Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Summer Melt: Calling Out the Colleges

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

If you’re not familiar with American University’s new Center for Postsecondary Readiness and Success, it’s time to take a look. Started just this year, the Center is aiming to become *the* counselor resource for tools, studies, data, and research on the best practices in postsecondary planning.  While the Center is just getting underway, it’s worth keeping an eye on, and definitely worth following on Twitter, since they post the latest in research in postsecondary advising.

The Center recently held a Twitter chat on summer melt, and it was particularly enlightening.  All kinds of community-based organizations and postsecondary advocacy groups participated, offering tools, Websites, and insights into effective ways to make sure students who tell you in June that they’re going to college, actually make it to college in the fall. (That’s why it’s called Summer Melt—the college plans of up to 20 percent of all students melt away in the summer, as students forget to submit final transcripts, complete financial aid forms, attend orientation, or simply change their minds.)

All of these community-based resources looked helpful, and some offered some impressive results.  As we’ve discussed here before, one of the most effective tools is a disposable cell phone, where school counselors text weekly reminders to students over the summer about what to do, and when to call their colleges.  This simple practice can offer students the support they need, now that they aren’t seeing a counselor on a regular basis.

These solutions all sound great, but as I reviewed them, I couldn’t help but wonder—where are the colleges in this important effort?  If a student doesn’t show up for college in the fall, the college loses another bright mind, and more than a little bit of money.  Even more important, the college loses the opportunity to bond early with the student, in an essential way.  By reaching out through texting to the student—ideally before high school is over—the college is making a connection with the student, the kind of strong, supportive, “we’re here for you” connection research finds essential for students to make a smooth transition to college—especially low-income and first-generation students.

I’ve asked colleges about this, and their responses are unimpressive.  “Who would send the texts?”  “This could cost us money.”  “Who has the time to do this?”

It may be helpful here to remind my college colleagues that one of the most essential cures to summer melt involves a school counselor buying a disposable cell phone out of their own pocket, and using their high school’s Remind account to text students every week during the summer—the only time they aren’t actually working.  Since keeping one of your students from melting over the summer saves you thousands of dollars, do you think you could find a way to buy your own disposable cell phone, collect every applicant’s cell number when they apply, and pay a work study student to use the college’s free Remind account to text college-specific updates to students once a week, while they sit poolside? We aren’t talking about investing in a lazy river here; by the time all is said and done, this is about a hundred bucks.

I know some colleges are doing this already, but more of you need to step up—ideally, from the moment the student is admitted.  Getting texts from colleges as early as November is a sure way to make the student excited, encouraged, and comfortable with their college choice—and is there a better combination of qualities to have in an incoming freshman?

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Worried About College? Be Like Sara!

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Sara came home from a softball game last spring and was surprised to see her father’s car in the driveway. May was a busy month in his line of work, so he usually went back to the office after watching Sara pitch, finished a little paperwork, and came home in time for a late dinner.

That day, he greeted his daughter in the kitchen. “Nice game, Ace!”

“Thanks, Daddy. Why are you home?”

He beamed at his 11th-grade daughter and said, “I have a surprise. There’s an overseas community service project heading to a small village in Japan. They’ve opened a large orphanage there for children who lost parents in the earthquake, and they need volunteers to help with the babies, so the residents can rebuild their homes.”

Sara peeled an orange while her father continued. 

“You’d be there four days, and you’d be making a difference in the world. Your grades are strong and your pitching is great, but I think something like this could put you over the top at the colleges we’re talking about. The Web site for the project is up on the computer. What do you say?”

Sara continued to peel the orange. “Can we talk about it at dinner?”

Her father was a little deflated, but he smiled back. “Sure, honey. I’m going to run back to the office for a little bit, but I’ll see you at seven.”

Dad came through the kitchen door at 7:15 and quickly took his place at the table with the rest of the family. After more congratulations for Sara’s great game and a little razzing about her hair from her tech-savvy brother John, her dad said “So, how about Japan?”

