Wednesday, November 29, 2023

New Year’s Eve FAFSA? Uh, No.

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Dear US Department of Education:

Thank you for taking action on the long-standing request from students, parents, colleges, and counselors for updating the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The old FAFSA had more questions than many income tax forms, and even though I was rooting for the updated version that consisted of two questions (“What’s the income of your household? How many people are in your household?” yielded a 95% match to current Pell eligibility in an unofficial study I can’t find now), the 36-or-so question version you’re rolling out is a huge step in the right direction.

Now, about the rollout. Counselors were respectfully reserved when you announced the new FAFSA would not be ready for a November release (like the old FAFSA was) and would be coming out in December. We schedule Paying for College programs in November (they’re no longer called Financial Aid Nights because that title has a stigma), and a November rollout allows many early college applicants to get their financial aid information before Christmas, when many families have common time off, and can discuss weighty matters like this. Still, we mumbled our acquiescence, using the chant of “36 questions” as our mantra.

You can imagine our, um, surprise when the weeks before Thanksgiving brought the announcement there’s a very good chance FAFSA will roll out December 31. Yes, the announcement did say the debut would be no later than New Year’s Eve, but veteran counselors know that a “release by” date means something’s going to happen at the last possible minute.

If that’s the case here, this is a terrible, terrible idea.

I’m hoping I don’t have to point out to the department supporting America’s schools that New Year’s Eve finds all of American’s schools closed—in fact, most of them have been empty for at least a week by then. This means a December 31 FAFSA rollout would give students and parents access to a form they’ve never seen before, a form that makes the difference for thousands of students between affording college, or deferring their very realistic dreams—all without the availability of counselors to help them navigate the form.

If you think that doesn’t matter—that most parents who actually look at the form and get confused will say “Hey, we’ll just ask the counselor about this when school opens”, you are overestimating the resilience of many families, especially many parents of first-generation students who aren’t quite sure about this whole college thing in the first place. And don’t forget the parents who insist that the federal government doesn’t need to know about their finances. Add in their hesitance to talking about money with counselors, and you’ve got an Auld Lang Syne trifecta for higher education disaster. (And if you’re thinking, hey, can’t the counselors just go to the school and field questions on New Year’s Day, I respectfully respond—Really?)

I never pretend to speak for the entire counseling profession, but if December 31st is the best you can do for the new FAFSA rollout, move it to January 10. Schools are open, counselors have dealt with students who had tough holidays, and the profession you are charged with supporting will be able to bring laser-focus to the new FAFSA.

You may think sooner is better, and you’re right—so by all means, feel free to roll out the new FAFSA today. If it’s any time after December 20th, give it a rest until January 10. Unlike most things in the world of counseling, that would be a situation where less is much, much more.

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

The Student I Never Knew

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

As I recall, the subject line of the email was so plain, I almost deleted it in the preview screen—but off we went, and it went something like this.

“Dear Mr. O’Connor:

“You don’t know me, but I attended one of your college application seminars at the public library two years ago. You said that building a college list only worked if you looked around enough to understand all the possibilities, and that too many students settle for the easy answers. It’s important to make sound choices, you said, but don’t be afraid to follow your heart a little.

“I went home and realized I hadn’t done that, so I started looking again. I came across a small school in California, so much of a better opportunity than the schools I had on my list. I did some additional investigating, applied, and was admitted. I can’t tell you what a wonderful first year I had last year. It was everything I’d hoped college would be.

“I was flying back this week to start my second year, when I noticed an article you wrote in the in-flight magazine about choosing the right college. This gave me the perfect opportunity to thank you for helping me find the right place for me. I’m most grateful.”

I was once told that a counselor could only retire once they helped a student they hadn’t met. I first figured that meant I’d work forever. But I got this email at least fifteen years ago, and did kind of retire at that point—I retired any doubt that I didn’t know what I was doing.

It made a world of difference. Students who had no idea what came after high school got even more words of understanding than before, since I was no longer afraid I’d be fired for failing to “get them in.”

A parent argued—in front of her own senior—that the student wasn’t bright enough to get into his first-choice college. “Their GPA is too low” she insisted.

I picked up his transcript—which didn’t have a cumulative GPA—and looked at it with 20 years of calculating GPAs behind me. “Gee” I said, “They’ve probably got a 3.42.”

The words barely came out of my mouth before the mother yelled—yelled—“It is not”.

That used to be enough to cause a week of sleepless nights. But I knew that I knew what I was doing now, so I started to use the phrase that would come in handy with every scared parent—and every parent who yells is just scared—I would ever meet again.


I calculated the GPA when they left, and I was wrong. It wasn’t 3.42. It was 3.43.

Meetings with students became more open-ended. I stopped asking about college, asking instead “What’s next for you?” I knew the ones who answered with a college list really didn’t understand the question, and if Harvard was the dream, they’d need a lot of backups. The ones who answered with what they wanted to study, the places they wanted to see—or, best of all, the questions they wanted to explore—had the sense of self that could sustain the fragile boasting of the rich pretenders in The Yahd. They were going to be just fine wherever they went.

Thanks to that student, I now know every student I helped bring what’s next to life had this quality—it was all them. That’s the best you can hope for in a profession that requires students to be first.

That, and helping a student you never met.

