Wednesday, November 19, 2014

An Update on My Letter to Michelle Obama

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It's been almost a year since Michelle Obama raised the importance of college awareness and college opportunity, and almost a year since I asked Mrs. Obama to make sure this discussion included awareness of the need for better training in college advising for the school counselors. One year isn't long in the policy-making world, but it still seems like a good time to ask: How's it going?

In a nutshell, things are moving along nicely:
• In January, President Obama hosted a White House event for colleges that pledged to increase college access and opportunity for low-income students.
• This summer, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called on state school leaders to make sure school counselors received needed training in college readiness and college advising.
• That same week, Mrs. Obama presented at the annual conference of the American School Counselor Association, where she reiterated the importance of school counselors, and the need for more counselors and more training in college advising.
• These same points were the basis for a White House Summit held in July at Harvard, where participants discussed steps that could be taken to advance these important efforts.
These events laid the ground for a second White House Summit in San Diego. About half of the states have developed action teams committed to advancing the goals The White House has outlined. The goal of the San Diego program is to share those plans and put details into them, so the groups can return to their states with a program, a vision, and a deadline.
Response to Mrs. Obama's initiative has generally been favorable, especially among school counselors, who have long felt their work is either misunderstood, taken for granted, or ignored. At the same time, some responses to this effort have been dubious, raising questions that need to be considered as the college access movement advances:
• To date, not a single state has responded to Secretary Duncan's call for an initiative positioning school counselors to be greater advocates of college access. Those attending next week's summit (and that includes me) will need to consider how to engage state school leaders in ways that lead to a proactive response -- and that usually involves some kind of financial incentive.
• A growing number of policy makers are confusing Mrs. Obama's initiative with a mandate that all students attend a four-year college. Effective counselors understand four years of college don't always fit into the right plan for some students -- but many low-income students don't realize they have the potential to succeed at college. Changing that dynamic lies at the heart of this effort; this needs to be clear to everyone.
• Some opponents are adamant that more training in college counseling isn't needed, if schools would just hire more counselors. Citing some states where there is only one school counselor for over 1000 students, critics question just how much counseling can be done with unreasonably large caseloads.
Some very successful efforts are underway to reduce high counselor caseloads(especially in Colorado), but veteran counselors and educators with caseloads ranging from 400-3000 report significant improvement in their college counseling programs, once they receive specific training in college advising. As one counselor put it, "You can drop my caseload to 250, but that isn't going to help much if I don't know what I'm talking about."

Policy makers know improved college training is only one part of the solution to the challenges counselors face, but it's an important part. The San Diego summit can bring this vital element to life -- and that needs to happen in less than a year.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Setting Up a College Counseling Office

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

The key to a successful college counseling program is transparency—we create a curriculum and share it with the community, we create avenues of communication with students and parents to make sure they understand the goals of the curriculum, as well as the individual steps taken to reach those goals, and we create a College Counseling Advisory Committee to spread the word about our program, and get feedback from key constituents.

All of this transparency doesn’t mean a thing if the tools of the curriculum aren’t accessible to students and parents.  This is one of the MAIN reasons students and parents give low marks when they evaluate college counseling programs that appear to be great; the material is indeed wonderful, but they can’t get to it.

Accessibility is the partner of transparency, so it’s time for a check-up of what your counseling spaces look like. (There are some good ideas here middle school and elementary school counseling offices can use, like creating a College Corner with some age-appropriate materials, including lots of information on how to pay for college.  It’s never too early to share that information with parents!)

Your office

_____  You have a large work area where students can interact with college information, either in print form or online. The room is bright and inviting, with college posters and informational displays on completing financial aid forms, applying for scholarships, and more. This can double as the space where colleges visit and talk with students.

_____ The print resources—catalogs, college guides, test prep information, college applications scholarships—are organized in colorful binders or file crates (not file drawers) that are clearly labeled, with directions on how to use them, and if students can check them out or keep them.

_____The online versions of these resources are readily available and easy to find, thanks to a set of instructions that are taped to the table where your computer(s) are, attached to the bulletin board above the computers, or outlined on your college counseling Web site, which is the home screen for any computer in your work area.

Your Web site

_____ Your Web site is up to date with fresh information on topics of interest, where the home page has links or tabs to resources by topic. If your office is on any social media site, that’s mentioned here as well.

_____Your Web site address is displayed on every publication you create.

_____ The  front page of the Web site includes basic information students need to complete a college application, including the school’s name, address, phone, fax, and CEEB number.  It also displays the names of all counselors, their direct dial numbers, and e-mail addresses, and how student and parents can register for text reminders from your office (if you offer that service).

_____ If students are allowed to order transcripts online, this process is outlined on the Web site.  Directions are also included for how alumni can request transcripts.

_____ There is a clearly marked section for Colleges that includes an electronic copy of your school profile (which includes your Web site address), as well as a link to your entire course catalog.

_____ There is a link on the front page to your current college counseling bulletin, and an area where all past bulletins are archived.

Your schedule

_____ A copy of your schedule is posted outside your office door.  This includes information on your regular availability; your availability for the current week, and information on how students and parents should reach you on nights and weekends. (“E-mail me” is more than fine.)

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

You Should Know About #hscc2015

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

There is a movement afoot to help out public school counselors in a very important way. Here's how it's worked, so far:

When it comes to helping students apply to college, there's nothing like the annual conference of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. About 6,000 college representatives, school counselors, and other professionals involved in college access meet to get caught up on current trends and issues, consider where the college application process is heading, and talk about the students that are applying to college.

NACAC is a great experience for every counselor who can attend, but the cost isn't always within reach of most school counselors -- especially public school counselors. A conference this big has to be held in a big city, and that can be pricey. NACAC moves the conference around the country, so it's easier to get to when it comes closer to a counselor's school -- but three nights in a hotel and the conference fee are still sometimes out of reach, even after NACAC offers significant scholarships to public school counselors who couldn't otherwise attend.

Enter David Quinn, an educator from Washington who has paid his own way to more than one NACAC conference. David decided more public school counselors needed to attend NACAC, not only to learn from those in attendance, but to help conference attendees hear more about the challenges public school students (and counselors) face when it comes to college.

Bates College in Maine accepted the challenge, and has agreed to pay all expenses for a public school counselor to attend the 2015 NACAC conference in San Diego. Bates then challenged Pitzer College to do the same; Pitzer said yes, and then threw the challenge down to Brandeis. The challenge is now shuttling across the country, with some colleges offering to pay for two counselors;  recently, a private high school (Harvard Westlake) has taken up the challenge, and is also paying for a public school counselor to attend NACAC.

No one has sent the challenge to me, but I know a good thing when I see it. I don't do independent counseling any more, but I do have some royalties saved up from the last book I wrote -- and I can't think of a better way to promote better college planning than to bring a public school counselor to NACAC 15.

I'm proud to be the first author of a college guide to accept the High School Counselor Challenge, and I now challenge every other college guide author, independent counselor, motivational speaker, college essay writing coach/tutor/guide, test prep organization, summer counselor institute, and -- what the heck -- Julia Roberts to take up the challenge as well. None of us make a fortune off of what we do with our books and services (well, Julia does OK), but none of us have to figure out how to help 900 kids get to college with no resources, either. It's time for some perspective.

There's more to figure out here -- like how to pick the counselor, when to introduce them to NACAC so that the conference doesn't overwhelm them, and what might happen after the conference -- but there's time for that. Two dozen colleges know that in order for good college counseling to occur for everyone, the college conversation has to include everyone -- which means my fellow college guide authors and suppliers of college application support have some catching up to do.

I'm in for #hscc2015. Who's next?