Wednesday, April 17, 2024

FAFSA Foul-Ups? Apply Anyway (For Your Students)

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Students, I get it.

I used to work for the US Department of Education, and they’re supposed to be helping you get an education—but it sure doesn’t seem that way, if you’ve applied for financial aid for life after high school. They changed the FAFSA form—the one used to apply for aid—and it was supposed to make applying easier.

It didn’t work. The new version had flaws, and more flaws are discovered nearly every week. Those students who did manage to apply have now been told there weren’t one, but two, incorrect formulas used to calculate eligibility—and this means many colleges won’t be sending out financial aid awards until May. This isn’t the fault of the colleges—and it isn’t your fault, either.

Colleges understand this, and they are doing everything they can to let students know two things:

  1. We want you to apply to our college.
  2. We want to do everything we can to help pay for it.

Students and families applying for aid are understandably frustrated with everything that’s happening. Given that, here’s my advice:


It’s never great when the people who are supposed to help you actually get in the way of you achieving a goal, but that doesn’t mean the goal is less important—it just means it’s a little harder to achieve. Some of you didn’t pass your driver’s test on the first try, but you still got your license, because it mattered. Some of you weren’t exactly LeBron James when you first picked up a basketball, or played the guitar like Prince when you first picked up your musical instrument. But you stayed with it, and you got better.

Applying for financial aid, at least this year, is kind of the same thing. It’s only supposed to take one try, but for some reason, this year it’s going to take more than that. If you’re completing a FAFSA to go to college, college is still cool, and you still deserve to go. Persist.

If you’re using your FAFSA for technical training, that training is still cool, and that job is still going to pay way more than the local sandwich shop now, and will pay way, way more over 30 years. Persist.

No matter why you’re completing your FAFSA, you’re likely going to end up making more money, living a better life, and understanding more about yourself if it helps pay for the experience you’re looking for. That’s still cool. Persist.

Help is here if you need it. Start with your high school counselor—and yes, I know they see a zillion students, so getting to see them might be a challenge. You’re worth putting in the time—persist.

If that doesn’t work, call the financial aid office of the college or program you’re applying to, or thinking about applying to. They want you to apply, and if FAFSA is getting in your way, they will likely have some advice on how to overcome that hurdle.

This FAFSA nightmare was never supposed to happen, and many of the adults involved with helping students go to college are asking for big changes to make sure it never happens again. It’s hard to say how long that will take—but then again, that kind of doesn’t matter. For now, we’re going to focus on you, and what we need to do to help you reach your goal for life after high school.

For better or worse, the next step is yours to take, but we’re here, with real help, when you take it. Persi—well, you get it.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Giving Back

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Hamtramck is a Detroit enclave with Polish roots, a part of town where, in the day, neighbors would scrub their sidewalks together until you could eat off them. It’s a wonderfully diverse neighborhood now, still hosting a Paczki run each Lenten season, named after the Polish donut with a zillion calories you eat on Fat Tuesday. The route runs through neighborhoods, and your 5K effort is rewarded at the end with a table of Paczki to the left, and a table of beer to the right.

As I ran past these very-close-together houses with kids in their pajamas sitting on the stoops, cheering for the runners (remember, this is February), I wished there was something I could do for this old-school, blue collar community. I was born in a neighborhood in northwest Detroit that wasn’t too different from this one, with houses owned by people who had been raised in the Depression, most of them having served in World War II, Korea, or both. Once they came home, there were only three things they wanted in life: a house with indoor plumbing (no, I am not kidding), a small yard to cut on sunny Saturday mornings and drink beer in on sunny Saturday afternoons in a folding chair, and the chance for their kids to go to college. Hamtramck was screaming the same vibe. If only I could figure out how to help.

It turns out I didn’t have to do much but wish to make it so. About a week later, and completely out of the blue, the Hamtramck PTA president somehow tracked me down, and asked if I’d give a college access talk at their high school. We talked to set things up, and it was clear she was a go-getter, one of those moms who talked on the phone to set up dentist appointments with a baby on her hip, while gesticulating to her other children to get ready for school. It turned out Donna Reed wasn’t dead. She was now Greek, and living in Hamtramck.

I was ushered into a barren auditorium that was rich with the memory of ten thousand assemblies that all started with the Pledge of Allegiance. The walls were undecorated, likely holding their color from the Eisenhower administration, and the kid from the AV club set up a microphone the Andrews Sisters could have used. Students filtered in, many of them girls with covered heads, accompanied by mothers with covered heads, and several younger siblings. I shifted my gaze back and forth, seeing the face of each parent in the face of each student, and caught my breath. I was witnessing an illustration of the dictionary definition of family.

