Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Three Steps to a Great College Admissions Holiday

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

’Tis the season when things are more than just a little crazy in a school counseling office. Even in a year of COVID, this time of year is awash with the traditions and pageantry of our respective schools, making it all the more challenging to get students to focus on their studies, and seniors on their college applications.

But the annual Winter Concert and the principal dressing up like Santa aren’t the real reasons this time of year seems so rushed in a school counseling office. Emotions run high over the holidays, especially if students have to spend time with family members they don’t often see. The anticipation of those events can often be more than students can take, and understandably so, since it’s also more than most adults can take. As is always the case, the mental health of the students is the top priority.

So what can be done to help school counselors keep their calendars focused on the affective domain? These three steps can make sure seniors move forward with their college plans in a smooth, supportive manner, while leaving everyone the opportunity to give the season its proper due:

Set a high school-based deadline for college applications

Try as we may, counselors have a tough time pointing out to seniors that, while they have maybe 4 or 5 college applications to complete, the high school counseling office has several hundred—and they all need transcripts, and letters, and more. Throw in the fact that many colleges have a January 1 application deadline (more on that in a moment), and it’s easy to see why some students walk in to your office the last day before December break—or the first day after—and say “I forgot to tell you. I’m applying to these six colleges. Can you send the transcript?”

Nothing is foolproof in avoiding this, but this sentence can be a lifesaver—“I need the name of every college you’re applying to by December 5.”

Not only is this direction clear, it’s student-friendly. You aren’t saying they have to apply to all those colleges by December 5; if they want to write college essays on Christmas Eve, that’s completely their call. What you are saying is that December 5 is the day they give you their entire list, so transcripts and teacher letters can get sent to colleges on time. This includes every school the student might apply to, including those that are back up schools in case their Early applications don’t work out. If a student decides not to apply to one of these schools, the college shreds the transcript, and nothing is lost.

Stating this deadline loud and often will give you about 90% of the colleges your students are applying to, and you can work with the latecomers. This deadline also urges you students to finish their applications before vacation.

No email over break

It’s wise to urge students to complete applications early, in part because you simply will not be available over break to address college questions. While this can be a sore point for counselors who believe they always need to be there for their kids, it is not a sore point with me.

Counselors come to work early and leave late. They work weekends. They give students their cell numbers, and advise parents in the middle of the grocery store. Add in the demands of COVID, and counselors are working themselves silly. It’s time for a break.

Some school counselors may need to be on call for their students’ mental health issues, but two weeks away from the world of college applications are in order for them right now. As long as the students know you won’t be there (and get that message out often and early), they will be fine.

And if your boss is telling you about the need to monitor email for college counseling emergencies, feel free to tell them they are out of their minds. There is no such thing as a college counseling emergency. There are students who don’t pay attention to deadlines and who don’t read counselor e-mails, but those behaviors don’t create emergencies. They create consequences.

Colleges should give up on January 1

It made perfect sense for colleges to have a January 1 application deadline when students mailed their applications. All the mail got there by January 10, which is about the time college admissions offices reopen, and they could jump in to reading season.

Nothing gets mailed anymore, and admissions offices are closed January 1. Given the speed of technology, January 10 applications can be sent, oh, say, January 10, and still get there on time. More important, students could work on applications over break, share their progress with counselors when school is back in session after break, and still turn everything in on time, all while the counselors have a real holiday, just like their college admissions colleagues do. 

God bless us, every one.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Why Johnny Can’t Learn Digitally—A Clarification

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I’ve received quite a bit of feedback on my column from a few weeks ago about the challenges our students are facing as online learners—and that feedback has not been positive. School counselors and administrators alike are saying they feel as if I have thrown them under the bus, and that I have no idea how hard they have worked to make sure the transition to online learning has been as smooth as possible. They also cite the increased level of counseling services students need during this time of COVID, saying that the mental health needs of the students are more than taking up their time. One writer said that, now that I have returned to life as an independent counselor, I’ve already become out of touch with the needs of school counselors.

It seems I have some explaining to do.

First, believe me when I tell you I understand how hard it is to be a school counselor, teacher, and administrator in the time of COVID. Everything you have experienced with your students, I have experienced with mine—and since I’m still a school counselor until late next week, I continue to experience it every day.

The mental health, academic, social-emotional, fiscal, and employment challenges all of our students are experiencing are heart breaking. So is that feeling we all have when the school day is over, and the number of students we could help far exceeds the number of hours in not just the school day, but in the whole day. Not a day goes by when I feel like I could do more, if only I had a little help.

This leads to the reason I wrote the column. Knowing local educators were working like mad—last spring, over the summer, right now—to find a way to make this work, I tried to sort out just what was missing. Sure, some tasks just can’t be accomplished no matter how hard you try. But this one felt, and feels, different. There’s a voice that’s missing in this chorus of student support, and I wanted to figure out which one it was.

