Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Five Trends to Watch in the Year to Come

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

It’s the annual December toss-up- do you write about the year in review, or do you write about the year to come?  A little advanced planning would allow me to do both, but the life of a school counselor means planning ahead is a luxury.  Let’s just look ahead, shall we?

The Harvard Case Comes to Its First Resolution  The first few months of 2019 will undoubtedly bring a decision in the Harvard Admissions case, where plaintiffs claimed Harvard had shown bias against Asian Americans.  This case will likely be appealed to the US Supreme Court, but the initial decision itself could be more than enough to lead colleges to alter the tools they use in reviewing applicants.  Most likely up for consideration is the use of standardized testing, where assigning a number to a student’s ability is one of the easiest ways to create a comparison among students, even if the basis of the comparison is faulty. Advocates of test optional admissions see a ruling for the plaintiffs as one more nail in the coffin of standardized testing, and a rise in the use of the more amorphous holistic review.

Other College Testing Likely to Change  A large number of colleges stopped requiring students to submit the writing portion of either the SAT or ACT in 2018, leaving the number of school requiring the test at around a dozen.  Since nine of those schools are the UC colleges, keep an eye on what, if anything UC does with their policy.  Combined with the ever-shrinking number of colleges requiring Subject Tests, 2019 could see a major shift in the role testing plays, and in the development of home-grown alternatives for those who will want to see expertise in specific areas (we’re looking at you, engineering schools.)

Self-Reporting Scores and July Application Windows  Colleges allowing students greater control of their own application (and the chance to save some serious money) are letting students report their own grades and test scores, requiring verification as a condition of enrollment.  This welcome news makes it easier for students to apply, but when paired with the new trend of colleges offering incentives for students to apply as early as July 15 of their junior-senior summer, there could be an increase in incentives for students to complete their college plans before senior year even starts.  This change would throw a real wrench into the logistics and staffing of most counseling offices, and has led some counselors to wonder if early has finally become too early.  Keep a close eye on this.

The Reality of Free College  Colleges and policy makers continue to look for ways to make the financing and paying of college more manageable and palatable for students and families.  Of these options, the Free College movement is likely to gain some traction, thanks to the rise of several progressive candidates in Congress.  A balanced evaluation of current efforts will include an assessment of who really pays for free college, and if it advantages those who aren’t already advantaged by the current system.  Early findings in both these areas are murky; bringing the issue to light can only help all involved.

Liberal Arts Colleges Limping Along?  A few well-placed college counselors are hearing about colleges who are experiencing the pain of discounting themselves into near bankruptcy.  Unlike past predictions that the “college bubble will burst”, this reality is expected to affect small liberal arts colleges only, and over a number of years.  Continuing declines in some high school graduation rates might only exacerbate the problem, as colleges may have to spend more to get the attention of fewer students.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Reflections on a College Tour

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

I had a first in my college counseling career last week when I went on an organized multi-college tour.  When you’re the only person in your office—as I was for so long—getting away to see colleges is, at best, a one day commitment, so the idea of taking an entire week away from the office to see nine college campuses was new to me.  It also left me wondering if I could follow the advice I offer my students—to write down your impressions the minute the tour is over, so you don’t confuse the qualities of one campus with the features of another.

It turns out I didn’t have too much to worry about in that department.  This tour has been going on for ages, and those in charge leave no detail to chance.  We were greeted with an itinerary that would have made any logistics expert shed a tear of joy, including a booklet that included a summary of the essential statistics and vital qualities of each school.  I was free to add my own notes in the ample notes section in the back, but even if I didn’t, there was no way I was going home with nine schools jumbled in my head.

Overall, the experience taught or reminded me of three things about this profession, all lessons that were timely.

College admissions folks are pretty amazing.  A tour of this magnitude requires the organizers to pay attention to things that ostensibly have little to do with helping students choose a college—where do we park the bus, is the mascot going to be available for pictures with the counselors, what events do we hold for the tour group at night.  Each college managed these details flawlessly, and when an all-day rain soaked the tour To. The. Bone., the host school welcomed us to an hour lecture, replete with space heaters to dry our shoes, and a fresh pair of dry socks, adorning the school mascot no less.

This is going on during the busiest time of the year for these college admissions offices.  All nine schools offer some kind of early admission deadline, requiring admissions officers to give up most nights and weekends to reach decisions on each applicant—and that’s under normal circumstances.  Throw in an organized tour of 35 or so school counselors who have never seen your campus before, and the time management challenge can go from interesting to mind altering.  Not with this group of hosts, which was gracious and warm from start to finish.  If there isn’t a special level of heaven for these folks, someone should start building it now.

