Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Reforming College Admissions

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

It’s spring, and with most college decisions out, calls are blossoming for college application reform like daffodils. This call is usually led by counselors who are either exhausted from running the application gauntlet, or are disillusioned when a top student is denied admission to their dream school. Either way, they feel there is a better way to do this.

I’m always eager to see things improve—keyless remote car start is genius—and I’d love to return a student’s senior year back to the business of, well, being a senior. Still, it might be wise to develop a common understanding of what’s meant when we say we want the application process to improve. What might that look like, and how would we know it’s better? Here are some outcomes I’ve heard.

More students end up at their top choice school My top student (perhaps ever) was deferred by a college where he was well beyond the mean. It turned out that was the problem—the college decided the only reason a student that qualified would apply there would be to use it as a backup, and they resented the implication, so they decided to see just how serious he was.

If improving admissions means colleges stop doing things like that, I’m game. On the other hand, if the goal is to simply get more students in at their dream school, that’s just not feasible. Harvard would no longer be Harvard if they admitted twice as many students, and some students, bless them, don’t have a realistic understanding of what a particular college expects of them.

It should be easier to apply I like the spirit of this idea as well—six drafts of a personal statement is about three too many, and overburdened teachers shouldn’t have to write a student’s second letter of recommendation if the college gets the gist of the student with just one.

At the same time, the notion of making applying to college as easy as ordering at a drive thru—“One Ivy admission with an extra serving of Big Ten safeties”—can easily lead to students applying to schools without really considering if this is a place that offers the right mix of opportunity, challenge, and support. This isn’t about being a gatekeeper; it’s about making a responsible choice.

The real question, at least to me I enjoyed the last 15 years of my work at 2 schools where every student went to college, and I’d like to think I helped them make good choices. Still, there’s a good chance all those students would have attended a college that met their needs, if only because they went to a high school where every student went to college.

If we’re really serious about changing admissions, I’d suggest we start with this question, and see where it takes us:

Jamie is a 14-year-old student living in a large city. Jamie’s 15-year-old cousin Blaine lives in a rural area, some 100 miles from the nearest college campus. Both come from single parent households, with Jamie’s mom holding down three jobs just to pay the rent, and Blaine’s dad making just enough from his crops each year to stave off bankruptcy. Both attend a public high school where the one school counselor meets the social/emotional, academic, and career and college plans of 1800 students, and both come from homes where they would be the first in their families to go to college.

What would the college admissions process look like if we assume every student had the backgrounds and resources of Jamie and Blaine?

Ready? Begin.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

College Admissions, Juniors, and COVID

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

This will be the last high school class that will have the culture-changing year of 2020-21 as part of their secondary school experience. While this initial year of COVID brought many changes to learning and college plans, the question arises—does this interruption of school as usual affect the class of 2024, who were ninth graders at the time? The answer is yes, but it’s likely to have less of an effect than it has for the students in the past three graduating classes. Here’s what that means to the world of college admissions:

Academic preparation Ample studies suggest student learning took a serious blow during the COVID-intense school year of 2020-21, when classes largely met online. For the Class of 2024, it also means they were denied a year of in-person ninth grade learning, a year that often includes instruction in study skills and other executive skills that serve as a foundation for successful learning in high school and beyond. This means these students returned to “high school as usual” in tenth grade without a thorough understanding of what it meant to be an in-person high school learner.

What does this mean to colleges? This lack of learning fundamentals may have been addressed by tenth- and eleventh- grade teachers, who realized what their students had missed as freshmen. However, the absence of a national plan on how to address these gaps left a hit-and-miss approach to making up this essential year of understanding what it means to be a student. Rising seniors will want to take a moment to honestly consider how this experience affected their learning, and if the holes of ninth grade were ever filled.

Extracurricular preparation The world of extracurricular activities was less affected by COVID, in large part due to many parents who insisted high schools continue to offer these experiences, since, to them, “that’s what high school is really all about.”

The mild effect of COVID, and the speedy return of nearly all extracurriculars since, means next year’s seniors largely had every opportunity to engage in a rich array of learning experiences outside the classroom. Colleges that value these activities are less likely to overlook students who took a complete pass on extracurriculars , in the last four years, since opportunities to participate in many activities, if only online, have been in play.

Explaining COVID to colleges Students who feel COVID limited their high school experience and success would do well to use the essay portion of their college application to give the colleges a clear, cogent understanding of their circumstances. As is the case with any student experiencing unusual circumstances, the colleges will be more interested in how the students have overcome the challenges they’ve faced, and if the student feels they will be able to give their all, and make the most, out of the college experience.

Reports from the field suggest many of this year’s seniors are appealing admission denials with the claim that the college didn’t understand just how strong a role COVID played in limiting their high school success. Appeal admits are rare, so the time to provide a thorough explanation of those circumstances is during the application process, not once a college says no. This will be especially true for next year’s seniors, since their high school experience was an additional year away from the epicenter of the pandemic.

It’s great juniors are planning ahead and looking forward to college. Doing so with their COVID experience in mind, and explaining its effect to colleges early, can only strengthen the student’s success in finding strong college matches.

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Community Colleges and “Completion”

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Many of the students I worked with as a counselor at a community college had a story like this one:

He took a job right out of high school with a small business run by a neighbor. That was ten years ago, and the time had come for the owner to retire, creating a shift in administration that left a need for a manager. The student had a track record of solid work and commitment, and the owner said the job was his to have, provided he could earn sixteen credits in business courses before the owner retired in fourteen months.

Since the sixteen credits could be from any business classes, this schedule wasn’t too hard to put together. We reviewed the catalog, found some classes specifically designed for small businesses, and threw in the general survey courses in business and accounting. Thirty weeks later—and five months ahead of time—the student got his promotion, and a hefty raise to boot.

If you’re thinking, how great, the student accomplished his goal, you’d be right—unless you are the federal government. For the better part of ten years, the government has been urging, nudging, and flat out questioning community colleges and their completion rates, or number of students who leave their community college experience without a degree, certificate, or other credential. The rationale for this concern seems legitimate enough at first, since there is ample data showing the average salaries of US workers as it relates to educational attainment.

But relying on averages is where this discussion also begins to fall apart. Our student realized everything without a degree or certificate that most students want who are pursuing some kind of credential. It’s just that, in this case, the student didn’t need to spend extra time and money taking classes he didn’t need. Still, according to most observers, this student is a failure because he is a non-completer, and that just doesn’t sit well with many government officials.

The completion argument also falls apart when one considers the origins of the community college system. Community colleges were created to meet the higher education needs of the local community, hence the name. While those needs could include credential completion—many nurses and first responders are trained by community colleges—it can also include students who need to start locally to improve their academic reputations to transfer to a four-year college. Since transfer requirements vary widely from one four-year college to another, most of the students I worked with who wanted to transfer were better off not completing a community college credential, taking individual courses that were sure to transfer.

Much more important, the mission of community colleges is to provide opportunities to learn, not to provide credentials. The nontraditional student returning to take a class or two in History, since they now have the time and genuine interest to study it. The mid-career student who needs to pick up some essential courses before admission to a graduate program. The computer programmer who needs to upgrade their skills after five years away from the field. Their goals can be met by taking courses; their time would be wasted by completing degrees.

I’m a big fan of accountability, but I’m a bigger fan of everyone playing to their strengths. Not everyone needs to go to college; not everyone needs to go to a four-year college, and not everyone needs to get a credential from a community college. Threatening community colleges with outcomes they were never meant to achieve only hurts the people they are meant to serve. It’s time to reconsider this credentialing movement.