I didn’t have to look far. Every effort to help kids make the most out of the online learning experience was coming from local resources and local experts. These fiercely dedicated folks were throwing everything they had in to making this effort work, and many of them said they’d like to do more, if they just had a little more money, a little more time, and a little more expertise…

…in other words, a little more national money, a little more national time, a little more national expertise.

It would have been wonderful if the US Department of Education could have been counted on to gather themselves and offer Blue Ribbon workshops on best online practices. Couple that with some federal dollars for states to use as they see fit—including universal online access—and those local efforts would have been enhanced immensely. If only.

To be frank, it came as no surprise that ED did not pursue this strategy. Education veterans will tell you that the Department of Education has rarely taken the lead in curriculum development or best teaching practices in the entire history of its existence. It would have been hugely helpful and inspiring, but it wasn’t expected to happen, and it didn’t, and that had brought us to where we are.

That’s one of the main reasons I wrote the column—to call out ED, and let them know they can still do better.

But ED is not the only national leader who could turn up the support for local efforts to strengthen distance learning. If you stopped and wrote down ten companies or organizations that influenced national education policy, there’s a good chance ED wouldn’t even be on your list—but what about the others? All of them have the clout, money, and expertise to put together the same kind of national campaign of support ED can, and it’s likely many of them would, if they could sell it to local school districts. But charging for this kind of help would just be grotesque, so to them, the choice is either to develop it and give it away, or hope for the best. One mobile phone company promoted an eight-figure effort to make sure every student had Internet access—the rest have largely looked at their shoes.

A national effort to make a difference in the online education switch could have made all the difference, and it hasn’t happened. It still can. 

That list of ten national educational influencers you just made up? They have community relations departments, all of them. Phone calls and emails from educators saying “Hey, where you been?” will go a long way to move them forward, since you are their customers. They are viewed as leaders in the field because they meet our needs. Those departments know better than to incur the wrath of educators…

…and thanks to those of you who have written in the last two weeks, so do I.

Local educators have worked like crazy to make things work during the time of COVID, and that was the reason I wrote the column—you’ve done your share, and now it’s time for others to step up. 

If the column was missing that acknowledgement—or worse, suggested you’ve spent too much time at the beach this year—I could not be more sorry. I’ll do better in the future to make my assumptions more clear; this time around, that assumption is that you are moving heaven and earth to make things work for your students, and, as usual, it is appreciated beyond description.

Now, about your calls to those nine national leaders…

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The Early Returns Suggest Students are Courting Colleges

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It won’t be long before colleges that have Early Action and Early Decision programs will start notifying students with decisions. This group of applicants is of particular interest this year, because colleges who offer early programs usually take a high percentage—as much as 60%—of their admitted students from these early programs. Given the hesitancies brought to college applications due to COVID, there has been speculation that this might be an unusual year for the early programs, one way or the other.

(If you need some help remembering what these programs are, you’re not alone—try this quick reference.)

We’re about two weeks away from hearing decisions, but news about the number of students applying early is out, and it’s uneven. As a rule, the most highly selective colleges in the country are seeing a significant increase in the number of early applications. This has been the case for the last several years, so this could represent business as usual; it could also mean students want to secure a spot in the class while they are still available, should changes in the COVID situation over the winter lead to an increase in students interested in applying to colleges away from home.

This is less the case with the selective colleges—still tough to get into, but not as crazy tough—which are generally seeing early applications even with last year. Since COVID is everywhere, it’s hard to say why colleges that admit 25% of their students aren’t seeing more early applicants than colleges that admit 7% of their students, but the differences in application data between these two sets of schools has always been a little mind boggling, since both schools have far more applicants than they have room to admit.

We’re all now waiting for the next shoe to drop, to see just how many of these record or average classes are going to be admitted through early programs. Conventional wisdom suggests colleges with Early Decision programs will, in all likelihood, admit a large percentage of their class early. ED programs have always helped colleges navigate uncertain times, since a yes to an ED applicant means the student must attend that college. It also earmarks financial aid money early, giving the college earlier insight into its budget.

EA decisions may have a little more flex in them this year, since saying yes to an EA applicant doesn’t lock them in to a firm commitment—it just gives the student an early answer. The plus to colleges with this program has traditionally been data saying students are more likely to attend a college that says yes early in the application process, but given the economic uncertainties that accompany COVID, affordability may trump that tendency this year. Without the promise of some kind of early incentive—scholarships in particular—EA programs may be the wild card this year.

The only heightened risk ED colleges may take on is also economic. Colleges must meet the financial need of all admitted ED applicants—if they don’t, the student is free to walk away from the commitment. But what happens if the college meets that need in December, only to have a spring shakeup in the economy redefine just how much ED admits really do need? Is there a moral requirement for colleges to meet these genuinely higher needs, or have they honored the spirit of ED by meeting the demonstrated need at the time of acceptance? Either way, if the end result is an increased number of students who abandon their ED commitment, the face of college admission could be in for a significant change.