considered in developing a response?  Are there community resources in mental health facilities or places of worship that should be included in building a plan of support for your community?  These issues are important to consider when deciding how—or even if--  a response program is necessary.

How will you spread the word?  Once you have a plan, it’s important to make sure everyone knows what it is—students, teachers, parents, administrators, and community members at large.  It may be that the best plan for your school is to offer an after-school discussion group, or to invite those with questions and concerns to come see you—but they won’t come if the invitation isn’t extended.  This is especially true if you’re planning to hold a larger event; if the turnout is small, or if people don’t know why they’re coming, they are less likely to prepare or participate, and the event’s potential goes unrealized.  Letting people know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and what the event hopes to achieve is key to a successful event.

People turn to the helpers in times of crisis, and this week is no different.  Plan your work, work your plan, keep the best interests of