Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Is Early Decision Doomed?

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Cracks are starting to appear in one of the oldest, and most mysterious, elements of college advising.  For years, students who have found THE college they simply can’t live without have been urged to apply to that college through an Early Decision program.  Not every college offers this option, but those that do require the student, their parent, and their school counselor to sign an agreement indicating that, if the college admits the student ED, the student agrees to withdraw all of their other college applications, and they must attend that college.  If most of the college application process is like dating, Early Decision is more like marriage—say yes to me, and I’m yours.

Since many colleges take a large percentage of their students through the ED program, qualified students can usually increase their chances of admission by applying ED—assuming they’re willing to make the commitment.  It’s also true that most ED programs notify students well before spring, so admitted students can enjoy the rest of senior year with their college application process settled.

But if ED offers a few bonuses to students, it offers even more to the colleges.  Admitting a large number of students early solidifies the college’s financial aid budget early, and it increases the college’s yield (the percentage of admitted students who enroll) tremendously.  These are both key pieces of a college’s admission portfolio, which in turn solidifies everything from the college’s bond rating to their place in college rankings.

It’s long been expected that the increasing number of students applying ED might influence the way ED programs work—and based on stories from school counselors, those changes are starting to take place. More students appear to be applying ED to increase their chances of admission, but then changing their mind, and attending a different college.  Since the ED agreement involves no financial commitment from the student, there’s little to hold the student to the agreement other than their word. To be sure, colleges have frequently released students from an ED contract if the college can’t meet the student’s demonstrated financial need, but the number of students simply jilting their academically betrothed seems to be on the rise.

Two possible solutions have been suggested.  The first one changes the ED agreement to a contract, where the student agrees to attend their first choice college if admitted—and if they don’t, they must pay the college a full year’s tuition, room, and board. Since the parent must also sign the ED statement, the contract would have the full force of law, and could at least lead the parents to think twice about making a casual commitment to a serious process.

Something a little less draconian is the creation of an ED Clearinghouse, where colleges post the names of their admitted ED students for all the world to see—including other colleges.  Colleges would then check the names of their regularly admitted students to the list of students who applied ED somewhere else, and if they find a match, both colleges turn their acceptances into denials, and the student literally has nowhere to go.  This already happens among some colleges informally, with great success.

A handful of ED applicants have strong reasons to ask to be released from their commitments each year, but recent trends suggest an increase in the number of students showing a “ho hum” attitude towards their commitment.  This may not mean much to popular colleges now, but if the trend continues, Early Decision programs may be heading for a rocky time, leading to even more change in the world of college admissions.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016


By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

We’re only about a month away from the first administration of the new SAT, and it’s safe to say no other upgrade has received half the attention this one has.  Between College Board’s groundbreaking test-prep partnership with Khan Academy, and the end of students being penalized for guessing, it’s safe to say this isn’t the SAT of old.

Happily, most juniors don’t seem all that impressed by the changes in the SAT, and that makes perfect sense, since they never took the old one.  The real question on their minds is much more fundamental—should I take it?  They may not know just what all the changes are, but they know the test has changed—and if they didn’t previously know the turbulence change brings to the testing world, the fact that they don’t have a paper copy of the PSAT they took four months ago is more than enough to bring them up to speed.  Since a similar delay in SAT scores could deeply affect the timing of their college applications, they’re worried—and rightly so.

A good number of school counselors (including me) have long advised students to take both the SAT and ACT once; determine which one is the test that’s best for them, and take that test a second time.  Just like no two English teachers take the same approach when discussing The Great Gatsby, no two approaches to assessment are the same, even if they claim to cover the same content.  The best way to figure out the one you like best is to try them both out; once a student knows that, they should give their favorite test one more try.

Not every counselor follows that strategy, since tests cost money and take time to prepare for.  That’s understandable in most years—but in this year of many college changes, the time might be right to err on the side of a little extra testing.  This is especially true in states that offer the SAT for free to all juniors.  Free is great—but given the delivery challenges we’ve seen with the PSAT, and given that March SAT results aren’t scheduled to be delivered until May at the earliest, students aren’t going to have much time to plan for a June re-take under the best of circumstances.  Since many public colleges hope to have college applications in late September, now isn’t the time to rely on a Fall testing re-take.

This isn’t to say students should skip the new SAT completely.  Last fall’s PSAT and the test prep material on Khan Academy offer strong clues of what to expect—and while colleges have no experience interpreting the new SAT results, it will be hard for them to say a high score has no real value.  At the same time, there’s enough mystery surrounding the new test (and enough concern about when the results will arrive) that students will want to hedge their bets and have a spring ACT score to share with colleges.

Low income students who rightly worry about the costs of so much testing need to be supported with the fee waivers counselors have—and if we run out, there’s no better time to ask for more than this year, since both testing companies are trying to curry our favor and support. As we wade through the waters of change, students will need ample support and opportunity to show what they know.  Supporting their right to do so should be the core of all the advice we offer them, and testing is no exception. 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Changes in College Applications Become Clearer

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

It sure was nice having that dizzy feeling of being the center of attention during National School Counseling Week, especially since it was a nice change of pace from the dizzy feeling school counselors get just trying to do their jobs every day—or keeping up with the changes in their jobs.  In the college counseling arena alone, enough changes have been introduced this year to make it hard to remember what’s stayed the same, and what’s going to change, when. 