College students are nothing short of inspiring.  Every college visit included a tour of the campus led by a current student, as well as a panel of student speakers talking about life at the college.  Most of these students are paid by the college for their work, so it would be easy to view these events in a mercenary way, much like asking the waiter if the soup is good.  Really, what are you expecting them to say?

All the satires of college tours underestimate the x factor—the genuineness of the students running them. Each of the nine colleges was getting ready for final exams, but each tour included no less than a dozen students who were telling us their stories, not the company line.  The student studying math and science who will soon be doing currency analysis for Godman Sachs.  The many students planning on bringing their social justice interests to light in years of service.  The former Marine who will graduate a highly selective college at age 39, who basically had to talk the college into accepting a transfer student.  They all had other things to do—including the tour guide who was presenting his graduation thesis as soon as he was done giving the tour—but they also had a story, and a desire to share it.  There’s no way I’m mixing up those stories, so there’s no way I’m mixing up those colleges.

We do pretty great work.  Part of being a good tour participant is looking past the presentations- which offer summaries of the school—to understand the pulse of the place itself.  That wasn’t hard to do in this case.  The nine schools we toured were distinct in mission and tone, but they all had one thing in common—their students were thrilled to be there, and said they wouldn’t be happy anywhere else.  From interactions at the bookstore to remarks made in classrooms, it was clear the students at those schools got up every morning with no intention of leaving anything on the table.  So much for the “it doesn’t matter where you go to college” argument.

A lot of that has to do with us.  It’s easy to let the media convince the world that college admissions is a cutthroat endeavor, that there are only six great colleges in the world for everyone, and that no one can possibly hope to finish a college degree on time, unless of course they then go straight off to debtor’s prison.

Nine colleges and five days letter, I’m reminded how little is understood about the college search—and how much we do to shed light on it.  Our caseloads aren’t always optimal, the “other duties as assigned” are nothing short of maddening, and there is never enough time or resources to serve every deserving student.  Stepping away from the office to see the After effect of our work—including a reunion with one of my former students, who works at a college admissions office—I’m remined of how much good we are doing in this world, making a big process personal to so many, even as there is more good to do. We have much to be proud of, and much to be grateful for.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Of Course It Matters Where You Go to College

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

There’s an article making the rounds on social media, claiming it doesn’t really matter where you go to college, as long as you apply yourself and make the most of the opportunities available at wherever you end up going.  Given the timing of the piece, it’s safe to say the article is designed to cushion the blow when the first round of application decisions start coming out next week.  I imagine the intent is to offer support to students when a college tells them No, or worse yet, Maybe.

That intent is very important, but it is also a little misguided.  Students certainly need to understand there are probably several colleges that offer what they’re looking for in terms of size, location, cost, atmosphere, major, and more.  In developing this list of qualities, the student may come across one school they see as Perfect, where an offer of admission will be seen as making the sacrifices of high school more than worth it, and a No will lead to the conclusion that all of that hard work and learning just wasn’t worth it. That can be dangerous, no matter what decision the college makes, so a conversation about Perfect schools is important, to be sure, and should be had throughout the counseling process.

That’s very different from telling a student “Pick anywhere, and you’ll be fine.”  A student interested in Criminal Justice isn’t going to get excited about a school that doesn’t offer that major, no matter how likely they are to change their major once they start college.  The same is true for a student who is looking for a college rich with school spirit who ends up at a commuter campus.  The classes may be the same as at the more spirited school down the street, but for that student, the college experience won’t be.  And students who end up at a school that calls for more financial resources than their budget can allow?  They will never spend a day in class without worrying how they’re going to pay all of this off.  That isn’t college; that is a state of perpetual anxiety.

Before labeling this concern as a defense of a generation of unresilient snowflakes, think about the process most counselors use when helping students pare down the list of colleges they should consider.  Effective college counselors ask students strong open-ended questions that limit the range of possible schools.  “What are you looking for in your next school?,” “Do you know what you’d like to study?,” and “Does the location of the school matter to you?” are all designed to get a student to think about the aspects of college that will offer the right mix of opportunity, challenge, and support for them.  What does it say to a student who has embraced online college research, college fairs, and campus visits in search of the right colleges—things you encouraged them to do-- when you now tell them, in essence, hey, just kidding?

