Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A Good and Bad Spring for Diversity on Campus

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

It’s been an interesting and rocky spring for college diversity.  Efforts to improve diversity through college admissions received an unexpected boost this week, when the US Supreme Court affirmed the right of the University of Texas to use race as a factor in some of its undergraduate admissions decisions.  Since the Supreme Court had already heard this case before, this second hearing hinged on a pivotal question:  was the way Texas used race designed to affect as few people as possible?
The answer came from the unlikely voice of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has never voted in favor of an affirmative action case in college admissions in his long career on the bench.  Given this surprise ruling came as the result of a vote of support from an unlikely source, it’s easy to understand why champions of diversity are thrilled, in fact downright giddy, over this week’s decision.

The Fisher decision certainly gives new life to affirmative action, but Justice Kennedy’s opinion also included some warnings that too many analysts are overlooking.  After granting the University of Texas the right to continue their admissions program, Justice Kennedy went on to advise the university to “use… data to scrutinize the fairness of its admissions program; to assess whether changing demographics have undermined the need for a race-conscious policy; and to identify the effects, both positive and negative, of the affirmative-action measures it deems necessary.” Combined with other comments in the opinion that were thoughtfully picked up by the Chronicle’s Andy Thomason, the overall effect of Justice Kennedy’s opinion is less a genuine embrace of affirmative action, and more an acknowledgement that affirmative action serves an important, but what the Court hopes will be a short-lived, purpose. It is safe to say Justice Kennedy had a change of vote.  Given his past concerns about affirmative action, and the halting tones of support in his opinion in Fisher, it is unclear that he has had a change of heart. 

Beyond the actions of our legal system, several articles published this spring suggest diversity of opinion is having a tough time on college campuses.  From articles about trigger warnings on campus (notices about class content that some may deem controversial) to job actions taken against professors who try to present all sides of an issue in classroom debates, authors across the political spectrum are concerned that more and more students want to hear less and less about opinions that disagree even modestly from their own.  Whether it’s the result of coddling or simple lack of exposure to dissenting opinions in the past, student backlash to the presentation of ideas that cause them to question their core values seems to be at an all-time high, as is the expectation that it is the job of the college administration to shield students from opinions the students might find offensive.

No one can say with any true authority how the Founding Fathers would view affirmative action, but it is clear from their writings and their conduct that the discussion of difficult subjects and the willingness to find common ground are cornerstones of the founding and successes of our country and our society.  As the Supreme Court tries valiantly to grapple with key elements of college access, those with access to a college education seem less and less interested in using those opportunities to engage in genuine discourse.  The poor role models of Congress and Jerry Springer may have led them to take this posture, but it is one that is contrary to the purpose of higher learning, and to the betterment of our world.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

You’re Worried About the Changes in College Admission. Your Students Aren’t, and Don’t Need to Be

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It’s easy to understand why some school counselors are nervous about next year.  SAT changes, a new multi-school college application, and major changes in financial aid deadlines are more than enough to concern those of us who have been involved in the college application process for a long time.

But here’s the thing.  Next year’s seniors haven’t been involved in the college application process for a long time.  They are bringing new eyes and new energy to a process that has exactly one purpose:  help them build what’s next in their life.  It may mean more than that to you, but that’s all it means to them, and that’s all it should ever mean to them.  That’s why they don’t really care about all the changes – and that’s why our task is to make sure they never do.

I know, I know.  “But there will system glitches with the new SAT and the new FAFSA deadline.”

Maybe.  But in case you missed it, this wasn’t exactly the smoothest year for standardized testing, even before the new SAT rolled out.  Colleges didn’t get test scores from both ACT and College Board until well after many application deadlines.  That wasn’t because anything was new; it just happened, we told the students, and they went back to English class.  Once it showed up, we dealt with it and moved on, minimizing student stress.  That goal is the same for this year.

“But kids need to know what their score on the new SAT means to colleges.”

Yes they do.  Just like last year’s students needed to know what their score on the old SAT meant to colleges.  They asked; the colleges told them, and the student had their answer.  This year shouldn’t be any different.