Sara put her fork down slowly and looked up. “It’s a great idea, Dad, but I looked on the Web site. Does this trip really cost $6000?”

Her father choked on his ice water, while Sara’s mom gave him a long, cold stare.

“We can afford this, Sara,” he said, smiling faintly. “It’s about your future.”

Sara looked down at her placemat again, and swallowed hard. “Well, I looked up the name of the town I’d be going to. It turns out Habitat for Humanity is working there, too, and they need $4000 for a new pump so the town can get fresh water again. I also called the Boys and Girls Club down on Wilson Street, and they said they could really use some help this summer.

“I sure appreciate the offer, Daddy, but don’t you think it would be better if I stayed here, and we sent the $4000 to Habitat for Humanity? That way, the town would have fresh water forever, John could get that new computer he’ll need for high school next year, we’d have a little money left over for my college fund, and I could still make a difference in the world. It would just be a difference in my own neighborhood.”

Sara’s mother did a very bad job of trying to chew nonchalantly, while John tried hard to wipe the tears out of his eyes in a 14-year-old macho fashion. Her father’s shoulders relaxed, as he smiled almost to himself, and said “Yeah, honey. That’s a great idea.”

Sara will be a senior next year — but the question you should be asking yourself is not “Where will she get in?”

The question to consider is, “Does it really matter?”

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

A Counselor’s Thank You to Teachers

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

We hear about all the great teachers in the counseling office.  The one who set the times tables to the tune of Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” ensuring kids will remember them forever, even if it will take a while to get to eight times nine.  Mr. Jones, the history teacher who dressed up like Benjamin Franklin for an entire week and never once broke character.  The tenth grade English teacher who finally explained “I after e” in a way that made sense.  When you put that much thought into a lesson, it makes for memorable teaching.

Of course, that’s not the only way teachers become memorable.  The teacher who said just the right words at just the right time to the bully who had incredible art talent, making the student more comfortable with who they really were, and less of a bully.  The teacher who wore the cut-rate perfume a special needs student gave her at Christmas, every time that student had a spelling test—the same perfume she’d wear when attending that student’s graduation from medical school. The teacher who shows up at the Saturday soccer league and cheers loudly for all of her students on the sidelines, even though her students are spread throughout both teams, and it’s forty degrees out. 

You can’t analyze a test score to determine what these teachable moments do to the learning and learning habits of students, but everyone seems to understand what they do to students’ learning, and students’ lives.  Like recess, these teachable moments inspire in ways we can’t quite measure, but we still know their worth is beyond measure.

These aren’t just discrete, feel-good stories.  Most of my counseling work for the last thirteen years has involved working with students in college placement.  In that time, every student—every single one—has had the chance to go to college; many have earned at least one merit scholarship, and for those who have been out for four years or more, nearly all of them have finished college on time. 

Almost none of that is due to me.  It’s a tribute to the teacher who took a group of six year-olds into the woods for an entire class period and told them to watch and listen—and they did; to the teacher who had flags from 45 nations in his fourth-grade Social Studies classroom, and talked about the country each flag represented for a full year; to the two teachers who took significant scorn from their colleagues every year they wanted to team teach Lord of the Flies, because it threw such a wrench into the middle school schedule. 

Making the most of college—and learning a trade for that matter—isn’t at all about getting in.  It’s about the absorbing, the becoming, the grappling of new ideas that doesn’t end until the idea is now an honored friend. That state of mind, the acquisition of the habits needed to do that kind of learning, is the essence of teaching.  It is alive and well in the classrooms of the colleagues I eat lunch with.  More important, it Is in the hearts, minds, and souls of the students they serve.

This week reminds me of the story of the principal who was interviewing candidates for a middle school English position.  The first five interviews were all remarkably short, where the principal asked each candidate what they taught.  When they responded, “I teach English”, the principal said, “I see.  Well, thank you for coming in.”

