Wednesday, February 7, 2024

An Open Letter to Education Secretary Cardona

by Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D.

Mr. Secretary:

I don’t often speak on behalf of the school counselor profession, even though I’ve been president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and inaugural School Counselor Ambassador Fellow at the Department of Education (ED). But, circumstances being what they are, and emboldened by this being National School Counseling Week, I’m going to roll the dice of drawing the ire of some colleagues and speak for the team.

Mr. Secretary, you owe us.

We have been moving heaven and earth to get students to consider college—not because it helps the economy, or makes our high schools look good, but because college is the logical choice for many students to advance their personal and professional goals, and many don’t know that. We put on presentations, we hold information nights, we even talk about this with students and parents in elementary schools—in short, we stand on our heads to get this information out.

And so, the now-informed families who see the advantages of college are ready for their children to attend, as long as they get some help paying for it.

From you.

Last February, 6 million families had filled out a FAFSA. This year, that number is 3 million—and, with all respect, it isn’t because the other 3 million hit the lottery. It’s wonderful the new FAFSA has far fewer questions, but if students can’t get to the website to answer them, and colleges have to wait until March to put packages together, many first-time families we won over are going to give up.

Your department is likely doing the best they can with this—but there’s more to do. If you really want to help kids think college, your department can spearhead:

A Common SRAR Many of the more popular colleges ask students to enter their grades on the Self-Reported Academic Record (SRAR). This helps speed up review of an application—but since most colleges have their own version of this form, redundancy discourages students from applying to college. An ED-produced SRAR colleges download into their data systems means students would only have to fill it out once. You could then say “Now that you’ve finished your SRAR, check here to start your FAFSA, and we’ll import your information from your SRAR so you’ll only have to answer 20 more questions.” If a college wants federal aid, they’d have to take your form.

Funding for School Counselors Federal COVID money was used in part to hire more school counselors, and the student-counselor ratio is now below 400 nationally. That’s still short of the 250 to 1 goal, but it’s progress. To help students more, we’ll need more funding.

More Counselor Training Most school counselors never had a unique course in college counseling. Syllabi exist for these courses, as does a list of course outcomes. If the 500 institutions offering school counselor training want to keep federal funding, require them to adjust degree requirements to include a separate course in college counseling.

Cash for College If you really want to win back the 3 million students now sitting on the FAFSA sidelines, announce ED will give every FAFSA filer $100 cash. Congress will fund this in an election year, and you’ll mean it when you say filing a FAFSA leads to money.

Franklin Roosevelt’s first 100 days in office is considered the gold standard in government action, largely because he didn’t really care what Congress, the courts, or anybody else thought—the need was great. When it comes to college advising, Mr. Secretary, the need is also great. Sir, it’s time to lead.

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