For most students, college is the first time in their lives they have some say about  where they go to school, or at least want to go to school.  A well-developed college list reflects the student’s best understanding of who they are, what matters to them, and how they see the world.  Telling them now they’ll be fine no matter what college they go to disrespects their aspirations, their understanding of self, and their investment in the college search.  The college selection process started with the student’s vision of what success looks like. It’s best to use that as a guide until the process ends. 

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Making the FAFSA More User Friendly

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

It’s always exciting when a solution to a long-standing problem not only works, but is pretty simple to implement.  That’s the impressive promise Colleen Campbell offers in a paper that suggests an easy cure to the sometimes-complicated issue of applying for financial aid.

Most efforts to simplify financial aid have focused on the length of the FAFSA—either there are too many questions, or it’s too hard to find the required information.  Campbell’s research takes a different approach, and asks, why does a student have to complete a new FAFSA every year, especially if their financial information doesn’t change that much? Merely asking a student to submit the same information again can take its toll, reminding some low-income students of the high price of college, and leading others to forget about reapplying, causing them to lose their aid all together.

Anonymous financial aid data was collected by The Center for American Progress for about a quarter of a million students.  The results showed that about 70 percent of all students likely to be eligible for a Pell grant (the most popular Federal government financial aid program) had a change of income totaling less than $500—and that didn’t affect their eligibility. 

While the report suggests this is reason enough to consider going to a one-time FAFSA for all students, others aren’t so sure.  It’s easy to see how low-income students would benefit fairly from filing the FAFSA once, but what about students whose financial circumstances change a great deal?  In addition, since Pell Grant eligibility also depends on how many dependents a family has in college, wouldn’t all Pell recipients have to fill out a new FAFSA when brothers or sisters start going to college—or stop?
This leads to another idea that’s long been floated around—the renewable FAFSA, where students don’t have to complete an entire FAFSA every year, but simply update the information they’ve already provided.  This would make FAFSA completion much easier—to the point where students could complete the updating process when filling out other registration information when they enroll for classes.

Both of these solutions are reminiscent of a recent effort for FAFSA reform that made completing the form a matter of answering two questions. Studies from a few years back claimed that most students, regardless of income level, would receive the same level of aid they currently receive if they answered two questions:  How many people live in your household, and what is the household’s combined income? One study went so far as to claim that 95 percent of all students would qualify for the same level of aid (including no aid) if the FAFSA consisted of just these two questions.

These three very promising efforts at FAFSA reform deserve further consideration, while also reminding us of the very glacial pace of policy change. Combined, these studies question key assumptions of the current FAFSA process, including its necessity for detail, and for refiling annually.  These kind of bedrock changes never go over well with those charged with implementing policy.  While they’re willing to admit the current system is less than perfect, they’re also hesitant to risk what they have to make changes that could lead to something even less perfect than the status quo.

The Department of Education will likely wait and see what effect recent FAFSA changes have on aid eligibility—specifically, the use of income information from two years ago, and the implementation of the FAFSA app for smart phones.  While we wait to see what role those play, additional research in this more radical options would be a wise investment.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The College Applicant’s Guide to Surviving the Holidays

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Completing college applications can be hard work, work that often runs through the holiday season. Since everyone else is taking some time off, this would seem to be the perfect opportunity to hang out with your family, especially since this could be your last Thanksgiving/New Year/Kwanzmasakah as a full-time occupant of your parents’ home. How could this possibly be a bad idea?

“My friend,” says you, “you clearly don’t know my parents, or my Uncle Bob.”

And yet, I actually do. Here are the three keys to thriving (not just surviving) this holiday season:

Treat Uncle Bob Like You, and He, Are Adults If you’re smart enough to go to college, you’re smart enough to sort out how Uncle Bob operates — and that’s the key to success. Once he’s through updating you on his thriving business and gloating about the political party of his choice, he’s going to put a large piece of turkey on his fork and ask, “So, how’s the college hunt going?”

You’re now thinking this is the end. You haven’t heard from the college that was supposed to decide in October, and your other colleges are small schools Uncle Bob hasn’t heard of — heck, you hadn’t even heard of them until last year.

And this, my friend, makes for a wonderful foundation for your response.

“Well, Uncle Bob, I applied to Eastnorthern State U, and thought of you when I answered the essays, since you’ve told me how much you love the school. I guess everybody’s uncle feels that way, because the college is weeks behind in admissions decisions, but I should hear by Super Bowl.

