Wednesday, January 17, 2018

A Report on Bottom Line—What Does It Mean for School Counselors?

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Social media has been abuzz this past month with the results of a new study on college counseling by

Andrew Barr and Benjamin Castleman. The study looks at the work of Bottom Line, an organization that offers individualized college counseling to high school students, then follows up that counseling with assistance and mentoring during the college years. Bottom Line reports that the college completion rate of their students is impressive—a whopping 80% of the last three cohorts have earned a college degree in six years or less.

The new study looks behind the curtain of Bottom Line’s success, suggesting that some of the keys to the success of the program lie in the ability of counselors to match students with colleges that will meet their individual needs, all without requiring the student to take on extraordinary debt.  Since cost and persistence have long been recognized as two key elements in earning a four-year degree, it should come as no surprise that a college counseling program that helps students keep costs low, and gives students the tools to keep going in college, will lead to greater student success.

This success is worth celebrating, and it leads to a logical question—if Bottom Line can realize this kind of success with its students, can the program be replicated with more students?  Barr and Castelman see the program as highly scalable, and social media commentators feel the key elements to Bottom Line’s success lies in three key areas:
  • Counselors work with very small caseloads
  • Counselors stay focused on the goal of matching students with affordable colleges that have high completion rates
  • Counselors are deeply familiar with the colleges in their local area that meet these criteria
Since Bottom Line is a program that is not school based, it’s easy to see the challenges school-based counselors could face if they were asked to replicate Bottom Line’s model.  The bugaboo of high ratios is the easiest challenge to recognize.  With an average of nearly 500 students per school counselor in the US, it’s easy to see how Bottom Line’s level of service might be hard to match without a significant investment in more school counseling positions.

Beyond that, the nature of a school counselor’s work might also prevent replication of Bottom Line’s achievements.  College counseling is all Bottom Line’s counselors do, while college counseling is one of myriad official duties assigned to most school counselors.  In addition, most counselors are charged with duties that have little, if anything, to do with their counseling expertise—duties like scheduling, standardized test administration, and supervision of individualized learning programs for students with special needs.  While the counselor’s voice is important in all of these activities, putting them in charge of them gives the work more of a feeling of an administrative burden that prevents them from utilizing their counseling skills.  

Finally, it’s important to recognize that some of the lack of success in college counseling is due to the lack of sufficient training counselors receive on the subject in graduate school.  Of the 12-15 course common to most counselor graduate programs, only one focuses on postsecondary counseling—and that course typically has a split focus between college and career counseling.

With less than 3 dozen graduate programs offering focused training in college counseling, it’s no wonder most counselors begin their work with students with background and insight that make it impossible to replicate the efforts of Bottom Line.  Logistical challenges may abound, but too many students see their counselors as lacking important information that can make a difference in college selection.  That’s the right place to begin to impact their own bottom line.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Two Roadblocks to Effective Postsecondary Counseling

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

There isn’t a single school counselor who can’t tell you what they need to make their job easier.  From smaller caseloads to far fewer “other duties as assigned” (I’m talking about you, schedule changes), the logistics of what we do could be fine tuned in all kinds of ways to make us more productive and more student-centered.

There are other changes that could improve our work we don’t talk about as much.  As discussions about the role of college and the jobs of the future continue, it might be time to reconsider these principles—some held by our profession, some held by society-- if only to reflect on how our perception of them can change our work with students and families for the better. These two are a good place to start:

People who go to college are better off that people who don’t  It’s amazing what we’re trying to do to make people feel better about themselves just because they don’t want to spend four years (or more) of their lives at college.  This is especially true in the last five years, where an effort is underway to define “college” as any kind of training that comes after high school.  That way, if everyone gets some kind of training, we can say everyone goes to college, and no one has to feel bad about themselves.

But isn’t that based on false assumptions of what’s valued in this world?  This obsession with college would probably be news to the plumber who left my house after ninety minutes of work two days after Christmas with $225.  Personable, outgoing, knowledgeable (and clearly not hurting for money), the training he received through his union certification program wasn’t college, but it was exactly what he wanted to do with his life—and given the task at hand, it came in way more handy than anything I’d learned at university.  Would he really see his life as more complete if we said he went to plumber’s college—or are we trying to fix our view of the world, since nothing seems to be wrong with his?

