Wednesday, December 20, 2017

2017: The Year in Review

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Ten interesting things happen in every school counselor’s office before 9AM, so it’s hard identifying the most interesting ten to happen in the profession all year—but here’s my attempt:

10 Department of ED Appoints First School Counselor Ambassador The ten-year Ambassador program let its first counselor into its ranks this year. While it happens to be me, the larger point is that counselors now have a voice closer to policy making decisions in Washington—and the portal for applying for next year is already open.

Counselor Professional Development Takes a Turn It’s only one state, but Michigan’s new law requiring counselors to get regular updates on college and career counselingis the first in the nation, and is getting the attention of other states already.

Higher Ed Reauthorization The House has decided to take the routine task of renewing higher ed funding to a new level this year, proposing major changes to student aid and other programs. Will they survive the bill making process?

FAFSA Verification Up Chronicle Reporter Eric Hoover had a banner year, writing stellar pieces on the challenges of helping low-income students apply to college. His piece on the challenges low-income students face of verifying FAFSA claims gives everyone much to consider.

FAFSA on an App Come Spring Some counselors think students can’t apply for financial aid on a phone. Come spring, students will have the chance to prove them wrong, and do so.

Testing Companies Increase Free Test Reporting Largely in response to the self-reporting test score movement, College Board and ACT announced late-year changes to policies, where students who take the test for free can send score reports for free.

Colleges Increase Self-Reporting Grades High school transcripts usually don’t cost anything to send, but this change means a simpler application process that puts the focus back on the student.

Student Mental Health Issues on the Rise Two long-standing student issues caught the media’s attention this year, including a focus on student stress that had to do with something more than applying to college. Everything from student discipline to classroom management is up for grabs, as students and families look for calm.

Policy Makers Discover Opiate Crisis Counselors have also known for years about the devastating effect opiates have on students, schools, and communities. This monster is now on the radar of state and federal policymakers; look for lawsuits, block grants, and more in 2018.

1 Colleges Increase Self-Reporting Test Scores Places like the UC system have done this for years, but more colleges jumped on the idea that all students can report their own test scores for free, then pay for one official set to be sent once they matriculate somewhere. This increases access, decreases cost, and puts the student in the driver’s seat of more of their application process. That’s a triple win.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The More Things Change

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

High school counselling offices are busy with the sounds of college this week.  PSAT results are being returned, leading juniors to wonder about the next steps in their exploration of college.  Meanwhile, seniors are starting to hear back from their colleges, especially the students applying through Early Action or Early Decision plans, where students organized enough to apply sooner, hear back from colleges sooner.

The busyness of this week seems to be as old as college itself, but even as this annual ritual plays itself out to a new audience, cracks in this traditional system are rising to the surface.  A detailed piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education spelled out the challenges faced by students whose applications for financial aid are flagged for verification by the US government.  On the one hand, most of these applications include unusual situations that often need to be investigated, to make sure they accurately represent the student’s need.  On the other hand, it should be no surprise that a vast majority of these students come from low-income backgrounds, and they aren’t used to having outside parties ask about their finances.  Combined with the second- , third-, and fourth-requests that are often part of the verification process, it’s no wonder many students flagged for review decide the process—and therefore college--  isn’t worth it.

Verification is just one of many parts of the college application process that’s been brought up for scrutiny and review this year.  Colleges using ACT or SAT test scores have generally asked students to submit official copies of the results—copies students typically have to pay for.  Dozens of colleges have changed that policy this fall, giving students the option of self-reporting their scores.  Many have put this policy into effect immediately, saving students hundreds of dollars, while costing testing companies thousands, if not millions, of dollars.  Combined with colleges who are allowing students to self-report their grades, the process of applying to college is becoming more of the work of the student, and less the task of coordinating the work of others.

Early Action and Early Decision programs are also under review, as many colleges admit as high as half of their students through an early program.  While data is lacking, there is a clear impression that more of the students applying to early programs come from high schools with more counseling services—schools that tend to be in higher income communities.  Low-income students who do apply early often run the risk of having to accept the financial aid offer of the Early Decision school that admits them without having the opportunity to compare offers from other college.  If they decide to compare the offers of several schools by waiting to apply Regular Decision, they run the risk of applying in a larger applicant pool, decreasing their chances of admission.

These challenges make it clear that changes in the college selection process could create new opportunities for students—but not everyone is in agreement about what those changes should be.  Advocates for test optional schools insist that reform lies in less testing, while accountability advocates insist the only way to track academic success is through more testing.  Suggestions that some students should defer college for a brief stint in the world of work—an experience that could increase their understanding of the value of college—are rebuffed by those who insist that students won’t go back to being students, once they know the feeling of having a regular paycheck.

Meanwhile, thousands of students are waiting to hear from colleges with news that could change their lives—proof that not all change is bad.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Triple Threat of Being a Counselor Next Week

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

There’s never really any down time in the life of a school counselor, but it could be argued that the last couple of weeks have been relatively low key. There are a few college applications to complete, and the march of helping students complete financial aid forms will go on until at least March, but all in all, the post-Thanksgiving weeks have been pretty mild.

That’s about to change next week, as high school counselors must face the Triple Threat of December. While not quite as dizzying a pace as the first week of school, next week will be mighty close, as we wrestle with three important tasks that require different approaches. Ready?

PSAT scores are released to students next week, and this is always a logistical nightmare. College Board has tried to soften the blow, giving counselors access to the scores a week before the students—but no matter how the results are delivered, the task of trying to explain what these scores mean to most, if not all, of your students can make for a very busy week.

In developing your plan of attack, think about creating different approaches based on something other than the scores of the students. Sorting students into groups based on test results may be a natural or intuitive approach, but you risk giving bad advice to at least some students in every group if you’re assuming they’re scores tell you something about their post secondary plans. This is especially true for the students scoring in the 150-180 range. Some of these students may be terrified that these scores won’t get them into the college of their choice, while others couldn’t care less about these scores, since they plan on going to trades school anyway.

A better approach is to ask students to self-sort based on their plans for life after high school. The presentation to four-year college-bound students can focus on how to use the scores to prepare for the SAT, while the conversation to the non-college bound can emphasize what the scores say about their general skill levels, and what they might want to do if they want to keep the college option open. It’s important to add this last bit; the number of students who would be willing to look at a four-year college is bigger than you think—all they’re waiting for is someone to give them permission to hope.

Early decisions from colleges are also due out starting next week, where seniors hear back from the schools they are usually most interested in. The word is that the number of early applications is up this fall, meaning the number of students who will be denied and deferred will also be up.

It is never easy having a conversation with a student who had hoped a college would say Yes. This advice can set the table for before the students hear back, and even though this advice is aimed at March, the ideas are still helpful now.

Vacation stress may seem like a bit of an oxymoron, but there are always those students who aren’t looking forward to time off from school. Part of this may be a love of school, while part of it might be a dread of the lack of structure, or the people they have to spend vacation with. Either way, that last school bell can be a sound of dread to many students.

APA and others have produced a long line of materials aimed at helping students manage holiday stress. Take a look at these plans now, and build them into your schedule.