Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Improving College Access

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

With all respect to everyone’s best intentions, I’ve never known any of those end-of-the-year assessment methods to do any good. By the time you create the evaluation form and wordsmith the statements to everyone’s liking, the life just leaks out of it. You may have data which is impressive, but ask anyone what they would do to make things better, and they’ll refer you to page 32 of the computer-generated report—and that’s not really an answer.

Then there’s the real assessment that occurs. Somewhere around 1:30 on a sunny June day, teachers head to their cars with their Solo cup of buzz-free punch from the staff luncheon, start the car, and heave a sigh of gratitude, relief, and anticipation. Between that sigh and the time they hit the parking lot exit, they will categorize each of the following:

What went well

What could have been better

What they’d like to do more of next year

This is especially true when it comes to college counseling. Throughout the year, counselors take to social media to express concern, vent, or simply whine about the inequities of the college advising process in the US. Newbies share the watershed moment when they discover the current system is unfair. Mid-career counselors air their dismay of the Ivy League rejection of the best kid in their class. Veterans take the opportunity to raise their concerns about issues they’ve long disliked, often sharing a tentative outline of how this issue could, at least in their eyes, be resolved.

I’d invite you to all take up that last approach to our work in earnest this summer, using your parking lot assessment to guide you. Take a look at the statement below, then put together a 600-word (more or less) answer you think could increase college access and equity. Your answer needs to address the question in particular; it should include some data or otherwise indicate this problem lives somewhere else besides just your school or your head, and it needs to address the current social and political climate to explain why this new approach stands a chance at being accepted, and will make a difference.

I’ll be the sole judge of each submission, and each submission could become part of future columns (I’ll give credit for ideas where appropriate). The idea I think makes the most sense will be judged the winner, which means the idea becomes a column for sure—and the winning author gets $250.

We always say there has to be a better way to help kids make college a reality. I’m hoping a little cash will encourage you to give a little air to that wish this summer. For more information on how to submit, go to the College is Yours website.

Here’s the question. Now, pass those sweet cherries, and get writing. It’s summer in Michigan once again.

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?

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Community Colleges and a One-Course Certificate? Perfetta!

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Community colleges seem to be under siege once again. Community college faculty are reporting renewed efforts by college administrators to increase the number of students who leave with some kind of credential, preferably either a degree or a certificate.

It's somewhat understandable for this kind of movement to occur at four-year institutions, which have a tradition of preparing students for either a professional career or graduate school. But policy officials looking to increase credential completion at the community college level are clearly unfamiliar with the history and mission of community colleges, which are to provide individuals—members of the community—with learning opportunities tailored to meet their individual needs, not to meet the reporting requirements of the institution, or to tick a box on the goal sheet of the current administration in Washington.

Less than twenty percent of students at some community colleges may end up with a certificate or degree, but if those students needing 12 credits for a promotion get the job they went to college to get, or a new Harley owner now has a way to work thanks to taking a community college motorcycle training class, the community college has traditionally counted those as successful students. More and more thought leaders are thinking twice about that.

Educators purposely work at community colleges because they’ll have the chance to look at things a little differently, and work with a population that either wants something different from education, or wants it a different way than four-year colleges offer. Since this seems to be causing a division between those who shape community college policy, and those who work at them, I would propose all community colleges begin offering the following certificate program immediately.

Certificate title: Cultural Innovation

Requirement: Successful completion of one four-credit course, The History of Pizza

Course Description: Utilizing a case study approach, students will explore the many facets of pizza and its relationship to society. Suggested toppings—sorry, make that topics—include The Origins of Pizza, The Role of Pizza in its Home Country, The Arrival of Pizza in Post-World-War II America, Pizza Varieties and American Regionalism, The Economics of Pizza in Professional Sports and Beyond, Current Trends in Pizza, and Pizza and Pineapple—Magnificent or Mayhem. Students will participate in a pizza taste-test towards the end of the class, writing a final paper analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of each pizza, and produce three well-researched, data-rich, culturally-anchored predictions of the future of pizza.

Cost: Free to all students.

Grading: This is a pass/fail course.