“I know Mom has told you about my other schools, where some of the students major in the History of Haiku and take classes like Fruit Leather in a Modern Society. I won’t hear from them until spring, but if I decide to attend one of them, I’ll be sure to bring a flare gun with me to campus, in case they try to force feed me with tofu.”

At this point, Uncle Bob will look at you, chuckle a little, and then go back to talking about the glory, or evils, of Ronald Wilson Reagan.

Welcome to adulthood.

Your Applications and Black Saturday The next holiday hurdle is the Saturday after Thanksgiving (or Christmas, or...) when even the adults are ready for a break from each other. This is typically the time when your parents — who love you — will say, “Honey, Uncle Bob is going out to lunch with us. Don’t you think this would be a good time to work on your college essays?”

This requires preparation. Put together a spreadsheet ahead of time with the name of every college you’re applying to, the date each application is due and the date you will work on that application. Print out a copy and keep it in your back pocket, saving it for this moment, when you open it with a modest flourish, hand it to your parents, and say, “I’ve got it covered. Have a great lunch.”

And as you put your earphones back on to fall under the spell of Lady Gaga, you will see your parents weep with amazement and joy. Their widdle baby is all growed up.

Remember the Reason for the Season You have parents who love you, an Uncle Bob who is the lovable kind of crazy, and a world of possibilities awaiting you in college. If ever there was a time for gratitude, it is now.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Before You Yell at Your School Counselor

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

You’ve worked so hard to schedule, prepare, and nudge your high school senior to apply to college on time. You shared that small thrill when they hit Submit with time to spare, and you thought you were all set.

Until they got the e-mail.

“Our records indicate your application is incomplete. Unless we receive a copy of your high school transcript in the next five days, we will be unable to process your application.”

At this point, you’ve decided this is personal, so even though it’s 7 at night, you pick up the phone and leave The Mother of All Voice Mails for your school counselor.

Boy, did you just blow it. Here’s why:

Your entire reaction is based on a wrong assumption. The college hasn’t said “Forget it”; they’ve said, “We need something.” You can help them get what they need. Was that voice mail helping the college? Was it helping your child?

The college likely has the information. Even with advanced technology, admissions offices get backed up—so the transcript might not be in your child’s file, but it is in the college’s application system somewhere. That means your high school counselor—the one you just called incompetent—sent the transcript, and in a timely fashion.

If the college already has one copy of your transcript, they don’t want another one. If the transcript is already in the college’s system, they really don’t want a second copy, since that would just increase their backlog. The only way to double check is for someone to call the admission office, and see if the first copy has found its way to your child’s file.

You just berated the person who can help you the most. To be honest, the person who should call the college is your child (it’s their application), but it’s likely you want the school counselor to call. You know—the one you just described as incapable of doing their job.
This isn’t to say they won’t help you and give your child their full support, but if you’ve just given them a big, and very angry, piece of your mind, you’ve now put them in a spot where they need to start keeping a paper trail of your, um, complaint. That takes time; so does recovering from being told by someone who last applied to college 20 years ago that you don’t know what you’re doing. You want the problem resolved now, but you’ve just prevented that from happening. Is that really a good idea?

You’ve just left an impression you can’t erase. Let’s say the transcript is already there, or that a second one is sent, making your child’s file complete. The college is now considering your child carefully, but they’d like a little more information about them. How does your child react to setbacks? How well do they speak up for themselves? Do they demonstrate flexibility?

The person the college will be talking to is—you guessed it—the school counselor, who is now only able to extol the virtues of your child’s ability to hand their problems over to Mommy and Daddy to solve, simply because that’s what the counselor has experienced. This isn’t about a grudge; this is about their experience.

It’s easy to freak out about the college admissions process, but just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should. That’s even more true when challenges arise, and your child looks to you to set the model for handling adversity they should take with them to college. This assumes the college still wants them. Part of that is up to you.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

The School Counselor’s Role Next Tuesday

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It is a crazy busy time for school counselors.  At the high school level alone, counselors are busy trying to make November 1 college application deadlines, and are on the verge of dealing with the end of a marking period.  This is also the time of year most students start to notice that Thanksgiving—and the first sustained school vacation—is just around the corner.  Throw in the end of Daylight Saving this weekend, and it’s just hard to get students to focus on much of anything right now.

I’m asking you to try very hard to do just that next Tuesday, when the democratic process calls on all of its beneficiaries to engage in the modest, but important, task of voting.  Thousands of schools are polling places, and it’s hard to understand why more educators don’t take advantage of this real-life learning opportunity.