Aggregate data abounds showing cities and states do better when they are populated by more college graduates, but every one of those college graduates needs their pipes snaked, their chimneys cleaned, and their clothes dry cleaned.  If their work wasn’t important, it wouldn’t be necessary.  The workers in these fields see it that way; why doesn’t society?

College ready and career ready are the same thing The minute we finally decide difference has value, we’re ready to deal with the most bogus claim in the school counseling lexicon—that college readiness and career readiness are the same thing.  The skill set needed to build a house has remarkably little in common with the skill set needed to make it through Introduction to Western Civilization.  Both may require communication skills, promptness, and critical thinking.  So does making it safely through Happy Hour, but I know of no building trades program or History prof where two-for-one drafts are part of the instruction.

Different life experiences require different preparations, and we do all students a disservice when we develop a school counseling curriculum that assumes the skills needed to become a machinist are the same skills needed to make it through graduate school.  Once we accept the idea that difference is valued, we can get on with the business of meeting individual needs with something other than a one-size-fits-all approach to life after high school—and we’ll get more students interested in what we have to say. ​

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Higher Ed is “Out” for 2017? Let’s Hope So

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

Many people tried to avoid the usual “Year in Review” columns for 2017, in part because politics seemed to color every aspect of our society, and people were hoping the holiday break would give them—well, a break.  Given our collective tendency to say “good riddance” to 2017 without much reflection, it’s noteworthy how many people saw that Higher Ed was on The Washington Post’s list of things that are Out for next year. 

The Post has long fed off many East Coast parents' obsession with getting their child into the “right” college (as opposed to getting them into a college that’s right for their child), so this news caught many by surprise.  On the other hand, given the beating higher education took in the media last year, it could be the Post is simply catching up to a trend that’s been out there for a while.  When only 36 percent of Republicans see college as a good thing, it’s clear that the standard assumptions about life after high school are up for grabs.

The Post’s actions can only be seen as good news by school counselors, who have long tried to get students to stop examining college options based on a school’s name and reputation, and think more about what the college has to offer in meeting the student’s interests, needs, and life goals.  School counselors often lament that the Post, along with its New York counterpart, are responsible for coverage of the college admission process that has created a college-industrial complex of test prep, rankings, writing coaches, lazy rivers, and more, making college, in the words of a famous admissions officer, a prize to be won, instead of a match to be made.

Now that Higher Ed is “out”, there’s an outside chance some sanity could return to our work with students—and that turns us to Sue Biemeret.  A retired school counselor, Sue runs a wonderful summer institute where the nuts and bolts of college counseling are taught in ways few others teach them.  There are about five people in the country who teach college counseling the right way, and Sue is one of them.

When college rankings and test prep were just starting to bubble up in the world of college admissions, Sue remarked that counselors should remember how most students take the SAT or ACT once; visit a few colleges that are within a gas tank of home, and end up going to college within 150 miles of where they went to high school.  Sure, there are exceptions, but any effort to make the exception the rule leads to college counseling programs that aren’t grounded in reality, and that’s just not helpful to students.

The Post’s claim that Higher Ed is out gives us the opportunity to turn our students and their families back to a saner view of what college is, and what it can be for students who are ready to make the most of it.  College is by no means the real world, but it is an opportunity for students to understand more about themselves and the world around them.  Combined with the skills and content it teaches that prepares students for the workforce, college can prepare students to contribute meaningfully to those many jobs of the future that don’t exist, while being something more than a job training experience. The public’s perception of the purpose of college seems to be up for grabs, and school counselors are uniquely positioned to shape that perception.  Let’s resolve to take up the challenge.  

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

2017: The Year in Review

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Ten interesting things happen in every school counselor’s office before 9AM, so it’s hard identifying the most interesting ten to happen in the profession all year—but here’s my attempt:

10 Department of ED Appoints First School Counselor Ambassador The ten-year Ambassador program let its first counselor into its ranks this year. While it happens to be me, the larger point is that counselors now have a voice closer to policy making decisions in Washington—and the portal for applying for next year is already open.

Counselor Professional Development Takes a Turn It’s only one state, but Michigan’s new law requiring counselors to get regular updates on college and career counselingis the first in the nation, and is getting the attention of other states already.

Higher Ed Reauthorization The House has decided to take the routine task of renewing higher ed funding to a new level this year, proposing major changes to student aid and other programs. Will they survive the bill making process?