There’s a little bit of something for everyone to like in this proposal. Students heading to community college after some time away from formal learning will be reintroduced to the rigors of academia through studying a subject that is of great familiarity and, for most, personal interest. Key academic concepts, including all levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy and reference-based research, can be taught in ways students will long remember. Administrators get more credential completers, and teachers get to, well, teach the way they were meant to teach at the community college level.

Appropriate preparation of a future workforce, along with advancement of a love of learning, could never be more important than it is now. At the same time, shoehorning students into degrees that will not serve them well, or creating certificate programs that have no real worth to society, devalues the worth of all credentials, ultimately hurting the society community colleges are designed to help.

Thinking outside the box is the raison d’ĂȘtre of community colleges. Policy makers would do well to remember that, and encourage community colleges to live up to that goal.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Free Summer Programs for High Schoolers That are Great

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Students are wandering into your office, asking about summer programs that could fill what someone (like Mom or Dad) sees as way too empty of a summer schedule. My heart always went out to these kids, since they didn’t know most summer programs have February deadlines. On the other hand, most of those early registration programs cost way too much, and do way less for a student’s college application than most people believe. Searching now creates an opportunity for summer learning that can be a little more personalized, a lot less expensive, and significantly more life changing.

If you’re strapped for making recommendations, try these free options that require no application essays.

A free online course on mental health from Yale. College professors noticed a significant uptick in student disengagement—basically, they saw students who showed up to class, took notes, asked no questions, and went home. COVID only made matters worse, since many colleges abandoned in-person meetings for a while.

Enter a psychology instructor from Yale, who saw the current mental health epidemic in the making. She responded by producing a course called The Science of Well-Being, a course which quickly became the most popular class offered at Yale. Ever.

The course has been reconfigured for high school students, and is called The Science of Well-Being for Teens. It’s being offered online this summer for free, and is a perfect resource for students who need a chance to look at the big picture in their lives. Any teen can take the course, and the materials are designed for students from all walks of life—you don’t have to be an Ivy League candidate to take the course and get your life back.

Free use of Planet Fitness The franchise that’s made a living promoting fitness for all is at it again, giving all teens ages 14-19 a free summer pass to use the facilities at the local Planet Fitness of their choice. Teens need to register online, and the free pass is only good for one Planet Fitness location—but being able to do something cool like going to the gym that’s air conditioned-cool is a real plus. Registered students also have a shot at earning money for their school, and making a video to be considered for a scholarship. Parent permission is needed for students under 18.

Free course in financial literacy Interest has never been higher in making sure students know how to handle money— so much so that about half the states have a high school graduation requirement for a financial literacy course. Ironically, that means nearly all online financial literacy courses for high school students comes with—you guessed it—a fee.

This article provides a wide array of free financial planning courses, many that address topics for adults. This page from Bank of America isn’t so much a class as a potpourri of videos and articles on financial basics, including paying for college—and again, all free. These offer a great way for students to customize their financial education.

Others For students who want to do something more with their summers in addition to improving their mental health, getting physically fit, and making sure they don’t go broke, Teen Life has a comprehensive list of summer programs, including about three dozen free online courses for high school students in a wide array of topics. Add in any local or state free courses you know of, and your last-minute students are clearly in the driver’s seat for a laid-back summer of personal growth, all at no charge.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Transferring to High School? Remember the Five Cs

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

This is the time of year when counselor chat rooms are filled with posts like “Thinking about interviewing for a high school counseling position. Thoughts?”

You bet. It’s as easy as remembering the five Cs.

Curriculum Most of the people on hiring committees don’t know that, just like there’s a math curriculum and an English curriculum, high schools are supposed to have a counseling curriculum. Once you shake hands, pass out a one pager (front side only) of your version of a high school counseling curriculum, delineated by grade level outcomes for each of the three key counseling services—social/emotional growth, academic progress, and college/career planning. Add your contact information, and you’re off to a good start. This handout gives you a nice overview to consider.

Career You really need to make sure there’s more to this section than an interest inventory, resume preparation, and interviewing skills. Getting students on job sites, bringing employers into the school, lessons on hot national and regional jobs and soft skills, and a comprehensive aptitude test (by end of tenth grade, so students can plan schedules) are the minimums here—here’s a nice overview to guide you.

