Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Education Is Getting National Attention Again!

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

This has been a week of higher education in the news, particularly funding of higher education. We may be just a week into the new legislative cycle, but talk in Washington is already centered around loan forgiveness for student debt, and free community college for everyone. Meanwhile, states are once again picking up on the idea of requiring completion of the FAFSA as a high school graduation requirement, an idea that has not been discussed in the better part of four years.

The debate over student loan forgiveness is a little more complicated than most people would think. It’s easy enough to say, give the students a break, so they can use that money to stimulate the economy by buying a house (note that I’m passing up the obligatory avocado toast joke here), while others say this is the least that can be done for students who got hit with excessive tuition increases when government funding of colleges just about dried up in most states.

The other side has its share of legitimate points as well. The undercutting of higher ed funding was largely done by the states, not the US government—and that’s who underwrites much of the student debt in question.

In addition, while it’s true the federal government is making money off of the interest they’re charging on student loans, the rate of interest is much lower than banks charge—and, there is a difference between changing loans to interest-free loans and forgiving the loan completely. Look for some kind of compromise here involving interest-free loans that will be forgiven after, say, ten years of timely payments.

The case for completely free community college is even more detailed. K-12 public schools are said to be free, but they aren’t—they are paid for by taxpayers. Applying the same model to community college would mean an increase in taxpayer funding of education, which means the money shows up either by taking it from an existing program, or raising federal taxes. If you want to see some serious backpedaling done by someone wearing $200 shoes, ask any legislator what entitlement program they would cut to fund “free” community college. And a tax increase to pay for community college? Sure.

Other data gives an even longer pause to consider this idea. Many states and cities offer some kind of free community college program, and their data tends to show that the students who take advantage of the program are students who either already planned on going to college, or students whose families can afford to pay for community college. There’s also the question of participation levels. An incredible program exists in Detroit where all Detroit high school graduates qualify for free community college (or even four year college) and get mentorship support once they’re there. The participation rate? Less than 50 percent.

Finally, there is the argument that is borne out by very new data, showing that FAFSA completion among low-income students has dropped dramatically. If they can already get free college, but aren’t, why would another free program make a difference?

This last point is also driving more states to consider adding a FAFSA completion requirement for high school graduation. Several states have realized incredible increases in FAFSA finishes as a result of such a requirement, which always includes a parental waiver. Still, others are concerned that adding this requirement could simply make it harder for students to graduate—especially students who have no college plans, and forget to fill out the form. Reducing the odious number of questions on the FAFSA may be the compromise both sides are looking for.

These are not easy issues to discuss, but it is good to see them once again making headlines, a sign that perhaps—just perhaps—education is once again getting some of the national attention it deserves.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Subject Tests Are Gone. So?

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Counseling offices across America are abuzz with this week’s news from College Board. If your spaceship has just landed, the announcement had two parts:

  • The optional writing section of the SAT is no longer being offered;
  • Subject Tests are being discontinued.

The early response to the first announcement seems to be a unanimous “”good riddance”. While the objective of the writing sample was noble— give colleges some sense of how a student writes without the “help” of an essay tutor—the writing portion was greeted with little enthusiasm from the get go. Could a piece of writing produced in 45 minutes really give colleges a glimmer into the ability of a student to do college writing, a task that typically involves putting together several drafts over a week or more?

Combined with the training the graders of the essay received, many colleges opted to collect the writing scores but not use them for admission, waiting to see if any patterns came forth between the scores on the essay and student grades in their first freshman English class. When no such patterns appeared, colleges began to drop the essay requirement, especially since it cost students an additional fee on top of the basic SAT. SAT’s dropping of the essay may be the greatest ex post facto decision in the history of standardized testing.

Of course, killing off the Subject Tests may be a close second. I always thought Subject Tests would prove to be a more accurate measure of student ability than the SAT, but they were always used in addition to the SAT, not in lieu of it. This meant added cost and time, factors that skewed the use of the tests towards wealthier students and more selective colleges.

The few colleges requiring Subject Tests started to question their validity as the test optional movement came into vogue, with the last college dropping the requirement in the years before COVID came. While some colleges in the US still “strongly recommended” them, even that requirement was generally abandoned this year—so, their demise isn’t all that much of an earth shaker, either.

What seems to be the biggest issue behind this announcement? Early speculation is that some of the colleges that used Subject Tests will now urge students to submit AP scores instead. Since the value of AP classes has fallen into scrutiny in the last few years, battle-scarred counselors are afraid this emphasis could renew efforts to get students to take more APs, even if it’s not in their best academic interest to do so.

The worries about a new reliance on APs is likely to be overblown. The number of students taking Subject Tests has declined steadily because fewer colleges use the scores; if that’s the case, are the colleges really likely to replace Subject Tests with anything? In addition, Subject Tests are designed to measure what students learn in high school, while AP classes are designed to measure what students learn in classes that contain college-level material. Are colleges really that eager to basically tell high school students they need to start taking more college-level classes as early as 10th grade, when their current models of admission don’t even include Subject Test scores anymore?

The counseling world is eager to see what role testing will play in next year’s round of applications, as test sites for the SAT and ACT remain closed in many states. This week’s announcements are likely to affect the admission requirements of less than two dozen schools, if that—and since those will be highly selective schools, most students will only know what a Subject Test is because their counselor will be telling them they don’t exist anymore.

