Wednesday, January 31, 2018

National School Counseling Week: It’s OK to Celebrate Yourself

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

It’s gratifying to see that National School Counseling Week is finally gaining traction among some key groups. Thanks in large part to the support school counselors received from Michelle Obama during her time as First Lady, National School Counseling Week and the related School Counselor of the Year ceremony have an elevated place in the national consciousness, helping everyone remember the vital role school counselors play in the lives of students, families, and communities.

It’s one thing for NSCW to enjoy the national spotlight, but what about its role at the local level? While some PTAs and other parent groups have Teacher Appreciation Month on their radar, NSCW can still be an elusive event, especially since it’s celebrated so close to Valentine’s Day, which is every parent leader’s favorite holiday. I’ve talked to too many school counselors who are actually conflicted about raising awareness of NSCW. “It’s like reminding my spouse about our anniversary” one counselor said. “If I have to ask them to celebrate me, is it really genuine?”

Yes. The answer is yes.

Look—school counselors spend an incredible amount of time teaching students to self-advocate. You don’t understand the homework? Here’s how you ask the teacher. It really bothers you when your brother makes fun of you? You can talk to him in a way that will make a difference. Making sure kids grow in claiming the part of the world that’s theirs is likely the single biggest thing we do. Why aren’t we showing them by example?

One counselor told me they don’t mention NSCW because they’re afraid their principal will go overboard. “I don’t want an assembly, or a sheet cake. To be honest, a sincere thank you would really be great.”

I don’t want to burst anybody’s bubble, but as a former school administrator, I can tell you that’s what you will likely get. Principals are incredibly busy people, and that’s why they need people like secretaries—and counselors—to make sure they’re current on what they should be doing, and who they should be talking to. Principals also know that if they hire a DJ and throw a NSCW breakfast, that sets a precedent for Administrative Professionals Day, National Paraprofessional Week, and—well, you get the idea. Principals value what everyone in the building does; they just don’t have time to cook for all of them. Mention NSCW to them, and you can reasonable expect a short, personal visit, a card, and maybe a donut. That's a good day. 

So step up, in two ways. A reminder to your principal about next week is timely right now, since it gives them the weekend to make plans. In addition, join your colleagues across the country to celebrate your work. Grab a student, take a selfie, and tell the Twitter world why you love being a counselor. Throw #NSCW18 in your description, then take a look at the pictures of other school counselors. You’ll feel more supported, less isolated, and honored.

Mission accomplished. 

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

A New Approach to FAFSA Completion—Want Prom? Complete FAFSA!

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

There’s been a lot of exciting changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Thanks to some insightful planning, FAFSA can now be completed as early as October 1 of a student’s senior year in high school, and most of the financial information it asks for is already on file with the IRS, if the student’s family filed taxes in the previous year. This means students are more likely to know how much Federal aid they’ll get for college—and knowing more about your college budget can make a big difference in the college application process…

...provided, of course, the student completes the FAFSA. If they don’t fill out the form, they can’t get the information—or cash—they need for college.

This is a bigger challenge than you might think—after all, as adults, if someone wanted to give us cash just for filling out a form, we’d fill out twelve of them. But students don’t always pay attention to the cash part of college as much as they should; for some reason, they see this as Mom and Dad’s job. That means the real challenge is either to get the parents to complete the FAFSA, or to get the student to get the parents to complete the FAFSA.

This is where things get tricky. School counselors usually don’t see parents on a daily basis, so it’s harder to nudge them into action. In addition, many parents whose students would qualify for Federal aid are hesitant to complete the form, for all kinds of reasons. A program like College Application Week makes it easy enough to get a student out of class, sit them down, and help them complete an application for college. But can you do the same thing with parents and the FAFSA?

It’s time for some fresh ideas. Some offices are tying FAFSA completion workshops to parent-teacher conferences or sporting events, and those are having some effect. It’s even been suggested—but to be clear, not tried yet—that a high school could contact a local restaurant and build a FAFSA Completion Party to Happy Hour. High schools are already asking local merchants for door prizes for events held at high school (“Complete the FAFSA, Win a Big Screen TV”). Celebrating FAFSA completion by buying the next round isn’t all that much of a n additional stretch.