That’s where we come in.  Connections with the larger community is an integral part of social-emotional growth, something counselors do best. With a little forethought, and some quick team building, Tuesday’s activity can help students make strong connections between the power of voting, and the opportunity it brings to shape our country.

How can counselors advance the cause of raising engaged citizens?

  • Talk to school administrators about their plans for Tuesday. It’s likely a few teachers (probably the Social Studies team) have already been doing some preparation for election day in their classrooms, so now is a good time to find out what they’re doing, and see how you can support their efforts.
  • This is also a good time to talk with your leadership about their security plans for Tuesday.  This is one of the rare days when  students have to share the building with the public, and that interaction can be rich with educational opportunities, as long as it’s   safe.  Understanding how students and the public can, or could, interact that day is key to building future plans.
  • Once that’s done, it’s time to get the larger faculty involved. There will be ample opportunities for teachers and students to get updates on the election from social media and cable resources.  In addition, classes can set aside time to go to the voting area and see the democratic process in action.  Sample ballots are typically posted outside the polling place, offering students a first-hand chance to see just how voting works.  Any ballot initiatives create more than enough opportunities for teachers to lead critical thinking discussions that bring in the expertise of their fields.  Offering different lenses on the task of voting gives students multiple perspectives to consider, a key element to growth in their understanding of the world around them.
  • This is also a chance for you to shine. One of the reasons people don’t vote is because they don’t want to get involved with the tensions associated with politics.  This is a perfect opportunity for counselors to talk about conflict resolution skills, and the importance of students using the right mix of empathic listening and strong self-esteem to allow others to have their say, while not letting them walk all over them.  Letting your colleagues know you’re available for classroom demonstrations of these key skills can make Election Day a lifelong lesson for students and adults alike.
Recent articles suggest the historic apathy of young voters is only getting worse, all at a time when the need for all voters to participate in the process couldn’t be greater.  Encouraging participation, and providing ways to manage the shape and tone of political dialogue, are critical elements counselors can bring to the success of the day.   

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

College Counseling is a Dying Art. We Are to Blame.

By Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

I’m on a planning committee for an annual college update program for school counselors in the Metro Detroit area.  As I was waiting to check participants in the day of the event, I looked at a page from the registration list, just to see if I knew anyone who was going to be there.  The list included the names of 25 registrants, along with their job titles. 

4 were school counselors. 21 were not.

Knowing schools hire counselors but often call them something else, I scanned the list for possible overlaps. Instead, I saw titles suggesting those holding the job are counselors, when they really aren’t. College Adviser.  College Success Coach.  Manager of Postsecondary Planning.  Well-meaning professionals, yes, all engaged in some kind of college advising.  But not school counselors, engaged in college counseling.

I caught up with one of my colleagues at the conference, who said the same thing is happening in her district.  “My district knows we don’t have time with our other duties to help kids with college during the day, so they’re training the afterschool managers to help kids apply to college. They could have hired parapros to do scheduling and testing so we could do the college advising, but they didn’t go that route.”

I’m trying to figure out just when it was decided to concede college counseling as someone else’s job. I’m not talking about college advising, where young college graduates assist students with the nuts and bolts of the application process.  I think that’s a great idea, and badly needed.  But looking at a student’s high school experience to help them choose the right atmosphere where they’ll keep learning and growing?  When was it decided that wasn’t our thing anymore?

Before you get out the usual torches and pitchforks of large caseloads and inappropriate duties, you may want to start a little closer to home.  There isn’t a lot of research on how much training school counselors get in college counseling, but what’s out there suggests the answer is not much.  A new summary of the state of counselor readiness to be effective college counselors sums up the findings nicely: “(S)chool counselors rarely receive training in college readiness counseling during their master’s program in school counseling.”

This shouldn’t surprise anyone, least of all school counselors.  Look at the titles of the 15 or so classes required to earn most school counseling degrees, and you’ll see myriad courses focused on mental health counseling and developmental psychology, but typically none that include the word “college” in them.  Some programs offer a course in career counseling that includes a unit—one class period—on college counseling, while many counselor educators insist college counseling is taught “throughout the curriculum”, scattered in here and there as an afterthought, like poppy seeds in a muffin recipe.

It’s certainly true students are bringing serious issues to school requiring the full weight of well-trained mental health professionals.  It’s also true more than a few school counseling programs would benefit from a building administrator who sees school counselors as more than just a spare pair of hands.  But somewhere in our desire to become something other than “guidance counselors”, it seems we ourselves have decided helping young people consider life after high school is too pedestrian a task to be worthy of genuine study.

