Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Worried About Student Debt? Ask a Counselor

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It happens every year.  No sooner does school let out, and counselors complete their extra couple of days/weeks/months of work, and the headlines fill with a story that directly impacts our work.

This year’s topic is student debt.  Many articles are posted each May about the high price of college, but this year brought more of them than ever.  Many of them went to great lengths to include examples of students who took out $80-100,000 in loans to complete Bachelors’ degrees that held small value in the job market.  This has led to a number of articles countering that, all things equal, statistics show student debt isn’t all that much worse than it was ten or twenty years ago.  Now, in late June, the articles are challenging the data used in these articles, with the “sky is falling” team and the “things have always been this way” team trying to outmaneuver each other with discussions of mean, average, and outliers.

It’s important to read these articles, but it’s even more important to do so with a wary eye.  Yes, there are students who take out $80,000 loans to get degrees in things like Medieval Art History, but there aren’t that many, or the average debt load of graduates would be $80,000, when it’s currently $33,000.  That’s still a lot of money, unless of course your degree is in Engineering, when you will likely get a job before college is over, and that job will pay at least $55,000 a year.  That means $30,000 in debt isn’t a risky loan; it’s a wise investment. 

On the other hand, it really probably is a very bad idea to take $33,000 in loans to attend a local “college” that promises you a great-paying job in six months, when you have never heard of that college before they called you at home.  If their results were really that good, there’s a great chance someone—your parents, a friend, your counselor—would have told you about this at some point in your high school career. 

Beyond offering bad advice for students and parents, these articles hold a higher likelihood for compelling mischief when they recommend policy changes based on their limited use of statistics.  The “do nothing” crowd is totally oblivious to the number of debt-endowed students who are living with their parents—but that is where we find the largest increase in indebted students. 

At the same time, a remarkable number of high borrowers choose to attend higher-priced private colleges, rather than the lower-priced universities that, as a rule, are considered less prestigious.   Many people would rather drive an Accura than a Camry, but should we really alter college loan policies just because those who can well afford the Camry take loans to support a poorly-informed choice to go for the flashier ride?

The challenge in letting economists, politicians, and the media determine education policy is that none of them are educators, making it too easy to wander from reality when they try and find a “cause” and a “solution.” This year’s discussion of college costs is lengthier than prior years, but the quality of the debate has now devolved into arguing about one another’s figures.  Students and parents should let the argument continue without them; if you need help in deciding what’s best for you, talk to a counselor before you sign off of any loan, or decide to spend your life savings on a college just because it has a higher ranking.  Your decision shouldn’t be about prestige, or bimodal distributions—it should be about you.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

More Time To Talk About College? Create a Class!

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Late June is a time when school counselors think big.  Guided by a desire to increase service to their students, counselors take a minute from the cleaning of files and their year-end reports to consider next year—what could be better, what could be different, what could go easier?

When it comes to college counseling, it isn’t surprising that counselors consider the value of a college counseling class for their students.  Counselors want to talk with more students about college, and students want to focus on college selection with their ever-busy schedules.  A college counseling class meets both these needs, and creates a frequency of counselor-student interaction that’s hard to create with individual appointments or after-school seminars.

If the idea of regularly talking college appeals to you, consider each of these points as you create a proposal to take to your principal:

When will it be offered?  Just like the Biology teacher would love a two-hour block to complete in-depth labs, counselors would love to talk to students daily about college—but if that time can’t be built into the master schedule, it just isn’t going to happen.

This is where a counselor’s expertise in scheduling comes into play.  Is there a required senior course that meets every other day, allowing a college counseling class to fill the empty slots?  Is there an open period in your school’s block schedule where students can choose to study, where a college counseling class would meet an important need? Looking at the master schedule with new eyes could reveal a slot that’s begging to be filled.

If no holes exist, consider spreading the contents through existing classes.  Is there a Life Skills course where a College Counseling unit could be taught?  How about a Health or Careers course?  Many counselors are partnering with English classes to talk about the college essay; is there room there to expand the discussion to other parts of the college selection process?

It may seem backward to consider the shape of a course before creating its contents, but veteran counselors know the schedule drives all—so consider your time limitations first.

What will be covered?  If the goal is to provide a college counseling class where seniors use the time to apply to college, the curriculum is easy, with units on college selection, campus visits, parts of the college application, interviews, and financial aid.  If the course is aimed at juniors, many of these same topics can be addressed, plus test preparation.  A course for younger high school students should be less about application logistics and more about college readiness and awareness, focusing on study skills, extracurricular pursuits, college exploration, and more.  You know the curriculum by heart; build the class to meet the time specifications you have, then supplement the curriculum with field trips, and speakers.

How will it be graded?  This is a class that teaches the value of exploration, and students are less likely to investigate a variety of options if it means getting a bad grade for an option that doesn’t pan out.  It’s wise to make this a Pass/Fail course, based on completion of essential exploration activities and personal reflection, where the student shows evidence that they’ve thought about their plans for life after college; explored a reasonable number of options, and followed through on the options that make the most sense to them—even if that means not going to college.

It’s hard to find the time to meet the college needs of every single senior.  A scheduled college counseling class creates that time for you and your students—consider it closely. 