It’s business as usual, where the possible admissions behavior of about 25 colleges may make the headlines, but won’t mean a thing to most of our students. Carry on.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Colleges—Go Test Optional for The Class of 2022 Now

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

There are two big no-nos when it comes to telling college admissions offices how to do their business. The first rule is, don’t. It’s not exactly rocket science to assume that colleges don’t like someone else telling them how to run their offices, since we—that’s counselors—certainly don’t like it when other people tell us how to run our counseling offices.

The second rule is, if you’re going to make a diplomatic suggestion for colleges to consider, don’t do it during application season. December–April is all about bringing in the next class, not about planning for the following class.

Knowing these two rules all too well, I hesitate to break either one, let along both—but here goes.

I’d like every college that typically requests test scores of all of its freshman applicants to either continue the moratorium they started this year, or start making the scores optional, for the students in the high school Class of 2022. My reasons for this request are simple, and most are for the benefit of—wait for it—the colleges:

Not every student you want on campus will have test scores to give you. A good number of states offer the SAT or ACT for free to their public school juniors. Many of these same schools are meeting online, and some have never met in person at all this year. Expecting these schools will open for the sole purpose of testing is wrong at an incredible number of levels. So is assuming that the states giving students vouchers to take a national test are safe states for students to expose themselves to students they’ve never met before. The reasons school is closed are the same reasons why those states shouldn’t offer tests—and if the students don’t test, they can’t meet your testing requirements, no matter how bright they are

Most of the test scores students will submit won’t reflect their best effort. I have long had issues with students who are convinced they won’t get a good SAT score unless they take the test four times, but I understand their point—it’s pretty tough to take the test once and say you can’t do any better. Students had trouble taking the test once this year, let alone more than once, and most of the obstacles they had to deal with are still present. This includes the school-based test prep classes and seminars many students participate in. They may have migrated to online, but reports suggest most of them have lost something in translation. Unprepared students don’t do their best on the test, making their scores inaccurate—and it’s harder to deal with inaccurate scores than with no scores at all.

The validity of the scores will be at risk next year. All of the hurdles students are facing in taking the tests would make it impossible to compare scores for next year’s applicants to scores from pre-COVID classes. Would we expect fully-prepped, in-person-taught students from two years ago to score higher that their under-prepared, online-taught peers from next year? Yes. Does that really mean a 25 on the ACT two years ago isn’t the same as a 25 on the ACT this year? Probably. Will the college rankings folks see it that way? No.

It would be easy enough to point out that this decision is also in the best interest of very stressed, Zoomed-out students, and that many colleges going test optional this year saw record increases in early applications, but you know this already. You also know that many students typically start their testing cycle in December of the junior year, and many couldn’t get to a test. Combined with the lack of test prep access for many students—including a huge swath of first generation and low income students—it’s time to set aside this year’s applications for five minutes and give the Class of 2022 one less thing to worry about, right now, doing your institution a favor in the process .

In exchange, I’m more than happy to hear your suggestions on how my school can improve on its highly unreadable transcript (especially since I don’t work at a school anymore). Deal?

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Remembering Six Students

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

2020 closes out a 31-year career in school counseling that stretches across 36 years. Don’t worry—I’ll continue to work as a college consultant, doing all I can to advance progress in college access, and professional development for college counselors. Thanks to the opportunities I’ve had to write, speak, and teach other counselors, I’m grateful to say my work has touched no less than one million students—and as I move into work in policy development and college access, there are more to come.

I’ve worked with truly wonderful students from all walks of life, and as I say thank you to all of them, six come to mind who hold a special place in my heart. The lives they are leading today can only be described as phenomenal. 

One of them just graduated from high school this spring, after negotiating his way through the path to becoming an Eagle Scout. I’m eager to see where the world of work will take him, but I know he will be the same strong, wonderfully stubborn lad I have known for a long, long time.

The second is a scholar, having earned her Masters degree just last year. If you think the jump from high school to college is stiff, try making the jump from undergrad to graduate school—it’s kind of like going from driving the bus to designing one. She made the switch without batting an eye, and is leading a life that is principle rich, centered on others, and rich with kindness.

One of the other students has a powerful sense of the possible and the genius of a classically educated gentleman—ask him anything, and he’s heard of it, understands it, and analyzes it with keen insight He’s moving up in his company, and he and his wife are making a very nice home out of the cutest little house, one nail at a time.

Another is equally loquacious when coaxed, and has taught himself nearly every musical instrument known on the planet. When his job as a high school accompanist went online, he taught himself how to make choir videos, and in is high demand during this time of choirs on COVID. If you haven’t considered the task of getting 45 separate singing videos to sound like they’re all in the same room, let me urge you to do so while reconsidering the complexities of AP Calculus in comparison.

The remaining two students, of course, are the shoemaker’s children—my two, who chose to go through the college process in bare feet. The older one set the tone; complete the applications in your room, with the door closed, and Dad will leave you be. The lesson was absorbed by the younger, who I swear managed to apply to the only four Common Application schools at the time that required no additional essays. Scholarships greeted both of them; more important, they are living lives of service, are strong, independent thinkers, and see the world for what it can become.

I’m changing jobs in a profession where, sadly, the belief is only expanding that there are four good colleges in the world; that four years of college is a must to success, and that the only way to secure a good life is to secure strong letters of recommendation for those four colleges by learning how to nod, smile, get along, and stare at your shoes. Now that you know about the six students who stand out to me, what you don’t know is where they did—or didn’t—go to college. Imagine that.