Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The Media is Not a College Applicant’s Best Friend

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

There’s a pattern to the way the media, as a whole, covers college admissions. A typical year of coverage for most—that’s most—media outlets goes something like this:

Mid-September—The US News rankings come out, and everyone clamors over the top-ranked college. It’s typically the same top-ranked college from last year; if isn’t, one of the top five from last year climbed the pile, which is seen as a real shocker. Like we’d never heard of that college until now, and this suddenly makes it a better school.

Late September/Early October—Coverage turns to the upheaval of applying to college, with every article featuring seniors discussing the anxiety of applying to Brown, Yale, Smith, or one of the only 25 colleges mainstream media acknowledges as existing.

Late March—Admissions decisions are out, and in a paean to the principles of mathematics, every media article cites increased application numbers at The Big 25, and—wait for it—decreased admission rates at all of them as well. Not a single one of these articles points out that the former is the cause of the latter—but that involves math, so there we are.

What’s wrong with this picture?

College Lists The media spotlight on the Top 25 launches many parents into action, for all the wrong reasons. If these are the best colleges, why isn’t my child applying to them? This upends a wealth of work done by the student and (one hopes) their school counselor; it also upends the self-esteem of more than one student who knows these schools are bad fits. But arguing with Mom and Dad’s “let’s see what happens” is a tough hill to climb, so off they go to apply, much like Faramir’s efforts to recapture Osgiliath in Return of the King.

Unnecessary Panic More than a few seniors are indeed intimidated by the college application process in mid-September. That’s normal, since they’re just getting started. If I handed a student a plumber’s wrench on September 15 and said “show me how it works”, that too would be stressful. Now, if I came back in a week and asked, “How’s it going?”, they would have mastered the thing with ease, because they had time to understand what they were doing. Huh.

Those “Other” Schools The media myopia pays a big price on the other 2000 colleges that serve all kinds of students in personalized and appropriate ways, but now appear to be second rate. This keeps students from looking at some schools just right for them, because—well, you know…

To be fair, not all media outlets treat college admissions like a celebrity sighting, although Varsity Blues hasn’t helped. Eric Hoover writes moving human stories about the real challenges some students face in this process, stories so good they have led to admissions policy changes. Inside HigherEd isn’t a household name, but their coverage of the entire range of colleges is nothing short of inspiring.

Still, the best-selling papers run up the same limited coverage of college admissions every year, and their effect is palpably bad on the college plans and psyches of far too many students. A modest step in the right direction would be running an October story that returns to the freaked out students of September, revealing they’ve largely got the hang of things right now. Even better, interviews with students applying to a great school like Northern Michigan, where the application takes a whopping 25 minutes to complete and the admit rate is 65%—a reminder that the current media lens on college admissions is clear, but too tightly focused.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Friends Don’t Let Friends US News

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Let’s say you are a student—a high school junior or senior. You’re thinking about going to college—in fact, you’ve made the decision to go to college—and you’re trying to decide which ones to look into. You have two or three ideas about what you want to study, you’re pretty sure what part of the country you’re interested in, you realize you’re a better learner with semester classes, and you want to make sure the college has a strong vegetarian menu.

Why on earth are you looking at the US News rankings?

I honestly have no idea if any of the qualities you’re looking for are part of the method US News uses to calculate its rankings, but even if they were, you can’t really explore the “grade” US News gives each of those qualities. In other words, a highly-ranked college may be great for one of your majors, but not the other three. They may offer semester classes, but US News doesn’t tell you that. And the college may have a requirement that each student start the week downing a full rack of baby-back ribs, but this would be news to—well, US News.

I can tell you what little I know about the US News rankings. Average SAT and ACT scores are a big part of them, and this has never gone over well with school counselors for all kinds of reasons. But now, with so many—I would be willing to say most—of the ranked colleges going test optional, this information has very little value or relevance. Some colleges may, in practice, still have a preference for test scores, but you can’t really give that information a value without being very judgmental—and that’s not the purpose of this kind of rankings.

I also know that an even bigger part of the rankings includes the opinions university presidents have of other colleges. It’s always nice when other people in your profession admire your work, but how many other colleges do university presidents really know well? Maybe fifty? So after that, they’re basically guessing—or being influenced by the materials other colleges send them in order for college presidents to give their college a higher rank (yes, this happens).

