Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Is it Smart to Apply Early? Maybe

By Patrick O'Connor

With November 1st coming up, a good number of students may be coming to your door and asking the age-old college question, “Should I apply early?”

As adults, we are wired to respond to this question with an enthusiastic “Yes!”, since the notion of a student doing something ahead of time is pretty exciting, since it’s pretty rare.

Happily, we are trained counselors, so we understand the better thing to do with this question is to ask a clarifying question, like:

“That depends. Where are you applying?”

Since more and more colleges are encouraging student to apply “early”, this specific information is needed so you can give the right advice—which, much to the horror of our adult sensibilities, is sometimes “no.”

If you’re confused, it’s time for a quick review of the “early” terminologies:

Many colleges offer an Early Action option of applying.  Also known as EA, students submitting completed applications by this date (test scores, essays, application fee—the whole thing) will get a decision earlier than most other applicants.  This can be much earlier; some colleges promise students who apply EA by November 1 an answer before Christmas, while their other students will have to wait until April 1.

Just as important, EA doesn’t commit students to anything; if the college admits the student early, the student still has until May 1 to decide which college to attend.  There’s no pressure to pay early or to only go to that college—it’s just a small reward for having things together sooner.

On the other hand, students must be very careful of Early Decision, or ED.  With ED, students apply early—BUT if the college admits, the student agrees to withdraw applications to all other colleges, and promises to attend that college next fall, provided that college meets all of their demonstrated financial need.  Students can apply to other colleges at the same time, but they can only apply ED to one college at a time, so this is serious business—if you’re in, that’s where you’re going, end of story.

A very few colleges offer Early Action Single Choice.  This works like EA, so students aren’t making an early commitment to that college; however, they are agreeing that this is the one and only college they are applying to as an Early school—no EA or ED applications anywhere else.  There are many variations to EASC, including some where students can apply to public colleges Early.  If a student is applying to an EASC school, read the fine print closely, and twice.

Once you know where the student is applying, the advice about applying early is easier to tailor to their individual needs.  As a rule, the only advantage to applying Early Action is that the student hears sooner from the college; since many students are anxious to hear, many apply early, and most colleges don’t take a larger percentage of students from this early program.

The rules change with Early Decision.  Since the student is offering an early commitment to the college, some schools take a very large number of students from the ED group—in some cases, as much as 50%.  Since fewer students apply to ED programs (many students are turned off by the commitment), a student’s chances of getting admitted could (that’s could) go way up by applying ED—it’s just that the increased chance comes at the price of making a very early decision.

There’s a chance some students will come in with questions about applying early to colleges that don’t offer ED, EA, or EASC.  We’ll talk about those next week.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Debt We Owe Our Children, and The One They Shouldn’t Owe Anyone

By Patrick O'Connor

This is one of my father’s favorite jokes.

A man walks into a doctor’s office and says “Doc, it hurts when I do this”, and stretches his right arm way over his head.  “What do you think?”

The doctor says “I think you shouldn’t do that anymore.”

I thought of this joke when I read the piece in the Atlantic Wire, indicating Americans now owe over $1 trillion dollars in student loans (you can see it at

The good news is that this is the first time this has happened; the bad news is that it happened a first time; the ugly part is yet to come.  Since this debt has doubled in the last five years, student debt is likely to break the $2 trillion mark by 2018 if we keep the same borrowing rate.

What exactly should be done?  Some steps are already in place to follow the doctor’s orders:

*  For-profit colleges have been closely scrutinized, and students from these colleges have the highest default rates.  It may not be cause-effect, but enrollment at many for-profits is down, so it’s likely more students are watching their wallets more closely when they enter the hallowed halls of any college.
*  The Net Price Calculator debuts on college Web sites right around Halloween.  This Federally-mandated device is designed to give parents and students better information on what they can expect to pay and borrow if they go to that college.  Since financial aid packages are a combination of art and science, this tool may not be the debt reduction cure-all of college, but it’s likely to take at least some of the trick out of the treat of postsecondary education.
*  Some colleges are simply eliminating loan out of financial aid packages.  Not many colleges can afford to do this, but the example set by the few that can is inspiring other less-heeled institutions to find ways to reduce the amount of loan a student has to pay, further proof that necessity is the mother of invention.

This may be a great start, but clearly there is more for us to do:

*  School counselors need to take a much more active and early role in the college finance education of their students and parents. There isn’t much to be saved in an economy like this, but putting it in the right place—and in the name of the right person—can make a huge difference over time, and it’s time parents used these important allies in the war on college costs. Elementary school is a great time to begin.
*  Counselors need to show parents how to talk with their children about money for college.  Too many parents encourage applications to colleges they can’t afford, saying they don’t want to crush their child’s college dreams.  Armed with no financial information, students blithely sign off on all kinds of documents, and leave college with four years of great memories and a lifetime of debt.  They deserve to know they have a choice; counselors have to help parents know how to explain it.

*  Counselors need more financial aid training in graduate school.  Effective counseling includes the ability to explain the major forms needed to apply for aid, the major sources to find different kinds of aid, and different college strategies students can pursue while saving money. Professors who run counselor training programs often insist they don’t have time to teach these vital skills, but in light of this finding, it’s way past time for them to understand one simple fact—Docs, it hurts when you don’t do this.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Attention Seniors—Apply to College This Week. All of You.