My presentation was warmly received, but only a handful of audience members came up to ask questions. At first, I wondered if my talk had met the needs of those in attendance, since most of my other presentations were concluded by go-getter parents lurching to the front of the room to ask about Harvard or something like that. It then occurred to me: this neighborhood doesn’t work that way. You make the most out of what’s given you, and express gratitude for the chance to do just that.

The PTA president was the last to talk to me, energized by the presentation, overflowing with kindness and gratitude. My payment was a handwritten thank you note and the best homemade Greek pastries I’ve ever had…

…and a reminder how lucky I am to be in a profession where I can make a difference, if only I put myself out there a little.

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

FAFSA Foul Ups? Enough—Someone Needs to Go

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

I can’t think of a single school counselor who wouldn’t be disciplined, even fired, if they prevented half of their seniors from applying to college. These students want to go to college, and they’ve navigated many hoops and hurdles to build academic and extracurricular records that not only show their ability to be successful in college, but give them the skills, knowledge, and attitudes to be successful once they arrive on campus. Some take tests, some give up summers for additional learning experiences, some beg their parents to let them at least try college, and all understand what college can do for them, as well as what they can do for college. They’re about as ready as they can be, but they aren’t going to go, because their counselor created an application system that wouldn’t allow them to apply, or gave the impression they shouldn’t bother.

You likely see where this is going. Last February 1st, 6 million students had filed a FAFSA. This February 1st, that number was 3 million. The December 31 “rollout” of FAFSA was really part Beta-test, part blackout, with the site up for a while, then dark for hours, like electricity in a developing nation. Parents without Social Security numbers couldn’t apply at all for quite some time, and, depending on who you talk to, still can’t. Those students who did manage to apply have now been told there weren’t one, but two, incorrect algorithms in the formula used to calculate eligibility. Colleges were notified that, in all likelihood, they won’t get the FAFSA information they need until May 1 to put together final, real financial aid packages.

Counselors who work with low-income and first-generation students will tell you it takes a lot to convince most of them that college is worth a try, and that it doesn’t take much to derail their interest in the process if it gets too complicated. This isn’t just about writing drafts of college essays; it’s about the messages they receive from the adults involved in the admissions and application process. Many of these students are convinced they aren’t really welcome in the world of higher education. Give wrong advice on a Web page, or tell them to come back later with the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West, and you will simply not hear from them ever again.

Most colleges get this—it’s too bad the Department of Education doesn’t. Apologies and claims of underfunding aside, the Department had three years to bring the new FAFSA online. I know nothing about computer programming, but I know about project deadlines, and I know about kids. If a project is due Friday, you complete it by Tuesday. If the project involves kids, you bring in a half-dozen of them, give them pizza, show them the project, and say “Does this make sense at all?”, then fine tune it so it’s really done by Thursday.

The absence of planning on the part of the Department of Education regarding FAFSA upgrades is more than embarrassing. It has already cost students, families, and our nation’s economy dearly. Many of the students who survived COVID are eager to build brighter futures for themselves, only to find a bureaucratic plague preventing them from doing so.

High school counselors who build barriers to college access get fired, and rightfully so. I don’t want another “Isn’t FAFSA great” social media post from the Department of Education. I want to know who’s getting fired for this nightmare—and I want their apology to America’s students on the front page of The New York Times.

Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Working With Disappointed Students

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

The slow trickle of college decisions builds to a rushing stream this week and gains tsunami proportions by the end of the month. Predictions are for a record number of college applicants, which most likely means a record number of students going to college in the fall…

… but students don't always see this bigger, better picture if one of their top colleges turns down their application. Not every student who was waitlisted or turned away asks for advice, but these three concepts can help you support and encourage those who do:

Your first job as a counselor is to listen. It's all too easy to overreact to a sobbing senior holding a rejection letter in his hands, or the student who keeps staring at her phone, reading the same text over and over again from a college that has said no, blank expression on her face. These tell-tale signs clearly indicate some college-induced disappointmen — but they don't provide a single clue about why the student feels the way they do.

Enter your counseling skills. Your office provides the space far away from fist-pumping admitted students and "You're in" text messages, and gives a student the chance to gain perspective, poise, and the words to describe what they're thinking. The quietude of your office gives them the right place to try out how they're feeling, with only a question or two from you to guide them. Never assume you know why the decision makes them unhappy; create an atmosphere that encourages them to tell you.