On top of that, I just have to ask—how many college presidents do you know, and how many of them know about your college interests? Don’t worry—the answer from most students is, and should be, zero, and even if it isn’t, knowing a college president doesn’t really improve your chances of getting into a college, with the small exception of the one they run. So this really shouldn’t matter to you.

Many people are excited about the changes US News made to their method this year, changes which tried to make the rankings more inclusive. Those are welcome, but it still makes the top choice school a place that’s ridiculously hard to get into, and it still doesn’t tell you if it’s a good place for you.

Come to think of it, it’s hard to say just what the rankings tell you about you and your college interests. Building a college list requires the right information, and many online college search tools help you do just that with the answers that really matter to you. US News doesn’t have that information. Please be sure to tell your parents that when they show you the rankings, and if they don’t believe you, show them this. It could make an important difference.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Why College?

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

For a long time, most students never really thought about why they were going to college—they either did, or they didn’t. This depended a lot on if you went to a high school where a lot of people went to college. If college was the thing to do, everyone found one, and went.

That’s changed a little, thanks to two things. The cost of college has soared in the last fifteen years, to the point where some parents who went to college can’t afford to send their own children without some kind of help. Since asking for financial help is something most people are bad at, many parents are taking the option of college off the table without much discussion.

The second reason is the COVID quarantine. Colleges all responded to the initial quarantine in pretty much the same way—by sending everyone home, and putting classes online. Since then, colleges have found all kinds of different approaches to keeping their students educated and safe, but most of them still don’t involve the social parts of college life. Saturday afternoons aren’t all about football, clubs and organizations are largely online activities, and something as basic as a trip to the campus library can require scheduling a week in advance.

If you put these two factors together, you can see why some students aren’t quite sure if college is what it used to be—and why some parents are wondering what exactly they’re paying for. If being a student means staying at home—or worse, being confined to your dorm room—to learn classes online, aren’t there less expensive options to do this? On the other hand, if you decide to pass on college, is the economy really going to give you a chance at getting a reasonable job with a high school diploma—and even if that job exists, how safe is it to go out there every day?

The long-term benefits of college are clear—workers with a four-year degree will likely earn an additional million dollars over their careers, according to some studies, and other studies suggest students who earn a degree are happier people, and more engaged in their lives. But all of these findings reflect a college experience that doesn’t exists for most people, in an economy that isn’t likely to be the same any time soon.

What’s the best way to handle this? First, look into the college option with all your heart and soul, as if COVID didn’t exist. Each college still has qualities that make it different and special, and learning about those is a big part of the college search. It’s also the only way you can start to figure out where you would feel at home, challenged, and supported—the Big Three of the college search.

Once you’ve done that, get a feel for what’s going on now with the colleges you love. How are classes meeting? Is living on campus even an option? Colleges are going to spend the next few years needing more students, so your chances of admission are, in general, better than ever. That means you can afford to ask more questions, to make sure the fit is right between you and the college. That includes cost, where colleges are eager to talk about how to make going there fit your budget.

Money and COVID have changed the way to look at college, but it’s still a pretty incredible experience. Before you decide to take a pass, make sure you know what you would be missing out on. What you find will likely surprise you.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

Improving College Access Now, in Your Building, for Free

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Fall may bring a new school year, but some of our work as counselors simply picks up where we left off. That’s the case in the world of college admission, where a June report indicated another drop in enrollment, highlighted by a 9.5% drop in community colleges. Given most students who don’t start college right after high school never enroll, this has long term implications for our workforce and our economy.

This drop in college numbers has led some counselors to wonder what can be done to turn this situation around—and they came up with an answer. One of the long-standing mysteries of college counseling is how it works—we talk to students about applying to college, but the actual completion of the application is left for the student, largely on their own, after school, or on weekends. If they get stuck with an item, they either wait to ask their counselor in school (a waiting period fraught with its own challenges), or they simply take their best guess.

Applying to college isn’t always hard, but it is important, and the challenges student face in making the right college choice deserve as much support as possible. That’s why these counselors worked this summer to answer a simple question: What if students could search for and apply to college and scholarships during the school day, as part of a class, with the help and support of a counselor, college adviser, or other college-aware adult?