The interview with the sixth candidate started with the same question, “What do you teach?”  When the candidate responded, “Why, I teach students about the wonders of the English language”, the principal responded with, “I see.  Tell me more about that.”

It is one thing to consider Teacher Appreciation Day as a triumph over the long odds of limited budgets, aging facilities, crowded classrooms, and wonky Internet connections.  That’s an important discussion to have, but this week is more about those who serve, and what they leave their students with. In the end, that is all teaching ever was; it is what it must continue to be, if our world is to continue to flourish.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Lessons Learned from This Year’s College Counseling Efforts

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Celebrations are still going on to honor the postsecondary choices high school seniors are making, but it isn’t too early to look back on this year’s college and career advising efforts, and see what we might learn to make things a little easier for next year’s class.  There’s ample truth to the saying that the only constant is change, and that’s definitely the case here.  Consider these points, as you review your year, and plan ahead for the Class of 2019:

Applications are Up—Again  If there was ever a year for college applications to decline, it was this year.  A decline in the birthrate is predicted to shrink high school graduating classes through 2024, and it was supposed to hit nearly every state pretty hard this year in particular.  That doesn’t make it too far of a leap to conclude college applications should decline as well.

Nope.  Schools like USC and the University of Michigan saw application increases of about 14% each in a year when applications were supposed to be flat.  While some of U-M’s increase could be attributed to their new scholarship incentive for low income families, no one expected anything like this.

Safeties Were Less Safe  This continued increase at selective colleges mean some colleges that had plenty of room now find themselves the beneficiaries of some high performing students who had nowhere else to go.  While these students may only take up the spots at the honors colleges, their presence increases the average GPA and scores of a college’s class, meaning those colleges are likely to be more competitive next year.  The result? If you’ve been recommending the same schools year after year as sure shots, it’s time to review the list.

Sure Things Were Less Sure  More applicants also meant that selective colleges had students from more high schools to choose from—and this added breadth of choice led to its own confusion.  Counselors report admissions decisions that are just harder to understand, with some students being denied at colleges that took students with lower grades, but stronger essays, or lower test scores, but stronger work outside the class.  Looking at the entire student—also known as holistic review—has always made predicting admission difficult.  Add in the increased number of applicants, and it seemed like everything was up in the air this year.  Look for more of the same next year.

“College Isn’t for Everyone”, Part I  This was also the year when more and more counselors were taking to social media to advocate for students who were making postsecondary plans other than four years of college.  A resurgence of interest in technical careers and skill trades is clearly on the rise, but counselors will want to make sure not to get too carried away.  Counseling curricula should include a full view of all of the choices for life after high school, and ways to help students critically think and self-reflect their way to making the choices that are best for them.  That may mean more pedagogy focused on careers, but that shouldn’t come at the exclusion of exploration of all the college options.

“College Isn’t for Everyone”, Part II  This is especially true for schools where a small percentage of students go to college, where  college exploration should begin in elementary school, in order to get students—and especially parents—used to the idea of college as an option (but not a requirement.)  If done badly, “College Isn’t for Everyone” can quickly devolve into “Not Everyone is College Material”, and all the elitist, racist arguments that phrase conjures up. We must do better.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Three Remarkable Looks at School Counselors and College Access

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

It’s been a busy year for school counselors, and much of the work we’ve done has been shared with a larger audience, thanks to Eric Hoover. A writer for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Eric focuses on college admissions and issues related to college access. He’s spent a good amount of his energies this year focusing on the role the school counselor plays in the college selection process.

That work is gaining the attention of an audience beyond school counselors. Three of his pieces are part of Eric’s nomination for an award by the Education Writers Association, and all three have been hailed for depicting life as a school counselor in ways few other pieces have conveyed our world, especially when it comes to helping students select a college.

The first piece that caught the public eye, Where the Journey to College is No Fairy Taledepicts the challenges of a school counselor in Texas who works with a high caseload of students. Since most of them are low income students, the need for financial aid is keen, and the students’ awareness of all of the logistics is limited, since most will be the first in their family to go to college.