Watch out for the silent majority. Not all students treat college decisions like the end of the Super Bowl — in fact, most students have heeded your counseling advice and are calmly happy with the admission offers they've received from other colleges. At the same time, some of these reserved students may need help understanding what their college decisions mean; they just don't want to call attention to themselves by seeking you out.

The most important work you can do as a counselor is sort out the quiet, happy students from the quiet, questioning students. Wander the halls, walk the cafeteria, talk to your teaching colleagues and ask how the students are doing. Good teachers know the difference between a quiet student who's working well and one who's working through a challenge; count on them to find the students who most need the help, even if the student can't find the words to ask for it.

Always point them forward. Exploration of why a college made a certain admissions decision can help heal the past, but it does only so much to help the student to face the future with a sense of purpose and expectation, key qualities to a successful college transition. That's why it's vital that the end of any exploration of what has happened to a student's college plans ends with a discussion of what will happen with a student's college plans.

The next step may be a small one —how to break the news to Mom and Dad, how to decide among the colleges that offered admission, or even how to organize their homework for the next day — but every step forward reinforces the underlying message of all college admissions counseling: College decisions aren't character indictments; you are the same complete person you were this morning; what happens tomorrow is largely determined by what you do with today's opportunities.

Regardless of what admissions offices send out this month, accepting these key premises is the best college decision any senior can make. Guiding them to that acceptance is the privilege of our work.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

When a College Says No

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

The real madness of March has nothing to do with basketball—it begins when colleges announce their admissions decisions, starting around March 20. As a pre-game warmup, let’s review what we already know:

  • Most selective colleges report an increase in applicants every year;
  • Since these schools don’t admit more students than they did last year, that means they end up saying no to more students…
  • …and wait-listing more students. This increase means fewer students are likely to be admitted from the waitlist come May—and if they are admitted, financial aid will be scarce.

To ease your concern, I have one word of advice. Actually, it’s a number:


To begin with, calm down. This is not the highest score you can earn on some mystery version of the SAT. Eight hundred fifty is the number of valedictorians recently rejected from one of America’s most prestigious colleges. These students represented the best their high schools had to offer; they did everything they were “supposed” to do, yet they weren’t even offered a place on the waitlist.

At this point you’re probably thinking one of two things:

  1. “Wow, they put in all that work for nothing.”
  2. “Geez, if they can’t get in, I don’t stand a chance.”

First things first. It had to be hard to be turned down by a school they loved—but did all that preparation really lead to nothing? Given everything these students had learned, the ways they had grown, and how they overcame adversity and embraced creativity in creating College Plans, B, C, and Q, did they really get nothing out of it?

If so, they have every right to be unhappy, but not with the college. They should be unhappy watching the sun rise and set 1307 times since the first day of ninth grade to the day the college said no, never once appreciating all each of those days had to offer in and of themselves.

They should hang their heads a little to realize, just now, the difference they’ve made to their classmates, their teammates, and the people in the soup kitchen.

And if they look back with regret on the many times they blew off a compliment from a teacher or parent because the goal of college wasn’t realized, that’s more than OK. They now know that the goal of fully living each day was conquered with a flourish—and that understanding will make each day all the richer at the wonderful college that had the good sense (and room) to take them.

What about the colleges you applied to? They’re looking for great students who have done wonderful things with their lives, and will work nicely with the other admitted students. That blend goes beyond test score and class rank—it goes to who you are, what you care about, and how you see the world. Problem is, they run out of room before they run out of qualified applicants.

The thing to focus on then is not who told you no, but who told you yes. If a college wants you but runs out of room, that’s their fault; if they don’t see you for who you really are, well, maybe that’s not the place for you after all. Either way, your contributions will be greatly admired, and badly needed, by the college that had the good sense to tell you yes—which means any no, from any college, simply cannot touch you.

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

A Chance to Make a Difference

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

This time of year leads to lots of second guessing, especially if you live somewhere that sees snow. Lawns are this interesting shade of yellow, there’s a film of salt on the roads, gardens look like vast voids of brown. Given the visual cues, it’s fair to wonder—is there really anything pretty out there?

The same can be said for being a school counselor this time of year. Despite winter break, there’s a sense of cabin fever to all these gray days. Most winter sports seasons are over, and spring sports haven’t started—and in our offices, most of the conversation is about scheduling, a task which really isn’t ours to do. Combined with a quick review of the goals statement you wrote for yourself in the fall, it can be easy to wonder, am I really doing any good?

