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.