“But the new FAFSA deadline will really change things for students.”

Not really.  It will give this year’s students different opportunities and responsibilities, but this year’s class doesn’t have that knowledge—so they don’t have to change anything.  We have to change what we say to this year’s students, but it doesn’t change their existing mind set.  It’s all new to them.


OK.  Perhaps we should just talk about the real issue.  You aren’t worried about what the changes are going to do to your students, who don’t know the history of college admissions.  You’re worried about what the changes are going to do to you.  Interpreting the new SAT.  Helping students apply for college and financial aid at the same time.  Hoping the Coalition application allows you to send a transcript, and that it gets there.  All perfectly understandable.  All perfectly reasonable.

All having nothing to do with your students.

It makes perfect sense that you’re nervous about all of this, because it changes the way you do your work, and that means your programs, newsletters, and calendar all need to be updated, and may not be perfect this year.  It’s your first time doing things this way—just like it’s the first time your students are applying to college.  That means you’re in this together.

Use this to your advantage.  Combine your wisdom with your students’ sense of wonder and endless possibility, and see where it takes you.  It will be new, it may be unpredictable, and it may take you somewhere you least expect—but you will experience all of this together, with the student’s best interests as the ultimate and only goal.

In a time where college admissions seems more and more like a pricey game, what more could you possibly want than a chance to start fresh?

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

College Access and Your Principal: An Essential Partnership

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

The Internet is already full of the pictures that hold a special place in the hearts of school counselors.  Dressed in cap and gown and beaming ear to ear, an incredibly delighted high school graduate is standing next to an equally delighted, somewhat older, and often slightly slouching adult.  Off to college, perhaps with a counselor-discovered scholarship in hand, the caption under the picture reads “Thank to my counselor Mrs. Smith, I’m doing something I never thought I would do—go to college.”

It does our hearts and our stress levels a world of good to see a counselor’s hard work pay off for a student with college dreams.  As we think about professional goals for next year, we can’t help but wonder what we can do to help more students realize that dream, if that’s what they want to do.

That’s where your building principal comes in.  Long recognized as an essential element of a successful school counseling program, strong counselor-principal bonds are a must in order to create the college-going atmosphere that gives all students the chance to consider college as a viable postsecondary choice, understand what it takes to be ready to make the most of college, and walk the sometimes winding path of applying to college and finding the resources to pay for it.  When it comes to setting college goals for next year, here are three reasons why you need to start with the principal-counselor relationship:

College Access Isn’t A Program; It’s an Atmosphere  There are some programs counselors can run without anyone else’s assistance, but creating a college-going atmosphere simply isn’t one of them. We may be the masters of college awareness, but students knowing which college they like best means nothing if they don’t have the skills and attitude necessary to make the most of the college experience.  That’s largely built in the classroom, through extracurricular activities, and in conversations about learning that need to go on outside the counseling office in order for students to truly be college ready.

It’s important for counselors to have strong relationships directly with teachers, but when it comes to integrating college readiness into every assignment, building time in the annual schedule for events like College Application Week, and sending the right message about the role of college to parents, principals can move the college access needle as no one else can.

Your Principal is Your Boss  It’s also important to remember that principals control the one commodity counselors never have enough of—time.  From assigning tasks like schedule changes and test administration to creating policies for when colleges can visit your students, principals play a significant role in deciding what gets done in the college curriculum, when it gets done, and what doesn’t get done.  Any college program that requires more counseling time, or more building resources, ultimately happens only with your principal’s OK—and it will only get done successfully with their enthusiastic OK.  Give your administrators take a personalized tour of your college counseling curriculum.

Your Principal is Well Connected  A growing body of research shows that an effective college-going culture is best created in the community, not just in the school.  Since the principal is seen as the face of the school in the larger community, it’s essential counselors make the most of the relationships principals have with business leaders, the local media, faith leaders in the community, and heads of area government.  A world of partnerships, internships, job shadowing, professional connections, and program resources await the counselor who builds strong bonds with caring community members, and that relationship begins through the principal’s office.