Two things. First—yes. Like the spring bulbs planted in September, much of the work you’ve been doing has been developing in ways you can’t see just now. The warmth of spring will provide a burst of energy to the students you’ve been working with, and many will show growth and poise even you couldn’t have hoped for. Life is a work in progress, especially in March. Keep at it.

Second, if the paperwork, procedures and politics of work is simply not allowing you to see the forest for the trees, it might be time for a journey that will refresh your soul.

Enter The Matchlighters Scholars Program. Really bright low-income students are paired with caring counselors for help building a college list, writing college essays, or both. They work together for 10 hours, stay in touch frequently by email, and engage in the kind of relationship most counselors long for, with students who need it the most, and often get it the least. Counselors who volunteer to take on a student often go beyond the 10 hours, in part because they just enjoy the company of the student, and in part because this counseling relationship doesn’t involve the red tape or administrative angst that comes with their day job. This is about as close to pure counseling as it gets.

Matchlighters is the brainchild of Ethan Sawyer, aka College Essay Guy. His organization is known for being incredibly student-friendly, from the blogs to the pay-what-you-can services they offer. It only makes sense that a group with this reputation would try and connect bright kids with the services they need to make the most of who they are.

A recent conversation with a Matchlighter counselor showed a professional whose productivity at work was uplifted and improved, thanks to the chance to focus on a counseling relationship in an environment that is free from all other distractions. Much like regular exercise and hobbies can lend new perspective on work, this work has done the same for counseling professionals, making them more effective on the job, by doing the job somewhere else.

More than a few counselors look at the college selection process and wonder what can really be done to even the playing field for students who, through no fault of their own, have fewer resources to devote to that process. If you have 10 hours and an optimistic spirit, you can do what really needs to be done to at least level one student’s playing field, and watch their future blossom like the flowers of spring.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

A New Approach to College Admissions Testing Policies

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Dear Junior:

You’ve probably heard many colleges are updating their admissions policies regarding the submission of test scores. Since you’ve expressed an interest in applying to Everold College, we thought we’d reach out and let you know we’ve updated our policy as well.

Everold had long required SAT or ACT test scores, feeling these scores give us a clearer understanding of where students stood nationally. Our ability to use those scores ran into significant challenges when COVID broke in 2020, leading us to go to a test optional policy. Our reason was simple: Students can’t be responsible for taking a test they can’t get to.

Since then, and especially in the last year, the number of students submitting ACT and/or SAT scores as part of their admission materials has increased significantly, as have the number of contacts from students and parents about when scores should be submitted, and requests for us to go test blind.

A statistical review of our last 10 years of admissions suggests we are not quite prepared to go test blind. Everold has long had an algorithm that provides special consideration for students from lower income zipcodes, to offset some of the alleged biases thought to exist in the tests. In addition, the option of not sending scores has been in place for four years. This allows students who feel their scores are not representative of their best work to withhold that information.

Our review suggests this policy is insufficient. It seems clear that students from lower-income zip codes are less aware of this option, and may be equally unaware when to send or not send scores. In addition, the conventional wisdom typically given to students—only send test scores at or above the posted mean on our website—often hurts applicants whose scores may be slightly under our mean, where their GPA may be helped by submitting testing information.

As a result, Everold College is pleased to announce Hold Harmless Testing. Effective with our admissions cycle this fall, students will have the option of not sending scores; sending scores and having them considered, or sending scores and asking us to review them. Applicants who request this option will submit scores, which will be evaluated by a reader whose sole job is to look at the applicant’s materials, and decide if test scores could help the student in our admissions process.

If the reviewer concludes the scores would reduce the chances of admission, the scores will be removed from the applicant’s file. If the reviewer feels the scores may help, or will help, the applicant’s file, they will be left in the file. The applicant will then be notified of the reviewer’s decision, and have ten days to override that decision. This leaves the submission of test scores entirely up to the applicant.

Once this process is complete, the reviewed file will be forwarded to the admissions committee for consideration. If test scores were removed, no indication of that will be made in the file. In fact, the committee will never know which of the three testing options any student chose.

The reviewer in Hold Harmless will not be on the committee, nor have the opportunity to discuss their work with members of the committee. Hold Harmless reviewers have already had extensive training in reviewing files, and have a 99% accuracy when compared to the decisions of committee members.

The Hold Harmless policy is being implemented with the hopes of reducing student anxiety in the application process. Please let us know if you have any questions, and thank you for your continued interest in Everold College.