Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Five Summer Activities to Build a Better College Plan

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Well, you’ve done it again.  You’re almost out the door for the summer, but your principal has just reminded you about the article you need to write for the summer newsletter.  Now what?

I live to serve—check this off your list!
Like a dirt road after a rainstorm, the road to college has never been bumpier for students and parents.  In April, a record number of college applications led the media to wonder, “Can anyone get into college?”  In May, disappointing financial aid packages changed the question to, “Is college worth it?” It’s now June, and members of the Class of 2015 are off to put their plans into action, while other students and their families are left wondering, “What do I do now?”

Summer gives everyone a chance to stand back and look at the big picture of life after high school.  If you have questions that just won’t wait for answers in August, take these steps to build a solid summer foundation in postsecondary planning:

Understand that more learning is a must.  In this economy, a chance at a reasonable living depends on more school after high school.  This doesn’t have to include a degree from a four-year college, but a Bachelor’s degree has the best record of financial security, since four-year college graduates have the lowest unemployment, and make upwards of $500,000 more in their lifetime than high school graduates.  Certificates and two-year degrees offer their own benefits, so the message is clear; twelfth grade is not the end of the road for formal learning.

Spend two hours building a career map. The best part about learning after high school is that you have more choices in what you can learn, where you can learn, and how you can do it. The best first step in understanding some of your options is to complete a career exploration search.  These computer-based searches give you a list of possible (that’s possible) careers based on your answers to questions about what you like to do.  Once you get your list, you can find out more about each career, including wages, job prospects, and required training, including classes you should take in high school.

Many high schools have a career search program you can use for free; so do most community colleges.  Do some looking around, and be sure to talk with a counselor about your results when school reopens in the fall.

Visit tech centers and college campuses.  It’s one thing to learn about training options online, but nothing compares to seeing a school in action.  Visiting a local college campus or tech center gives you a feel for what’s possible for you.  It’s best to see these programs when they’re in full swing in the fall, but if summer is the only time you can go, call the institution, and make your plans.  Be sure to prepare a list of questions in advance—a good list of tips can be found at

Check your high school schedule.  How well you learn after high school depends on how well you learn in high school, and that means taking the most challenging classes you can handle.  Scheduling won’t start again until mid-August, but make a note to contact your high school, and make sure your classes will best prepare you for your goals.  Again, this is where your high school counselor can help—in the fall.

Build your plan for paying now.  There are all kinds of ways to meet your postsecondary learning goals, and most have a wide array of price tags, including public universities, community colleges with strong certificate and transfer programs, private colleges that offer significant merit scholarships.  Learn how to maximize your options by visiting  and .

Check your high school counseling office’s Web site.  Your local school counselors have helped hundreds of students make strong choices about life after high school.  Most high schools have a Web site with resources they’ve discovered that help their students build strong plans.  Take a look at those options, and stay in touch with your counselor once school re-opens. They may be busy, but they’re never too busy to help a student committed to building a better tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Summer Shaky Time for College Bound Seniors

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

This is the last week many school counselors are in their offices, before a well-deserved rest—so I’ll keep this short.

Many of you have heard of the concept of “summer melt”.  This is the number of college-bound students who don’t show up on college campuses in the fall.  For some, this is because they changed colleges; for others, it’s because they changed their mind about college, period; for some, it’s because they ran into some problems over the summer, and didn’t reach out and talk to anyone.

This last group tends to have a very large percentage of students who come from low-income backgrounds, or whose parents didn’t go to college.  The reasons they don’t go are common:  there was a change in their financial aid award, and they didn’t understand it; there was a deadline to reply to a financial aid offer, and they didn’t meet it; they couldn’t go to orientation due to a work conflict, so now they think they can’t go to college at all.

In other words, some of the students you worked so hard to help get into college aren’t going to get there after all, and it’s likely due to some pretty small reason.

There’s a way to fix this, even now. 

Send one last letter, e-mail, and text  Now is the time to give them one last word of encouragement.  Let them know they will get lots of communications from colleges over the summer, and they should read all of them.  If you have access to parent addresses and e-mails, copy them as well.

