Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Aunt Becky and Company Didn’t Hurt Anybody? Baloney.

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Well, it finally happened. I thought I was going to get through the college admissions event known as Varsity Blues—you know, “here’s $2.5 million, please get my child into college”—without having much to say about it, since none of it involves college admissions officers or school counselors. 

If that has been lost on you, I’ll say it again.  At this point, no college admissions officer has been accused of wrongdoing, and the only school counseling official involved is the one who asked the questions that led to the whole plot unraveling.  The entire scandal is the result of outside do-gooders with no background in education, convinced they had a better way to get into college, provided of course that better way involved their making money along the way.

In any case, I was all set to let the rest of the events unfold without notice or comment—but then along came last week, when one of myriad Aunt Beckys was sentenced for her role in this very sad drama.  While she pled guilty, Felicity Huffman argued she should get no jail time at all for her illegal behavior, because, at least to her way of thinking, no one really lost anything as a result of her actions.  Sure, maybe one student lost a seat at a college or two, but that student likely ended up at college somewhere else.  “No harm, no foul” should therefore mean no jail time—right?

A few things came to mind when this interesting defense was offered.  First, the notion that her actions were innocent is nonsense.  If her behavior didn’t have the potential to harm someone, it wouldn’t be illegal in the first place.  Driving 30 in a 25 zone has the potential to hurt a kid dashing out in the street to catch an errant ball, a dog breaking off his leash, or a car backing out of the driveway.  You don’t have to hit anything to earn a ticket if you’re going too fast through a neighborhood.

And that’s the second point—Felicity Huffman did a ton of damage in lots of neighborhoods.  Think of all those families that school counselors, Michelle Obama, and the Reach Higher program have been talking to, trying to convince low income and first-generation students that college is more than possible.  How many of them heard about the million-dollar deal to get a fake tennis player into college and said, Yeah, sure it is. 

Do you have any idea how much energy it’s going to take to get them back to the table now, how many future doctors and accountants have lowered their expectations, just because someone of means wasn’t willing to settle for a “lesser” college?  How much loss will those shifts to Plan B inflict on our society, and our future?

That’s just the start.  There’s always been a number of upper-income parents convinced that college admission is less about hard work and more about finding the right angle.  They may not be millionaires, but they have enough spare resources to spend on the “right” overseas community service trip, or the name brand internship experience, that, at least in their minds, will open up doors at America’s most selective schools. 

Until Varsity Blues broke, there was a sense that a slew of articles, interviews, and social media posts with counselors and college admissions officials were just starting to get through to this group, helping them understand that the key to an effective college application is for the student to be their authentic self, not some hyped up resume.  You think they’re buying that argument now—or are they back to their back-door approach to finding the right “thing” that will make their student stand out?

Felicity Huffman’s argument didn’t exactly win the day in court, since she was sentenced to fourteen days in jail—that’s jail, not prison.  Then again, there’s another woman who tried to use her resources to help her kid get into a better school.  In this case, it was kindergarten, and the school had an empty place—so it could be said that absolutely no one was hurt by this action.  What did this woman get?  Five years in prison.

I’m not here to decide whose sentence is more just.  I can tell you that, given how hard it can be to get low income families to think college, and how challenging it can be to get upper income parents to see college as a match to be made, and not a prize to be won, all the Aunt Beckys have caused plenty of damage to the futures of a lot of kids, and a lot of society.  And that’s going to take way more than fourteen days to repair.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Applying to College? Watch This Video

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

This is the week when applying to college gets hard. The first few weeks of senior year are all about basking—basking in the glory of being a senior and Ruling the School, thrilled at the great colleges you’ve discovered that have so much to offer, and totally jazzed knowing you will never take another SAT in your life.

That’s sure the fun part, but now we’re in application mode, and it’s time to do the work that brings the college dream to life. This part isn’t always viewed as fun, especially when you have to fill out lots of application forms that ask for the same thing (there’s an easy solution to that, by the way). Once you’re done writing down your name, address, and high school code for the umpteenth time, you run into the essays, questions designed for the colleges to get to know you. 

That should seem like a good time—hey, I finally get to talk about me!—but too many students overthink the essays, and turn them into stilted speeches, not ideas that inspire. Trouble is, once you get stuck on the essays, thinking about them just seems to make things worse, less fresh—less you.

Take a look at this. It’s a clip from the 1943 film Stormy Weather, and the dancers are brothers Fayard and Harold Nicholas [dance begins at 1:32]. Dance was hugely popular in the forties, and movies were rich with some of the biggest names in popular dance history—Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Ginger Rogers, and more. After this film came out, the biggest name in popular dance, Fred Astaire, called this performance by the Nicholas Brothers the greatest recorded dance performance in the history of film. Even today, historians make the same claim, Michael Jackson notwithstanding. 

What makes this performance so incredible, besides the fact they somehow defy gravity about six gazillion times? What you see here is the first take of the performance. In fact, it’s the only take. They didn’t shoot a second take, and there was no rehearsal beforehand. They got up, danced, and sat down.

This is exactly what your college essays need right now—more you. Get yourself in front of a keyboard, and write down what you want the college to know about you. Don’t worry about how well it answers the question, or how well constructed the sentences are. The colleges want to see you on paper. Do that.