It’s one thing to talk about the importance of going to college in broad strokes, but Eric’s piece shows the nitty-gritty of filling out the forms and chasing down the students that is the reality of bringing the theory of college application to life. It’s especially interesting that Eric reflects on the down side of the school’s college signing day program, where some students feel left out, simply because their finances are incomplete, or they haven’t heard back from their colleges yet. This is a sobering reminder that May 1 isn’t the end of the college application process for many students—and most of those students are the ones we’re supposed to be celebrating.

This same irony is revealed in Eric’s second piece, The Verification Trap. The college admissions world was taken aback this year by the dramatic increase in the number of FAFSA applicants who were asked to provide detailed verification of their financial status. Eric uses a case study approach to show how detailed this verification requests can be, and the challenges students and parents face in meeting these requests.

This piece points out the longstanding challenges of redistributive social policy in general. The goal of the policy is to provide assistance to students who need it; at the same time, those in charge of the program must confirm that those asking for the assistance really do need it. In many cases, this means the student and their family has to prove that something doesn’t exist, as the government is, in essence, saying, “Show us how much money you don’t have.” Since the skill of keeping track of resources is best mastered by actually having them, this puts special challenges on those who don’t have them. Eric’s piece captures this with keen humanity.

The Long Last Miles to College drills down on the challenge of keeping students motivated to go to college in their summer after graduation, when counselors are challenged to keep in touch with their students, and keep them on track with the tasks of attending orientation, completing more financial aid forms, and enrolling at college. Here, Eric’s work gives a face to the construct of summer melt, and brings the struggle of the students—and their counselor—to life in ways few other pieces have.

Strong investigative journalism gives readers an opportunity to look past platitudes and good intentions, and understand how policies, procedures, and life in general affects people in the real world. Eric Hoover’s writing on school counselors gives us a chance to reexamine the big picture of college access by taking a micro view of it. All three pieces are well worth the time to read in this busy time of a counselor’s year.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Safe Schools, as Seen by School Counselors

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

During the week of March 18, counselors on two social media chatrooms were invited to participate in an online round-table discussion on school safety. Participants were given a link to respond to four questions on school safety, where their remarks were based on the practices that are part of their current institution.

Over 300 counselors participated from across the country. A summary of their responses is below.

One of the many aspects of a safe school is the atmosphere of the school that fosters sound mental health.  What programs, products, or services does your school utilize to build a strong atmosphere of mental health?

Responses here focused on specific programs (OK2Say, Be Nice, Positive Behavior Support, MindPeace, Peer Mentoring, After-School Groups) as well as partnerships with local community health resources. Many schools address this topic through a Life Skills class, while others identified the support offered by school counselors, social workers, and psychologists.

Another aspect that promotes safe schools are physical arrangements that are thought to avoid threats to a school's well-being (this would include door guards, doors that lock on the inside of the room, and metal detectors).  What updates or changes have you made to your building's physical plant to protect against a threat before it happens?

The most common response here was updated doors that lock from the inside. A distant second was video cameras, creating a single point of entry for the building. Motion sensors, upgraded front door security, and metal detectors. It should be noted that a significant number of responses indicated no updates had been made for years, and respondents felt at risk in their buildings as a result.

Some schools have made changes to their building's physical plant that are designed to
protect members of the school community once a threat is in progress (this would include safe rooms, communication networks, etc).  What procedures, products, or changes in policy have your school made to address this issue?

The most frequent response to this question, by far, was “nothing”, and more than one respondent indicated concern with this lack of action. Other responses included ALICE training, text message plans, PA/Intercom communication, panic buttons in each room, Safe Room strategies, and practice drills.

If there was just one thing the US Department of Education should do to support safe schools, what would that be, and why should the Department do this?