By:  Patrick O'Connor  

If you’re looking for a way to motivate your students to apply to college, North Carolina just may be on to something.

Several years back, the College Foundation of North Carolina started College Application Week.  The idea was simple—pick a week to focus all of the energies of a high school on getting all seniors to apply to college that week.

That’s right- all seniors.

If you’re thinking this is a lofty goal, you’re right.  Fall is chock full of homecoming and football games and first quarter report cards and a million other things, so it’s easy for students to be distracted and hard to get teachers to lend their support to the effort.

If you’re thinking, this could be a logistical nightmare, you’re also right.  To really pull this off, you’d need to prep the seniors ahead of time with all kinds of information; you’d need enough computers up and running with Internet access so they could apply online; you’d need armloads of application fee waivers for students to use; and you’d need to prep parents with financial aid information, so they would have time to explore all college options with their senior before the big week came.

If you’re thinking, this is just too complicated to work, you’re wrong. During the first College Application Week, almost 42,000 college applications were submitted by North Carolina Seniors.  The week before, about 4500 were sent; same for the week after.  The following year, it was 53,000, *and* the average number of applications for the weeks before College Application Week were way up compared to the previous year.

These numbers don’t represent all seniors, but it’s far more than would ordinarily apply—and the results suggest more students are actual going to college, especially among low-income students, who get so caught in the energy of the week, they decide to take the plunge.

It gets better.  This kind of program can only work with many volunteers, and that means volunteers from college admissions offices, all roaming your hallways for a week.  Students can’t help but get the college message during the week, because it is literally everywhere in your school.  Talk about incentive for your lowerclassmen!

This can also become the break counselors need to actually talk with students about college.  If your building is planning a College Application Week, you’ll need at least all of October to talk to seniors, host a financial aid night, prepare transcripts, and train and recruit volunteers.  That means there’s no time to sharpen pencils or put test booklets in piles of 25—you’ve got students to see, and for at least this week, everyone respects that.

This idea seems to be taking off—six other states have a program in place, many more are trying one out this year, and it’s likely some kind of program will be in place in at least some high schools in all 50 states in the next few years.

It’s time to get ahead of the curve.  Take a look at the resources North Carolina has for their week at and don’t be afraid to set the trend in your state, or to ask North Carolina for help—they’ll be happy to get you going, as long as you don’t call them November 14-18.

They’ll be kinda busy.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Take My Advice—Try to Keep Your Job

By Patrick O'Connor

It isn’t unusual during this time of year for school counselors to get a lot of advice on how to do their job—but that advice sometimes comes in the most unusual ways.

“She’s scared of Elmo” can be a mother’s way of asking you to sit next to their child during the all-school puppet show.

“He’s just not into football anymore” could be what a parent says when their seventh grade son is trying to sort out the challenges of middle school.

“What do you mean, you don’t think Princeton will take him?” could mean—well, a million things, actually.

But even in this time of unusual advice giving, the counsel from Mike Boulus stands out and requires our collective attention.

Boulus is Executive Director of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan.  When asked what Michigan could do to address this shortage, especially when dispensing advice on applying to college, Boulus answered “I think if we’re going to really do serious college counseling, we may have to push it into the classroom itself and arm our teachers with the information.”

In other words, one way to address the counselor shortage is to give the counselor’s duties to someone else.

Boulus raises a good point, in that good college advising is a school-wide activity—that’s the basis of the recent efforts to create a college-going culture in all schools K-12.
Still, I don’t think handing the main part of the college counseling process over to teachers is quite what everyone had in mind—including the teachers.

A counselor from Minnesota told me a high school in her region released their counselors and trained all of the teachers to become academic advisers, a role that included working with students in the college selection process.  The results included some very unhappy teachers, dazed and confused students, and the rehiring of counselors the following year.

Still, Boulus’ quote, and the rest of the information in the article (at provide several important reminders for school counselors:

•          Most people don’t understand the depth and breadth of what we do.  Most people know counselors help students with personal problems and postsecondary plans—it’s just that they think that’s all we do, or that it’s pretty easy.  There’s more to the job than a ten-word description, but getting people to realize that can be a challenge.
•        Tough economic times are making counselors pay the price for that lack of awareness.  It may not be fair, but when the budget has to be cut, decision-makers will be more willing to let go of programs they either don’t understand or don’t see as effective.  Does your boss know what you really do? How about the president of your school board?
•        Counselors have to take on the issue of preparedness in college advising.  One of the most visible parts of the counseling curriculum in college planning, and because this is an emotional issue for families, the slightest hurdle in getting help can become a mountain of discouragement for the student, and the foundation of a community assault on the integrity of your counseling program.  More thorough college training at the MA level, and a proactive approach to college advising can prevent this.

It isn’t easy to take advice on how to do your job, and it’s even harder to find enough time to actually do your job, period.  The times we live in demand we not only do these things, but also find a way to build key relationships that will help our community appreciate the value of counselor-centered services.