Another approach that’s been underserved is focusing on students. There are some key components of the high school experience no senior wants to live without. If there was a way to tie FAFSA completion to some, or any, of those events, there’s a good chance more seniors might hear the FAFSA gospel. While some of these key activities vary from school to school, what about:

  • Tying FAFSA completion to schedule changes. Want a different class? Great—have you finished your FAFSA?
  • Connecting tickets to the Fall Dance (Homecoming) or even Prom to FAFSA completion. You can say yes to the dress (or tux) as soon as we see your FAFSA receipt.
  • Permission to participate in an event outside of school. Students at my first high school were really into hunting. Imagine what would happen to FAFSA completion rates if the only way students were excused for hunting season was by finishing their financial aid forms.
There are undoubtedly other ideas out there, but you get the idea. Every high school has a “thing” that is THE event of senior year. If the ticket to that event is tied to the ticket to their college future, FAFSA completion will soar with ease.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A Report on Bottom Line—What Does It Mean for School Counselors?

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Social media has been abuzz this past month with the results of a new study on college counseling by

Andrew Barr and Benjamin Castleman. The study looks at the work of Bottom Line, an organization that offers individualized college counseling to high school students, then follows up that counseling with assistance and mentoring during the college years. Bottom Line reports that the college completion rate of their students is impressive—a whopping 80% of the last three cohorts have earned a college degree in six years or less.

The new study looks behind the curtain of Bottom Line’s success, suggesting that some of the keys to the success of the program lie in the ability of counselors to match students with colleges that will meet their individual needs, all without requiring the student to take on extraordinary debt.  Since cost and persistence have long been recognized as two key elements in earning a four-year degree, it should come as no surprise that a college counseling program that helps students keep costs low, and gives students the tools to keep going in college, will lead to greater student success.

This success is worth celebrating, and it leads to a logical question—if Bottom Line can realize this kind of success with its students, can the program be replicated with more students?  Barr and Castelman see the program as highly scalable, and social media commentators feel the key elements to Bottom Line’s success lies in three key areas:
  • Counselors work with very small caseloads
  • Counselors stay focused on the goal of matching students with affordable colleges that have high completion rates
  • Counselors are deeply familiar with the colleges in their local area that meet these criteria
Since Bottom Line is a program that is not school based, it’s easy to see the challenges school-based counselors could face if they were asked to replicate Bottom Line’s model.  The bugaboo of high ratios is the easiest challenge to recognize.  With an average of nearly 500 students per school counselor in the US, it’s easy to see how Bottom Line’s level of service might be hard to match without a significant investment in more school counseling positions.

Beyond that, the nature of a school counselor’s work might also prevent replication of Bottom Line’s achievements.  College counseling is all Bottom Line’s counselors do, while college counseling is one of myriad official duties assigned to most school counselors.  In addition, most counselors are charged with duties that have little, if anything, to do with their counseling expertise—duties like scheduling, standardized test administration, and supervision of individualized learning programs for students with special needs.  While the counselor’s voice is important in all of these activities, putting them in charge of them gives the work more of a feeling of an administrative burden that prevents them from utilizing their counseling skills.  

Finally, it’s important to recognize that some of the lack of success in college counseling is due to the lack of sufficient training counselors receive on the subject in graduate school.  Of the 12-15 course common to most counselor graduate programs, only one focuses on postsecondary counseling—and that course typically has a split focus between college and career counseling.

With less than 3 dozen graduate programs offering focused training in college counseling, it’s no wonder most counselors begin their work with students with background and insight that make it impossible to replicate the efforts of Bottom Line.  Logistical challenges may abound, but too many students see their counselors as lacking important information that can make a difference in college selection.  That’s the right place to begin to impact their own bottom line.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Two Roadblocks to Effective Postsecondary Counseling

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

There isn’t a single school counselor who can’t tell you what they need to make their job easier.  From smaller caseloads to far fewer “other duties as assigned” (I’m talking about you, schedule changes), the logistics of what we do could be fine tuned in all kinds of ways to make us more productive and more student-centered.

There are other changes that could improve our work we don’t talk about as much.  As discussions about the role of college and the jobs of the future continue, it might be time to reconsider these principles—some held by our profession, some held by society-- if only to reflect on how our perception of them can change our work with students and families for the better. These two are a good place to start:

People who go to college are better off that people who don’t  It’s amazing what we’re trying to do to make people feel better about themselves just because they don’t want to spend four years (or more) of their lives at college.  This is especially true in the last five years, where an effort is underway to define “college” as any kind of training that comes after high school.  That way, if everyone gets some kind of training, we can say everyone goes to college, and no one has to feel bad about themselves.