The answer has taken form in a curriculum called Senior College Seminar (SCS), a program designed to give students college help when it will do them the most good—when help is available. The curriculum is 37 units, and begins with important ideas like Why College, and What is College. It then covers all aspects of the college search and application process, including building a list, writing essays, tracking extracurricular activities, and more. Paying for college takes up several lessons, and the final lessons discuss the transition to college, and avoiding summer melt.

The beauty of SCS lies in its flexibility. Knowing high schools have very different schedules, lessons can be taught in segments of 10 minutes, 20 minutes, or 20 minutes-plus. Since each lesson is written independent of the others, this means they can be taught in any order, or skipped all together. Schools can create a separate SCS class, add it to an existing class (like a Careers class or study hall), build it into a required class (as a unit for, say the English 12 program), or run it as an after school activity. With its detailed resources and minimal tech requirements, SCS comes complete and ready to teach, while leaving educators free to add to each lesson as they see fit.

I would hesitate to share information about SCS with you, since I am its principal author (with the help of a stunning array of colleagues), but SCS is free to any educator. Our friends at SCOIR have been very supportive of SCS, and all you need do is follow this link to get your free copy—you don’t have to be a SCOIR user. It’s clear there’s an interest here, since the site had over 1300 downloads in the first week alone.

Counselor time is more valuable than ever, as our services as mental health professionals increase during this time of COVID. SCS allows counselors to meet those needs, while making sure college planning doesn’t get overlooked with an approach that is structured, individualized, and hands-on. There’s never been a greater need for that kind of college help.

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

What College Admissions Did During Our Summer Vacation

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

The summer no one could wait to start has come to an end all too soon. The result is a mix of starts, stops, and things staying the same that leave us in a place a little like last year, but not quite. Let’s review:

What hasn’t changed. Most colleges with a test-optional admissions policy last year have left that option open for students this year. State law requires Florida and Georgia state schools to use testing as an admissions criteria, and a handful of other schools have gone back to the testing requirement. But the cancellation of testing dates in August may leave policy makers little choice but to suspend those statutes, if only for this year.

Most college applications still invite the student to write about their COVID experience, and how it may have affected their academic, extracurricular, and personal lives. While most colleges leave this as an optional essay, wise students know “optional” translates into “if you really are interested in coming here, answer this question.” Students would also be wise, as they were last year, to make sure to write about something non-COVID in any other essay. The pandemic has been a game changer, for sure, but colleges are eager to hear about all parts of a student’s life. A mix of essay answers achieves that.

What has changed. High school seniors are likely to find more colleges welcoming them for campus visits. The online tours used last year proved to be wildly popular, and will still be used by most colleges as well. Since some colleges have already modified their plans to offer on campus classes, students wanting to do an in-person visit may want to book their visits early, as this option may disappear in a matter of weeks.

The same is true for the traditional high school visit, where colleges came to talk to students. More of those are in place as well, but many colleges found they could reach more students—particularly the highly underserved rural and urban students—with online meetings. Look for those to remain included in the mix.

What’s new. This year’s college applicants can submit their work knowing that most colleges with test optional policies have had a year to learn how to read an application that has no test scores. This makes it easier for colleges to tell students just what they’re looking for in a test-free application, something many couldn’t say last year. Be sure to ask your college rep about this, if they don’t share that information with you in a presentation.

Counselors report most of the changes in this year’s version of Common App are somewhat minor, with the exception of CA’s requirement that students must include their Social Security Number. While this raises concerns with privacy advocates, colleges feel the addition will serve as a vital tool to link the admissions application with the financial aid application, a step that becomes even more important during the pandemic.

A couple of new free tools have popped up for counselor use. Statistics maven Jon Boeckenstedt from Oregon State has created a new graph of what colleges offer a specific major, and how many degrees the college awarded in that major last year. The source is free, and is receiving rave reviews.

Another free resource is a curriculum for a class I wrote allowing seniors to search and apply for colleges and scholarships during the school day. There'll be more on this next week, but if you can’t wait, click here to access what 1350 counselors downloaded the first week it was available.