Here’s the part where we have to be a little less like the Nicholas Brothers. Now that you’ve got some of yourself in writing, it’s time to focus, expand, clarify—in other words, fine tune your ideas. It’s easy to see how this can be drudgery. That’s why you print out what you just wrote before you change any of it. What’s on that page is your goal. What do you have to do to make sure that’s clearly stated?

Once you think you’re close, it’s time to show it to someone else. The Nicholas Brothers may not have rehearsed this piece, but this wasn’t the very first day they ever danced. When it comes to writing, you’re still working on that “getting up from doing the splits” thing, so it’s important to get some help before you hurt yourself, or your chances of getting into college. Find an English teacher who knows you, and who gets that this is a personal essay, not a book report, and they will gently guide you to even greater clarity.

It’s hard to say if someone will be talking about your college essays 75 years after you right them, but the Nicholas Brothers weren’t thinking about that when the band started playing in 1943. They found the joy in their hearts, and connected it with the joy of the moment. Do that, and you’re going to college.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

How to Provide Better Financial Aid in Five Minutes

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

We’re coming up on an important counseling anniversary, and there’s something you can do to celebrate it. It’s been two years since students applying for financial aid have been able to file their forms October 1 of their senior year, instead of January 1. The three-month head start has been a real help for cost-conscious families, since the FAFSA provides an estimate of what the family’s share of college costs will be. Combined with the ability to check a box to complete the required financial information, FAFSA use has increased significantly, and this year promises another year of growth.

Counselors know that some growth comes only with challenges, and it turns out that’s the case with FAFSA. It’s great news more students are applying for aid—thanks in part to the smartphone app that allows you to track FAFSA—But more applicants means more people to serve, more facts to double-check, and more students whose claims need to be verified. Add in an increasing number of low-income students whose parents didn’t file a tax form, and it’s easy to see how these improvements create opportunities for more headaches—but also, for more improvement.

Enter the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Senior senators on the committee have introduced a bill that would allow the IRS and the US Department of Educationto share more financial information about FAFSA filers. These changes would speed up the verification process for thousands of FAFSA applicants, and it would make it easier for non-IRS filers to get through verification as well. Other changes would speed up approval for more people to use income-based repayment plans, reducing the paperwork and hassle often associated with paying off student loans.

This is where you come in. The bill has passed the Republican-led Senate, and is now awaiting action in the Democratic-led House. Democrats tend to be champions of easier, more responsive government, so it’s not clear what the holdup is—but you can help break it. This websiteallows you to enter some basic information that’s used to craft a letter to your Representative, urging them to pass this bill and make further improvements to financial aid. This will likely take five minutes—about the time one of your students currently needs just to start their FAFSA. Write the letter, urge four of your friends to do the same, and let’s move financial aid forward in another important way.

What’s that, you say? You were hoping I’d say something about the changes to the US News rankings? Since they still don’t talk to students, they’re still completely irrelevant, so in my mind, they haven’t changed at all. How’s that?

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

A Fall Commencement Address: Thank You, Gene

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

The ink isn’t even dry on all those schedule changes, so graduation is probably the last thing on any counselor’s mind. Still, as we begin another school year, it is time for us to recognize someone who’s achieved something pretty wonderful, as they move on to new opportunities.

I met Gene Kalb via email in 2010. I came across High School Counselor Week through the recommendation of several colleagues, whose praise for what Gene had created knew no bounds. Gene understood the need for counselors to stay current in the field, but he also knew our time is at a premium. HSCW met our need to be informed in a timely way like nothing else, a simple, brilliant solution.

Gene and I spent about a year tossing around the idea of my writing a column for HSCW, and the first column came to print in 2011, a gem of a piece about students and social media that still has some relevance today. From there, Gene gave me free rein to talk about everything from Websites that helped counselors work with students, to the need for improved counselor training programs, to the essentials of good writing in a college application, and more. I was initially disappointed at the lack of comments that were added to a column, but Gene reminded me that the reason HSCW existed was because counselors were busy people—too busy to write comments, but not too busy to appreciate the column.

Thanks to Gene’s offer to do this work, I can honestly say HSCW has made a difference in our profession. One piece was published the day after Michelle Obama announced her campaign to increase college attainment in the United States—it was my response to her remarks. Within a day, the piece was spread across the Internet, and was picked up by The Washington Post. As a result, the topic of improved counselor training in college counseling became a key element of the ReachHigher convenings held in 2014. While much remains to be done in this area, many counselor training programs are seeing college counseling in a new light, all thanks to Gene.

It’s always nice when your writing makes a national impact, but the real success of the column, and HSCW, are the changes that quietly occur in counseling offices throughout the country. In raising issues of concern, Gene was able to give counselors a heads up on issues they may not have considered. This gave them the opportunity to respond accordingly, developing programming and communication with their students to make sure counseling services were timely, updated, and comprehensive. There was never a single story in HSCW about how Gene’s work improved the lives of our students, but it did, and it made us all better professionals as a result.

Gene has handed the reins of HSCW over to new leadership this fall, after a successful merger that makes sure some 60,000 counselors have access to the latest news in our field. It’s hard to see Gene go, since his easygoing manner and patience with missed deadlines made him such a joy to work with, and such a wonderful person to know. But if anyone should be thrilled to see someone move on to new chapters, it’s a counselor—that’s what we do. Gene, as you head on to whatever’s next for you, you take the gratitude of a profession changed for the better with you, as well as the thanks of a counselor whose writing has found a home it never would have known without you.