But isn’t that based on false assumptions of what’s valued in this world?  This obsession with college would probably be news to the plumber who left my house after ninety minutes of work two days after Christmas with $225.  Personable, outgoing, knowledgeable (and clearly not hurting for money), the training he received through his union certification program wasn’t college, but it was exactly what he wanted to do with his life—and given the task at hand, it came in way more handy than anything I’d learned at university.  Would he really see his life as more complete if we said he went to plumber’s college—or are we trying to fix our view of the world, since nothing seems to be wrong with his?

Aggregate data abounds showing cities and states do better when they are populated by more college graduates, but every one of those college graduates needs their pipes snaked, their chimneys cleaned, and their clothes dry cleaned.  If their work wasn’t important, it wouldn’t be necessary.  The workers in these fields see it that way; why doesn’t society?

College ready and career ready are the same thing The minute we finally decide difference has value, we’re ready to deal with the most bogus claim in the school counseling lexicon—that college readiness and career readiness are the same thing.  The skill set needed to build a house has remarkably little in common with the skill set needed to make it through Introduction to Western Civilization.  Both may require communication skills, promptness, and critical thinking.  So does making it safely through Happy Hour, but I know of no building trades program or History prof where two-for-one drafts are part of the instruction.

Different life experiences require different preparations, and we do all students a disservice when we develop a school counseling curriculum that assumes the skills needed to become a machinist are the same skills needed to make it through graduate school.  Once we accept the idea that difference is valued, we can get on with the business of meeting individual needs with something other than a one-size-fits-all approach to life after high school—and we’ll get more students interested in what we have to say. ​

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Higher Ed is “Out” for 2017? Let’s Hope So

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Many people tried to avoid the usual “Year in Review” columns for 2017, in part because politics seemed to color every aspect of our society, and people were hoping the holiday break would give them—well, a break.  Given our collective tendency to say “good riddance” to 2017 without much reflection, it’s noteworthy how many people saw that Higher Ed was on The Washington Post’s list of things that are Out for next year. 

The Post has long fed off many East Coast parents' obsession with getting their child into the “right” college (as opposed to getting them into a college that’s right for their child), so this news caught many by surprise.  On the other hand, given the beating higher education took in the media last year, it could be the Post is simply catching up to a trend that’s been out there for a while.  When only 36 percent of Republicans see college as a good thing, it’s clear that the standard assumptions about life after high school are up for grabs.

The Post’s actions can only be seen as good news by school counselors, who have long tried to get students to stop examining college options based on a school’s name and reputation, and think more about what the college has to offer in meeting the student’s interests, needs, and life goals.  School counselors often lament that the Post, along with its New York counterpart, are responsible for coverage of the college admission process that has created a college-industrial complex of test prep, rankings, writing coaches, lazy rivers, and more, making college, in the words of a famous admissions officer, a prize to be won, instead of a match to be made.

Now that Higher Ed is “out”, there’s an outside chance some sanity could return to our work with students—and that turns us to Sue Biemeret.  A retired school counselor, Sue runs a wonderful summer institute where the nuts and bolts of college counseling are taught in ways few others teach them.  There are about five people in the country who teach college counseling the right way, and Sue is one of them.

When college rankings and test prep were just starting to bubble up in the world of college admissions, Sue remarked that counselors should remember how most students take the SAT or ACT once; visit a few colleges that are within a gas tank of home, and end up going to college within 150 miles of where they went to high school.  Sure, there are exceptions, but any effort to make the exception the rule leads to college counseling programs that aren’t grounded in reality, and that’s just not helpful to students.

The Post’s claim that Higher Ed is out gives us the opportunity to turn our students and their families back to a saner view of what college is, and what it can be for students who are ready to make the most of it.  College is by no means the real world, but it is an opportunity for students to understand more about themselves and the world around them.  Combined with the skills and content it teaches that prepares students for the workforce, college can prepare students to contribute meaningfully to those many jobs of the future that don’t exist, while being something more than a job training experience. The public’s perception of the purpose of college seems to be up for grabs, and school counselors are uniquely positioned to shape that perception.  Let’s resolve to take up the challenge.