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.