One last reminder- the online summer college counseling class for school counselors starts Monday, June 23rd.   For more information on the class counselors call “the best counseling class I’ve ever taken”, 

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Surprise End-of-the-Year Report

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

You’re just about to begin your summer, when your principal tells you about a new board-mandated counseling report that’s due in two weeks.  In a perfect world, you knew about this last fall, and set up the benchmarks and collection methods you knew you were going to need right now to put together a data-rich report with ease.  But you didn’t, so you couldn’t—what now?

Follow these simple steps, and you’ll have enough of a report to take to any reasonable principal with your head held high, and with your students at the center of your work.

Write down what went well.  A college professor calls this the Drive Home Analysis.  On his way home from every class, he thinks about what went well in the class he just taught, and thinks about why it worked.  This increases the chance future classes will go just as well when this same topic is taught.

Counselors can do the same thing right now.  Which counseling groups went well?  Which speakers were well received?  Why did you talk to fewer students about cheating this year, than last year?   Write it all down, and give yourself some credit for everything that worked.

Write down what didn’t go well.  Being the nice people they are, it’s usually easier for counselors to remember the programs, sessions, and presentations that fell short—we want to serve all students well, and we know when that doesn’t happen.  The best way to reach the goal of better service is to write down where things fell apart, and consider why.  The goal here isn’t to decide how to improve things; record what happened, and why, and leave it at that.

Review what data you have.  Now that you’ve had your intuitive say about your program, it’s time to look at the data.  You can’t make up numbers you didn’t know you needed, but every school keeps track of some things.  For starters, take a look at:
·         The number of discipline referrals you received
·         The number of personal  counseling sessions you conducted
·         Absence, tardiness, and truancy data
·         College application data
·         College financial aid and scholarship application data
·         College admissions results
·         College scholarship results
·         College persistence rates (if you have them through the National Clearinghouse)
It’s very likely this data can be used to compare last year to this year.  Even if this is an imperfect statistical analysis, it’s a place to begin a report, and a summer conversation about everything a counseling office really does. 

Conclude with recommendations.  Your first data-driven report isn’t going to be comprehensive, and that’s a good thing—if data was all your school needed, they’d hire an accountant, not a counselor.  Start your presentation with the data you have, then offer the insights you wrote down when you mentally reviewed your program.  This shows your principal you’re alert to the students and the school, even if you don’t have the numbers to back it up this year.

You end your report with recommendations—what to do to improve the data-based conclusions you have, and how to collect data on the conclusions you know exist, but can’t quantify this year.  This shows support for your principal, and receptivity to improvement that can lay the groundwork for more support from them.  It isn’t a perfect report, but you didn’t have much time to prepare; the best thing to do is to provide what you have, discuss what you’ll do next year, and lay the groundwork for mutually-beneficial improvement.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Three Easy, Essential Improvements to Your College Counseling Program

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

This is the time of year you love and hate.  You love it because at least one student will thank you for something you don’t remember doing, a parent of a senior will send a quick e-mail letting you know how much you’ve done for their child, or a colleague will thank you for helping them make it through a tough time. These moments make it all worthwhile.

We hate this time of year because someone, somewhere, is going to ask you about your goals for next year.  This doesn’t mean you’re opposed to growth—after all, you’re a counselor—but since June is one of the last remaining times our work allows us to catch our breath and see the big picture, continuous improvement can seem more of a nuisance than a necessity right now.

If the paperwork gods are demanding a June sacrifice, appease them by offering these program innovations that will both satisfy them and make a tremendous difference in your college counseling program, all without a great deal of effort:

College Application Week  This national program invites high schools to spend time in the fall focusing on the value of college.  Volunteers help every senior apply to at least one college, community groups offer special events and prizes to support college awareness programs for all students, and teachers wear their college gear and talk about their college experiences, all in the name of making college more real—and possible—for all students.  For more information on how one state embraces College Application Week, see

FAFSA Completion Project  Most data in education doesn’t tell us all that much, but this statistic creates an Aha moment we can all build on—a student is more likely to go to college if they complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.  This is especially true for students who don’t see themselves as “college material” (another goal-- obliterate that phrase); it may seem backwards, but many of these students will only take an interest in college once they know it’s affordable.

This is why schools devote counseling and community resources to help families complete the FAFSA.  Slated for January and February, the FAFSA Completion Project inspires high schools to open computer labs on nights and weekends so parents can complete the forms.  Invite the local college’s financial aid director to answer questions, and the process is inspiring and reassuring, since privacy-aware parents don’t have to share financial information with a school counselor or their children.  Engaging your local accountants and tax preparers is another key step, where they offer to help clients, friends, and neighbors complete the FAFSA in the privacy of their offices at no charge.

Stop Summer Melt  Despite your best efforts, there’s always a few seniors you worry about after graduation.  Will they really schedule a college orientation session?  Will they follow up on their college plans? Combined with a few summer surprises, some of your graduates just won’t get to college without some extra support.

Enter the Summer Melt project.  Studies show these students are more likely to go to college if someone they know reaches out to them over the summer. Since most counselors work summer days anyway, now is the time to get your principal to release you from office time in June to spend an hour or two each week contacting students from home with the help of e-mail, Remind 101 (texting) and a disposable cell phone.  This simple effort can make a world of difference, and it lets you start your summer sooner—there’s a great summer melt overview at