That decision is killing us.  Two-thirds of respondents labeled the quality of career and college counseling in Michigan schools as “lousy” or “terrible.”  That’s us, and that’s what the public expects us to do.

When did we decide as a profession that didn’t matter?

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

How Do Colleges Know Mom Wrote the Essay? Beats Me

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Back in the days when young people used Facebook, a wild rumor burst on to the college counseling scene:

“Did you know admissions offices look at the Facebook accounts of their applicants?”

Given the number of applications a college gets, I didn’t see how this was even reasonably possible, but I thought I’d reach out to a few college colleagues and see what they said.  Most of them said something like “Are you crazy?”, or “Who has the time to do that?”, but the most interesting response I got was this one:

“If I did, do you think I’d tell you?”

I had a flashback to that moment recently, when I read a story that proports to tell parents how college admissions officers can tell if parents have written their children’s college essays. It’s fairly well known many students get significant help writing these essays, either through parents, tutors, or writing coaches. While many of these helpers know the difference between advising, editing, and doing the writing for the student, colleges say a growing number of application essays clearly are being written by someone other than the applicant.

I haven’t read the piece, other than to notice that it isn’t written by someone who works in a college admissions officer.  That’s very comforting, since the knowledge admissions officers have of the way their school reads applications is sacred, at least to me. 

I’ve been helping students get into college for a long time, and I’d like to think I can at least tell if a student has a reasonable shot at getting in to a school. But I also know what I don’t know.  I don’t know how many volleyball players the D-I champion college is looking for this year.  I don’t know if the 8 kabillion dollar capital campaign is going to lead to an increase in special case admissions this year.  I don’t know how a college chooses between a Straight A student who went to a school that offers no APs, and a Straight A student who took every one of the 10 APs her school had to offer.

And I don’t want to know.  Where some counselors think this information will help their student decide where to apply, the inside baseball that guides the admissions decisions this year won’t be the same next year.  Like the stock market, past performance is no guarantee of future earnings potential.  Or, like the rep from a DI hockey school once told me, “If we’re graduating three hockey goalies this year, and you’re a hockey goalie, your chances of getting in just went up.  On the other hand, if we just admitted three hockey goalies last year, and you’re a hockey goalie applying this year, your chances of getting admitted just went down.”

It’s the same with college essays.  Colleges value original thought, and if you’ve signed an application saying the ideas here are yours, you’re going to be toast if they aren’t. End of story.

I can support that without knowing how colleges know the essays are fakes, and I can support it even more if colleges don’t tell parents how they know.  Tipping your hand to Mommy and Daddy only makes college admissions more of a game than it already is, and that serves no one. Telling them you know is warning enough.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Where Are the Students?

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

It’s early in the college application season, but college admissions officers are reporting a trend that could have a major impact on the way they recruit students.

College admissions folks refer to fall as “travel season”, the time when they leave their cushy college offices and head for the high schools of the students they serve.  Reps will schedule presentations for individual high schools, community-based presentations in hotel ballrooms, and family-based meetings through college fairs organized by individual schools and their districts—all in the name of getting to meet the students.

This long-standing approach appears to be losing some of its luster.  School counselors are reporting record drops in the number of students who ask to attend the high school-based meetings, choosing to remain in class instead of meeting with the reps.  Similar reports are coming from college fairs, where reps are reporting light turnouts of parents and families—even when the fair is held in the evening, or on the weekend.

What seems to be the culprit behind these low numbers?  Several counselors are claiming these events are the victim of “application creep”, where seniors apply to college earlier and earlier in the school year.  10 years ago, it wasn’t unusual for many seniors to apply in February of twelfth grade year.  Now, students are rushing to complete online college applications as soon as the portals open in early August, hoping to have their applications complete before school starts, in part so they can focus their fall on doing well in school and enjoying the rites of passage that come with senior year.

This approach to time management sounds downright mature—why risk rushing through college applications and studying less when you can take your time to apply in August, and have all the time you need to ace Physics?  On the other hand, counselors question if this practice is leading to hasty college decisions.  Can seniors make thoughtful college choices without talking to college reps, and doing the one-stop comparisons a college fair has to offer them right before they get their diploma?

Other counselors are already trying to respond to this trend, and their ideas are rather ingenious.

Hold a mini college fair at lunch  Some high schools decided a long time ago to schedule all high school-based college visits at lunch, so students wouldn’t have to choose between missing class and making college plans.  College reps hate these visits, since students are generally too shy to break away from their peers and ask questions, and the lunchroom is too noisy for reps to make general information sessions.