Wednesday, November 8, 2023

A Quick Review of Early Applications

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

November 1st is finally in the rearview mirror, giving counselors a chance to breath just a little until the November 15th deadline, and a chance to reflect on how things went in the early application period:

Lists are beyond aggressive A number of counselors are reporting more students with college lists that seem to be based more on hope than anything else. It isn’t unusual for a few students to come in with a list of colleges that, based on the numbers, make the student a reach candidate. This year, more lists than usual are fitting that description, and fewer of these lists seem to contain any schools where the student stands a more realistic chance at admission.

There seems to be a perception among some parents that their child’s chances of admission at reach schools will be increased this year if the student, teachers, and/or counselors attribute the child’s performance to issues related to COVID. While COVID has played a role in the achievement levels of many students, these parents seem to be forgetting that every high school senior applying to college had some COVID hardships to overcome, and many of them still came out of the experience with exceptionally high grades.

This isn’t to say colleges will slough off COVID if it’s offered as a cause of hardship, but its frequent appearance—and the availability of COVID-affected students with stronger credentials—make it less likely that B students will be considered at schools used to seeing A applicants. Meanwhile, the lists that include places like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale—with Columbia as the safety school—seem to be on the rise.

SARs are out of control. Counselors were delighted when colleges first started asking students to self-report grades. This step would speed up the admissions process, and since students had no reason to lie, the approach seemed nearly foolproof.

Yes, well. So many colleges are now asking for self-reported grades—in different formats—students are finding it harder to apply to college than ever before. This is especially true at colleges that wait to ask the student for self-reported grades until after the student applies. Colleges that wanted all materials by November 1st can’t reasonably expect students to submit an SAR they didn’t know about in a timely fashion, but that’s exactly what some students and counselors are fearing.

Someone needs to take this issue by the horns. Creation of a common SAR may be a pipe dream, but what about creating a website where students submit this information once, and the website contains algorithms that format the information to the liking of a particular college? That would make everyone happy, including counselors, who are now spending hours no longer working on transcripts—since those hours find them working with students on SARs instead.

Financial Aid? Yes, Well… Some early applicants applying for financial aid feel hamstrung by the December release of the new FAFSA. This is especially true for Early Decision applicants needing aid, since the only escape clause from an ED application is if the college doesn’t meet full demonstrated need. If the college says yes in December, but doesn’t offer aid until February, what is the student to do?

Unpopular as this may be, it is likely wise for ED applicants with need to continue to apply to other schools, and to keep those applications active until they hear about the money their ED school has to offer. This is by no means the perfect answer, but an exceptional year calls for exceptional circumstances—and all qualified college-bound students deserve the right to be somewhere come next fall.

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Helping Teachers Be College Counseling Advocates

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

This week, we zero in on specific activities teachers can do, mostly independent of you, to help advance your college curriculum.

Tell their story The more adults who “talk college”, the more students will go. Teacher stories are a huge help, since it brings the choice of college to life-- as long as they are told in the context of lessons learned, not with a tone of “yeah, that was awful, so don’t bother.”

Many high schools have a College Application Week, a Spirit Week to promote college awareness. Many of these programs devote a day for teachers to wear their college gear and spend five minutes of each class period talking about their college experience. With a little training from you, this is a powerful experience.

Give them reminders A quick monthly email from you keeps the teachers clued into your postsecondary planning curriculum, and what the students are experiencing. Give a quick summary of each grade level and some one sentence announcements to share with students (“Juniors, have you signed up for the ACT?”), so they can nudge them in a way you may not have time for. They also might keep their academic expectations in mind as they assign homework, as in, don’t give seniors a term paper in October. Write these once, and you’ll use them every year.

Teacher letters of recommendation The best thing most teachers can do is write letters of recommendation colleges value. Typically, that’s not the case; colleges report that most teacher letters are so vague, they don’t really say anything about the student.

The goal The goal of a teacher letter is show what it’s like to work with the student in the classroom on a regular basis.

The start of the letter A great teacher letter starts with a story about the student. “I’ll never forget the look on Bill’s face when he talked about three new applications (to him) of titration. It was like he saw the whole world in front of him, and was eager to understand all of it.” Too many teacher letters start with too many adjectives. They should give colleges a close-up view of the person the college wants to get to know beyond the numbers and the platitudes.

Activities? No Some teachers include the student’s activities in the letter as a way to say “See? I really know this kid!” Those are somewhere else on the application, so the teacher should show their understanding of the student in a different, more personal way—all in one page (and only one page-- really).

Other relationships? Maybe It’s OK to say they were also the student’s cross-country coach, but it’s better if they have a cross-country story to match the classroom story. Mentioning the connection is OK; using a cross-country story is a little better; connecting that with the classroom side of the student is gold.

Description Paragraphs two and three include what the teacher sees in the student. Adjectives are OK here, but adjectives with examples are much better. Qualities like curiosity, innovation, classroom leadership, level of academic preparedness, combined with examples, make a killer letter.

Closing It’s OK for the teacher to sign the letter giving the college some idea how long they’ve taught (Bill Smith, Geometry teacher for 20 years), but that’s really the only place the teacher talks about them.

Giving a letter writing workshop to teachers is a great way to do this. Better yet—invite a college rep to do it, which, for better or for worse, gives it more credibility, since they read the letters. Don’t take it personally.

[Photo: York High School, Nebraska staff wear spirit gear on College and Career Day]