Respondents clearly felt more funding for mental health professionals was the first priority. This was followed by funding for smaller class sizes, improved gun laws, and funding for improvements to physical safety, including money for more security personnel. More than a few respondents urged the Department not to allow teachers to be armed.
Out of all of the responses, the one that clearly troubled most counselors was how little was being done at their particular school to advance safety efforts. It should come as no surprise that school counselors think one of the keys to safer schools is to hire more counselors; but the number of counselors who expressed genuine fear that their schools were carrying on like it was business as usual for the last several years was very compelling.

With state legislatures reviewing plans on making safer schools, now is the time for a quick phone call or email to your state or regional ASCA and NACAC affiliate, asking them what they are doing to promote school safety in your state, and how you can help. Yes, we’re all busy; unfortunately, we need to get busier.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

You Are Number Three on the Waitlist

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

“Counseling office, Patrick O’Connor.”

“Is this Dr. O’Connor?”

“Yes it is.”

“This is Mrs. Tremont, Gloria’s mother.”

“How are you?”

“Absolutely in a dither, Dr. O’Connor.  Here it’s mid-April, and Glory doesn’t have a single college to choose from!”

“She doesn’t?  I seem to remember she was admitted to Northeast Michigan, Starview College, and Whetherfield.”

“Well yes, but that was last fall, and those are all her safety schools.  I’m talking about the colleges she really wants to go to.  You know, those schools that just released their admissions decisions last week.”

“Oh.  I see.”

“She’s been waitlisted at five of them, and denied at the other fourteen.”

“Well now.”

“She is devastated, and I’m just wondering if there’s anything you can do to move her onto the accepted list.”

“Anything I can do?  Like what?”

“Well, for starters, can you tell me where she is on the waitlist at each college?”

“Where she is?”

“Right.  I mean, it’s a list, so where is she on the list at, say, Henley?”



“She’s third.”

“Really?  Third?  On the waitlist?  That’s wonderful.  Did the college tell you that?”

“Not directly, no.”

“Then, how do you know?”

“Well, when I look at her GPA of 4.2 and her ACT score of 32, and consider she was captain of the volleyball team as well as a participant in the Fremont Summer Program, I’d say she’s well above the…”


“I’m sorry?”

“Her—her GPA isn’t a 4.2.  It’s 3.2.”

“Oh.  Right.”

“And her ACT score was 25, not 32.”

“Oh, right—I see.   I thought the 32 was her ACT score, but it’s her GPA.”

“I imagine that changes things.”

“It does, but at least she was the captain of the volleyball team—”

“In eighth grade.  Does that count?”

“Well, a little, but certainly not as much.”

“She did attend Fremont.  For two summers.”

“And that certainly helps.”

“So, realistically, her chances of getting off a waitlist is hard to tell?”

“I’m afraid so.  I can see it happening, but given the number of students on the waitlist, it’s probably going to come down to which admitted students turn down their offers, and what needs the college has based on who’s said no.”

“You mean, like, where they live, what they want to major in, and if they play the bassoon?”

“Things like that are often a factor, and the trouble is, a college can’t tell what it needs until they hear back from all the students.”

“So Glory was right.  This really is out of our control.”

“Not completely.  Unless the college requests otherwise, Glory should write the colleges and express her continued interest in attending.  If she has a first choice that she’ll attend for sure, she should say that—but she can only have one first choice.”

“That’s a wonderful idea.”

“I’ve also contacted the colleges to let them know of Gloria’s continued interest.”

“Does she know that?”

“She does now.  She’s here in the office with me.”

“See, Mom!  I told you I’d done everything I could.”

“Glory!  Well, of course I believed you, but…”

“But you wanted to double check?  I already told you everything Dr. O’Connor just said.”

“Yes, you did.”

“That’s why I asked Dr. O’Connor to tell you I was third on the waitlist.”

“You mean, you weren’t?”

“I told him that’s the only way he would get your attention.”

“And you were right.  Such a wise girl.”

“Wise and more than ready for college, Mrs. Tremont.”

“You think so, Dr. O’Connor?”

“College, and beyond.”