One proposed solution is to schedule more than one college for lunch visits at the same time.  Creating a mini-fair leads to strength in numbers, making it cool for students to get up and ask their questions.  This also makes it possible to put the colleges in a separate but accessible space—say, the library—where students can come and go, and reps don’t have to worry about flying French fries.

Move high school visits to Spring.  Other counselors are toying with the idea of having the colleges come in the spring, where they visit with juniors.  This would be a better fit with the current timeline of students gathering college information sooner, but it could still pose a problem with students wanting to miss class.

It’s clear students are making college decisions sooner.  It will be interesting to see how colleges respond to this trend in ways that make sense for the developmental needs of students.  

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

News from the NACAC Conference

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

The 74th annual convention of The National Association for College Admission Counseling was held in Salt Lake City, providing counselors with announcements, discussions, and new ideas to consider when working with all of their students—those considering college, and those looking for other equally bright paths after high school.

Common App and Reach Higher Combine Many organizations use the NACAC conference as an occasion to announce major initiatives, and that was clearly the case this year, as The Common Application announced its acquisition of Reach Higher, the college access/college readiness movement initiated by former First Lady Michelle Obama.  Common Application offers students the opportunity to apply to over 800 colleges and universities with one basic college application, while Reach Higher’s message of college opportunity is primarily aimed at underserved students, including students of color, students who would be the first in their family to go to college, and students in rural and urban areas.

While no new initiatives were announced as part of the merger, the education community can look to an expanded presence of the “college is possible” message to all students. Many counselors at the conference noted that Common App and Reach Higher have a “can do” attitude in their business philosophies that is contagious.  Here’s hoping that’s true.

Harvard Lawsuit Spurs Discussion About College Admission  A great deal of discussion at the NACAC conference centered on the lawsuit filed against Harvard, claiming that the school’s admissions policies discriminate against Asian Americans. While the lawsuit was filed in 2014, it has finally cleared its last legal hurdle, and will begin in earnest in the next few weeks.

The lawsuit is of interest to school counselors for two reasons. First, it involves the use of affirmative action, and its use in discriminating against a racial minority— a remarkable claim, given that the purpose of affirmative action is to prevent such discrimination. 
Second, the case brings into question all elements used in the college admissions process of holistic review—the idea that students should be admitted to college on factors beyond grades and test scores.  Observers suggest that a finding against Harvard could advance efforts to eliminate the use of test scores in college admissions, while others suggest it may require colleges to pay more attention to grades and tests scores, even though recent studies suggest these measure can contain their own racial biases.

A Film About Counseling Debuts  NACAC was also the ideal location for a movie to debut that focus on college access.  Personal Statement follows three low-income students through the college selection process, and will soon be shown on PBS. It was well received in the initial screening at Salt Lake City, as counselors said it drew a realistic picture of the challenges low-income students face when applying to college. The director of the film was in the audience, as was one of the students featured in the film, making the conversation after the screening insightful and spirited.

NACAC Membership Changes Tabled  The NACAC conference tends to be more student-centered than NACAC-centered, but one major exception this year was a proposal for sweeping changes in the membership categories offered through NACAC.  An initial proposal was sent to all members earlier this year, and subsequent feedback led to significant changes in the proposal even prior to the conference.

The changes weren’t enough to sway those in attendance at the membership meeting, with some elements of the proposal seeing amendments to the amendments of the amendments.  With further discussion, it was determined the membership proposal needed further review.  Look for it to reappear at next year’s NACAC conference in Lousiville.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Increased Funding Could - That’s Could—Help Counselors. Here’s How.

By:  Patrick O'Connor   Ph.D

Educators across the country are breathing a sigh of relief, as Congress is almost done with
the Federal budget before heading off to get re-elected.  This is the second year the Trump administration asked Congress to cut the budget for the Department of Education (also knowns as ED), and it’s the second year the budget itself was going to eliminate several popular programs, dedicating more funds to programs focused on school choice.  For the second year in a row, Congress is on its way to denying both requests. 

If this all strikes you as good news, just wait—there’s even more.  Congress is actually on track to increase education spending, including an increase is known as Title IV funding, or Title IV A funding.  Title IV funding can be used for any resources related to Student Support and Academic Enrichment (SSAE).  That creates all kinds of funding opportunities, including technology upgrades, STEM programs, AP testing—and school counseling needs.

Yup—the Federal government is about to give you more money for counseling, including the hiring of school counselors.