College This tends to be the one area most interviewees fluff, simply because their training in this area was just so weak. Most members of hiring committees know nothing about college counseling either, but don’t leave this to chance. View this article and its links, and get a copy of the high school’s profile, which should show where students attend college. Once you get the job, take a brief course that covers these topics in detail, like a new one from NACAC. And seriously—if you don’t think part of your high school job is to help kids with college or college applications, stay where you are.

Credits Along with a lot of paperwork, counselors often struggle with reviewing students’ progress towards graduation, and with good reason—like schedule changes, testing, and “other duties as assigned”, this isn’t a counseling task.  Still, it ends up in our offices, so finding an effective, efficient way to complete this work is essential.  It’s unlikely you’ll get asked about this in an interview, but you never know—and again, if this isn’t your cup of tea, high school may not be for you.

Crisis Not all of the social/emotional counseling work is on the urgent end, but studies suggest more students need affective support in this post-COVID era. Now is the time to pull out those grad school textbooks on developmental psych, and get current on what other schools are doing in this area. If there’s a community mental health service in the town, it wouldn’t hurt to check in with them and see what they’re offering teens as well. No point in reinventing the wheel.

The Question That Ends the Interview, For Better or Worse If you do interview for a high school position, it’s likely you will get asked what appears to be a pretty basic question—“Why do you want to work at the high school level?” You need to construct an answer that conveys what you hope to give to the high school, and what you’re looking forward to doing, not what you’re tired of in your current job. “I’d love to work with students who speak in full sentences” may be the truth, but that doesn’t give the committee a lot of inspiration. Talk about your interests, your strengths, and what you think high school students need from their counselors. They’re looking for a reason to hire you. Hand it to them.

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

A Schoolwide Conversation About College

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I got involved in research as an undergraduate for the same noble reason all undergraduates do—I needed the credits to round out my schedule. It turned out to be a real game changer: I did the work at my own pace, on my own schedule, in a semester when Michigan State’s campus was at its most beautiful, and its least populated. It was one of the two or three experiences that defined college for me.

The topic also turned out to be a game changer. A Psychology professor was looking into language acquisition—how children learn to speak, and what factors shape that experience. After a summer’s worth of listening to and decoding tapes of households talking with babies present, a pattern was emerging. Babies learned language sooner, and better, if they were exposed to more adults. Not adults who were related to them, and not to English scholars. Just more adults.

High schools seem to understand this when it comes to talking with students about college. For the past 15 years or so, many schools have had a College Awareness Week, a kind of Spirit Week that focuses on what college is, why people go to college, and how students can explore and apply to college. Some high schools even have pep rallies for college awareness, even though Pomp and Circumstance doesn’t quite inspire the masses as much as the school fight song.

One element that seems to resonate with students is College Conversation Day. All of the adults are encouraged to wear their college gear that day, and the teachers are strongly urged to spend the first five minutes or so of class talking to students about their college experience—where they went to high school, what they thought about college when they were 16, how they ended up going to the college they attended, and what they think about the experience. Many also offer advice on how students should go about picking their college experience, including the factors that should and shouldn’t matter.

Now that spring is here, it’s time to start building next year’s presentation calendar, and I hope you’ll consider adding a College Conversation Day if you don’t already have one. Putting this together doesn’t require all that much; a presentation at a faculty meeting, an email reiterating the main points, a couple of trays of bagels or donuts in the faculty room on the big day (Parent Council), and a thank you email the day after.

If you’re worried you’re asking untrained adults to talk about college, don’t be. For starters, untrained adults do this all the time; besides, this actually gives you the chance to offer some gentle training. If you’re worried a couple of adults might go overboard—and you already know who those might be—that’s the teacher whose classroom you “stop by” the day of the event, ready to steer the presentation if need be.

On the other hand, if you’re worried this might lead to more students coming down to your office and asking about college, I’m just wondering why that would be a worry. More college conversations means more college awareness (“I’d never even heard of that college!” “Mr. Jones went there? Maybe I can too!”), and better understanding of the language and world of college. You know your stuff, and you have time to prepare the next steps for all kinds of terrific questions that will feed their inner college beast. You’re just widening the funnel, increasing the chances your students will have their own life-changing college campus summer of research and wonder. What a deal.