FAFSA Verification Up Chronicle Reporter Eric Hoover had a banner year, writing stellar pieces on the challenges of helping low-income students apply to college. His piece on the challenges low-income students face of verifying FAFSA claims gives everyone much to consider.

FAFSA on an App Come Spring Some counselors think students can’t apply for financial aid on a phone. Come spring, students will have the chance to prove them wrong, and do so.

Testing Companies Increase Free Test Reporting Largely in response to the self-reporting test score movement, College Board and ACT announced late-year changes to policies, where students who take the test for free can send score reports for free.

Colleges Increase Self-Reporting Grades High school transcripts usually don’t cost anything to send, but this change means a simpler application process that puts the focus back on the student.

Student Mental Health Issues on the Rise Two long-standing student issues caught the media’s attention this year, including a focus on student stress that had to do with something more than applying to college. Everything from student discipline to classroom management is up for grabs, as students and families look for calm.

Policy Makers Discover Opiate Crisis Counselors have also known for years about the devastating effect opiates have on students, schools, and communities. This monster is now on the radar of state and federal policymakers; look for lawsuits, block grants, and more in 2018.

1 Colleges Increase Self-Reporting Test Scores Places like the UC system have done this for years, but more colleges jumped on the idea that all students can report their own test scores for free, then pay for one official set to be sent once they matriculate somewhere. This increases access, decreases cost, and puts the student in the driver’s seat of more of their application process. That’s a triple win.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The More Things Change

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

High school counselling offices are busy with the sounds of college this week.  PSAT results are being returned, leading juniors to wonder about the next steps in their exploration of college.  Meanwhile, seniors are starting to hear back from their colleges, especially the students applying through Early Action or Early Decision plans, where students organized enough to apply sooner, hear back from colleges sooner.

The busyness of this week seems to be as old as college itself, but even as this annual ritual plays itself out to a new audience, cracks in this traditional system are rising to the surface.  A detailed piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education spelled out the challenges faced by students whose applications for financial aid are flagged for verification by the US government.  On the one hand, most of these applications include unusual situations that often need to be investigated, to make sure they accurately represent the student’s need.  On the other hand, it should be no surprise that a vast majority of these students come from low-income backgrounds, and they aren’t used to having outside parties ask about their finances.  Combined with the second- , third-, and fourth-requests that are often part of the verification process, it’s no wonder many students flagged for review decide the process—and therefore college--  isn’t worth it.

Verification is just one of many parts of the college application process that’s been brought up for scrutiny and review this year.  Colleges using ACT or SAT test scores have generally asked students to submit official copies of the results—copies students typically have to pay for.  Dozens of colleges have changed that policy this fall, giving students the option of self-reporting their scores.  Many have put this policy into effect immediately, saving students hundreds of dollars, while costing testing companies thousands, if not millions, of dollars.  Combined with colleges who are allowing students to self-report their grades, the process of applying to college is becoming more of the work of the student, and less the task of coordinating the work of others.

Early Action and Early Decision programs are also under review, as many colleges admit as high as half of their students through an early program.  While data is lacking, there is a clear impression that more of the students applying to early programs come from high schools with more counseling services—schools that tend to be in higher income communities.  Low-income students who do apply early often run the risk of having to accept the financial aid offer of the Early Decision school that admits them without having the opportunity to compare offers from other college.  If they decide to compare the offers of several schools by waiting to apply Regular Decision, they run the risk of applying in a larger applicant pool, decreasing their chances of admission.

These challenges make it clear that changes in the college selection process could create new opportunities for students—but not everyone is in agreement about what those changes should be.  Advocates for test optional schools insist that reform lies in less testing, while accountability advocates insist the only way to track academic success is through more testing.  Suggestions that some students should defer college for a brief stint in the world of work—an experience that could increase their understanding of the value of college—are rebuffed by those who insist that students won’t go back to being students, once they know the feeling of having a regular paycheck.

Meanwhile, thousands of students are waiting to hear from colleges with news that could change their lives—proof that not all change is bad.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

The Triple Threat of Being a Counselor Next Week

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

There’s never really any down time in the life of a school counselor, but it could be argued that the last couple of weeks have been relatively low key. There are a few college applications to complete, and the march of helping students complete financial aid forms will go on until at least March, but all in all, the post-Thanksgiving weeks have been pretty mild.

That’s about to change next week, as high school counselors must face the Triple Threat of December. While not quite as dizzying a pace as the first week of school, next week will be mighty close, as we wrestle with three important tasks that require different approaches. Ready?