A couple of change became clearer this past week:

Addition of an August SAT test date  The news that seems to have evaded the headlines is that College Board will be offering an SAT test date starting in 2017.  School counselors have long sought a summer offering of the test, saying that students are likely to do better on the college test when they don’t have any other academic obligations.  The August date also makes it easier for students to make sure they have a set of test scores for the many colleges with early application deadlines of November 1—and given the massive number of students applying early, this can’t help but be welcome news.

This change does bring opportunities for counselors to stress caution.  First, many high schools are in session in August (especially in the South), so their time to take an out-of-school SAT is still June.  Second, this addition of the August date includes the elimination of the January test date—so if your advice to students has been to take the test in January and re-test in the spring of junior year, it’s time to look at offering new advice.  Finally, students thinking they can now skip taking college tests in spring of the junior year will want to look at the calendar.  Taking the August test means getting scores back on Labor Day, which leaves about a month to study for a re-take in October—while school is starting.  Students planning on taking the SAT twice will still want to consider taking the test in spring of junior year, allowing lots of time in the summer to prep for round two in the early fall.

Coalition App Won’t Be Naviance Ready  A colleague attending the College Board Forum in Chicago reports that the authors of the newly-minted Coalition Application have confirmed that the application will not sync up with the widely used Naviance application system for the 2016-17 school year.  Touted as a viable alternative to the widely used Common Application, the Coalition Application and its “locker” feature for storing application-related materials, counselors relying on Naviance to deliver transcripts and other documents supporting a student’s college applications will have to find another way to deliver those elements, at least for a year.

The announcement comes as counselors report an increase in student questions about the Coalition application—specifically, if the application will be supported by the student’s high school counseling office.  The absence of Naviance compatibility may help clarify whatever answer your office might reach—but whatever that answer may be, it will be important to convey that information early and often to juniors, well before they start work on their college applications this spring. 

More changes await, as Common Application accounts can now be saved in spring of the junior year, and the new October filing date of the FAFSA begins this fall.  Just how these two changes will affect college access remain to be seen, making it an exciting time to be a college access advocate. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Finish School Counseling Week with a Bang

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

There’s no doubt this National School Counseling Week has been the Best. Counseling.  Celebration. Ever.  Social media is burning up with pictures of kids handing counselors all kinds of goodies, counselors holding up signs explaining why they love their work, and more cookie cakes than the eye can behold.  It’s clear the message is out there—counselors are valued, and make a difference.

Which makes now the perfect time to go in for the kill.

It’s certainly gratifying your principal recognized you in the morning announcements, and that validation may have been enough to get you through a pretty demanding day of too many students to see and not enough time to see them.  It’s also true that the sweatshirt that was signed by every student you’ve seen this year is something you’re going to cherish for a very long time.  But given the sweat your break getting even half of your duties done, it’s unlikely you’re ever going to wear that sweatshirt, at least at the office.

These demonstrations should be valued, to be sure—but they also should be seen as opportunities to move forward.  Using the foundation of gratitude and goodwill National School Counselor Week provides, now is the time to engage in thoughtful discussions about the direction of your school’s counseling program, and what others can do to help it grow.

How do you begin that discussion?  Thoughtfully.

Keep the discussion realistic.  As much as you’d really like to, this is *not* the time to talk about high student ratios and ask for another counselor (or two, or three, or…)  The events of this past week have given a wide array of people a glimpse into everything you are trying to do, and everything you have to deal with.  Picking one or two of your most challenging issues to improve is the best way to proceed.

Start from an attitude of gratitude.  We tell our students to do this all the time, and it’s always true that the best way to teach a skill is to demonstrate it.  “Bill, thank you so much for the shout out at the all-school assembly about how hard counselors work. I’ve just come across a new approach to bullying prevention that could move the school forward.  Is there some time next week when we can talk about this?”

Consider the common agenda.  Asking for a meeting about a bullying prevention program shows interest in a goal that’s shared by counselors and administrators, and that’s the best approach to take when asking for someone’s help—they’ll be more likely to say yes once they see what’s in it for them.  Asking the PTA for funding for a parenting program, working with your athletic director on an athletic recruiting seminar, developing a college essay workshop English teachers can implement in part in the classroom—these all advance their professional goals, and yours.

Turn “no” into “not now”.  It’s likely some of your well-wishers from this week aren’t ready to commit to a more long-term sign of support for counseling.  If you don’t find easy support for one project, try a different one—it isn’t like your program can only grow in one way.  Just make sure you leave the relationship on good terms with a potential partner.  Once you succeed in other partnerships, they may come talk with you later, eager to be part of a growing program.

The reason it’s called National School Counseling Week is to call attention to the importance of your program.  What better time to build new partnerships that will help students all year ‘round.