The counseling community is abuzz over the prospects of what this money can do for counseling programs.  Since part of the rationale for the funding increase is the need for safe schools, it won’t be too hard to make a data-based argument that counselors make a difference in creating safe, positive school climates.

At the same time, it’s not like we’re the only ones who know this increase is coming.  Title IV funds have been around for a while, and many states have long-established ways of allocating the funds to all kinds of programs.  It’s certainly true that Title IV dollars could be used to hire more counselors, but that would require a state to spend most, if not all, of its increased funding on a single area.

That’s an uphill battle, so you’d better be armed with effective tools.  If your plan is to get more counselors in your school with Title IV funds, line your data up.  You’re going to need to show the needs students have—that’s the needs students have, not the needs counselors have—that research shows counselors can meet.  Work with your state and national counseling association to build your data base, and to find out what other schools are doing to build effective strategies.

Once you have your facts together, get some friends.  There’s a good chance you don’t know the person in your state department of education who oversees writing the grant for Title IV funding.  That’s someone to get to know.  See if you can get copies of previous grants—they’re out there—to see what other programs are likely to ask for more funding, too. Build a team of support in your school, and in your district.  Principals, superintendents, and board members are the voice of your school at the state level, and they’re going to use that voice to advocate for something.  How can you get them to advocate for you?

It’s also important to remember that Title IV funding only lasts for one year.  Safe schools are of big interest this year, but if something else matters more next year, this year’s Title IV funds could disappear.  That’s why it might be wise to take your data-rich argument to your state legislature, to see if they can find state funding for counseling positions.  Colorado did this, and within four years, the positions paid for themselves, and saved the state $300 million. If they can do it, you can too.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Testing, Testing. Testing?

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

School counselors report that their summers seem to be getting smaller and smaller.  That may be the case, but some pretty big news occurred on the standardized testing front during the few weeks counselors were off the clock.  These changes affect everything from college applications to K-12
assessment, so let's catch up:

Colleges Drop Writing Test Requirement  In addition to the traditional
multiple choice testing formats, both the ACT and SAT have offered students
the chance to receive a Writing score by staying after the other sections
are complete and putting together a writing sample based on a prompt.  The
Writing test is offered for an additional fee, and can stretch the testing
day near, if not over, the five hour mark for some students. 

Critics have long questioned if either Writing test really told the colleges
all that much-and it looks like the colleges were asking themselves that
question this summer.  That's when a remarkable number of college announced,
seemingly spontaneously, that they would no longer require the Writing test
when students apply for admission.  Some of the colleges cited the extra
cost as being burdensome on low income students, while others seemed to
acknowledge that a writing sample students have produced in about 30 minutes
doesn't reflect the process, or product, of college-level writing.

This leaves the number of colleges requiring the Writing test to about 15.
Look for them to reconsider their policies by next fall.
Subject Tests Also Falling Out of Use  A number of colleges also dropped
their use of SAT Subject Tests, the one-hour exams designed to measure what
students know about specific topics taught in school (History, Biology,
etc.) Since most colleges requiring Subject Tests also require the ACT or
the regular SAT, it's a safe bet that this reduction in testing is based in
part on the cost of the extra testing.

This also brings the number of colleges requiring Subject Tests to about 13,
with 9 of those colleges making up the University of California system.
This makes it more than likely that one meeting of the UC Board of Trustees
is all that's keeping the Subject Tests to go the way of the dodo bird, New
Coke, and campaign finance reform.

University of Chicago Breaks Away Access and opportunity were the clear
reasons The University of Chicago announced its plans this summer to become
a test optional school.  Once considered a ploy to increase applications,
test-optional schools now cite data-based evidence showing SAT or ACT scores
gave few additional insights into applicants to their schools.

Chicago's announcement is notable, since it is the most high profile college
to go test optional.  While their announcement hasn't led to similar
decisions from Ivy League or Ivy-like colleges, keep an eye out a few years
from now, if Chicago's student profile is more diverse and just as strong as
in years past. 

K-12s Going Test Optional?  Debate over the merits of test-optional college
admissions continue, but the idea seems to be spreading.  Politico reports
that the US Department of Education is offering states money to review their
statewide testing program, and come up with "more innovative exams."  While
the call for proposals suggests the goal is for states to develop new tests,
it wouldn't be unreasonable for a state to use this opportunity to develop a
research-based assessment that looks more like a portfolio than a
paper-and-pencil exercise, a common practice for test-optional colleges.