PSAT scores are released to students next week, and this is always a logistical nightmare. College Board has tried to soften the blow, giving counselors access to the scores a week before the students—but no matter how the results are delivered, the task of trying to explain what these scores mean to most, if not all, of your students can make for a very busy week.

In developing your plan of attack, think about creating different approaches based on something other than the scores of the students. Sorting students into groups based on test results may be a natural or intuitive approach, but you risk giving bad advice to at least some students in every group if you’re assuming they’re scores tell you something about their post secondary plans. This is especially true for the students scoring in the 150-180 range. Some of these students may be terrified that these scores won’t get them into the college of their choice, while others couldn’t care less about these scores, since they plan on going to trades school anyway.

A better approach is to ask students to self-sort based on their plans for life after high school. The presentation to four-year college-bound students can focus on how to use the scores to prepare for the SAT, while the conversation to the non-college bound can emphasize what the scores say about their general skill levels, and what they might want to do if they want to keep the college option open. It’s important to add this last bit; the number of students who would be willing to look at a four-year college is bigger than you think—all they’re waiting for is someone to give them permission to hope.

Early decisions from colleges are also due out starting next week, where seniors hear back from the schools they are usually most interested in. The word is that the number of early applications is up this fall, meaning the number of students who will be denied and deferred will also be up.

It is never easy having a conversation with a student who had hoped a college would say Yes. This advice can set the table for before the students hear back, and even though this advice is aimed at March, the ideas are still helpful now.

Vacation stress may seem like a bit of an oxymoron, but there are always those students who aren’t looking forward to time off from school. Part of this may be a love of school, while part of it might be a dread of the lack of structure, or the people they have to spend vacation with. Either way, that last school bell can be a sound of dread to many students.

APA and others have produced a long line of materials aimed at helping students manage holiday stress. Take a look at these plans now, and build them into your schedule.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Why FAFSA by Phone is a Good Thing

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

There’s been more than a little scuttlebutt in the counseling community over yesterday’s announcement that the US Department of Education is creating a mobile phone app, making it possible to complete the FAFSA by phone. The app, which will be available in Spring of 2018, is part of a larger overhaul of the financial aid process, all designed to make it easier for students and parents to access and apply for federal student aid.

It’s easy to see how counselors could be skeptical about this move, especially if you’ve ever filled out a FAFSA. Since the form relies heavily on access to income information, it’s pretty easy to compare completing the FAFSA to doing your taxes, where forms are scattered all over the dining room table, and you need access to your online bank statements to stand even a remote chance of filling out the form with any degree of accuracy. Since most phone apps are associated with something quick and easy—ordering pizza, downloading a video—filing something as serious as a financial aid form by phone just seems like a bad idea.

On the other hand, some data would suggest this could be one of the smarter things that could be done to open up financial aid access to low income students. At the First Reach Higher symposium held by the Obama administration, data was shared that indicated most low income students do not have access to a home computer, but nearly all of them have access to a smart phone. This is one of many reasons why the wildly successful scholarship program Scholly started as a smart phone app—their real target audience uses phones, not computers.

Of course, there’s that whole “we need your tax information” part of completing a FAFSA that would make it equally hard to complete the application on a phone, since most people don’t exactly keep their tax information with them on their commute home, or at the local coffee shop when they check email. This may be true, but last year’s change in FAFSA filing asks students and parents to use tax information that’s already been reported, and can be retrieved from the IRS by using the FAFSA app. Now that the security problems have been cleared up, this really does make it possible for most, if not all, of those numbers to be pulled in on a smart phone.

New technology always raises the possibility of something going wrong, but there are two reasons why it’s a good idea the Department of Ed is making this move. First, if a student or parent starts completing the FAFSA by phone app and finds that it would be easier to use a computer, there’s a much better chance they will actually seek out a computer and complete the FAFSA, now that they’ve started it. It may be at work, it may be in the public library, but if you’re more than halfway done with a form that gets you cash for college, your incentive to finish the form is high.

Second, the increased access to FAFSA on a phone suggests users will give feedback to the Department about how the app could be better, and that could lead to modifications to the form itself. Americans aren’t shy about suggesting how tech could be better, and they really aren’t shy about talking about the high cost of college. Social media conversations about any limits the FAFSA app might have could be just what we’ve been hoping for to make applying for aid easier, no matter how you apply.