Encourage them to ask questions  Some of these communications (financial aid) will be more important than others (renting a dorm fridge)—but your students might not know that.  Give them an e-mail address or phone number they can call this summer to ask their questions.  Let them know it may take a day or two to give them a response, but they’ll get one.

Oversee the project  This will require you or your colleagues to check in with e-mail or voice mail throughout the summer—or, see if the PTA will work with you and have parent volunteers check, who have an understanding of confidentiality.  Not fun, for sure—but it should help to know that schools that have implemented this kind of program have reduced summer melt in students by at least/about a third. Some schools even let the counselor by a disposable cell phone, and encourage them to call their “likely melters” a couple of times over the summer, just to check in.  Again, not a work-free vacation, but at least you can make the calls poolside.

Yes, it would be better if you had all of your students  give you their cell numbers before they graduated (a program like Remind is a great way to do this and respect their privacy).  You can do that next year.  For this year, send out one last announcement, and see what happens.  It can make a huge difference.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Other Side of Better Training in College Counseling

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

“Principal Matthews?”

“Hi Valerie.  Come on in.”

“Thank you.”

“I want you to know, this isn’t an easy decision.  You’ve done a lot for the school, and for our students—“

“—but you’re laying me off.”

“There isn’t a lot of wiggle room here.”

“Bill, this is a short-sighted decision.”

“I understand how you feel.”

“This may be hard for you to believe, but I’m not thinking about me.  Right now, there are three counselors in a high school with 1000 students.  300 or so students on a caseload is bad enough—and now, you want to go from three counselors to two.”

“And a college success coach.”

“Who has no training as a school counselor.”


“Don’t go there, Bill.”

“She has coursework in college advising, and three years of success turning around the college counseling program at a local charter school.”

“And you just said I’ve been successful in my three years here.”

“You have.  In everything except college counseling.”

“We’ve made some gains.”

“We aren’t keeping up with the national averages.”


“Or, the high school across town.”

“So that’s what this is about?”

“It affects enrollment, Valerie.  Parents have a choice between the two schools, and they see the college-going rate is 30% greater at East.  If you want your kid to go to college, what choice would you make?”

“Not one where getting into college comes at the expense of my child’s well-being.”

“The two remaining counselors will still offer all of the other counseling services.”

“Right.  To more students.”

“But their college-related duties will be assigned to the coach.  This gives them more time to focus on the other parts of the counseling curriculum, while another counselor—“

“Coach, Bill. She’s a coach.”

“—while the coach focuses on the college curriculum.  Everyone wins.”

“Except the students.  And me.”

“You know I advanced your name for this job when the superintendent directed me to realign the counseling office.”

“But they decided to ship college counseling off to a stranger, who isn’t even a counselor.  Why?”

“Valerie, you know why.”

“I went to the wrong graduate school.”

“Human Resources looked at the college coach’s transcript, and saw two separate classes in college and career counseling.”


“And then they looked at your transcript, and saw…”

“They didn’t offer one!  I know everything that coach knows.  Career and college counseling was infused throughout the curriculum, taught here and there, in other classes.”

“So you know everything the coach knows?”

“Of course.  I’ve been doing this as long as she has.”

“OK.  What’s the median household income in Michigan?”


“The median household income.”

“I can’t believe—“

“How about  five hot careers in Michigan, where the starting salary is above the median household income, or the colleges that offer majors in those careers?”

“Come on, Bill.  Who knows these things?”

“Actually, the college coach did when I interviewed her.”

“But that’s superficial knowledge.  You can look that up in a book.”

“If a student walks up to you between classes and asks those questions, there isn’t time to look it up—not with a caseload as high as yours.  The teachable moment is right there, and it goes away—“

“—as soon as the student walks away.”

“And so does their confidence in our college counseling program.”

“You know, this is pretty ironic.  The state legislature just introduced a bill requiring new counselors to take a focused class in college counseling.  I wrote my legislator, and told him to vote no.”

“Because it isn’t necessary?”

“Yeah.  Or so I thought.”

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Why Take a College Counseling Course?

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

A recent article gave readers a list of outcomes they should expect when taking a class in college counseling.  This list has been praised, but it's also led some counselors to ask, "Just what will I get out of a college counseling class?"  

It helps students.  Counselors who have completed a separate college counseling class of at least 45 clock hours report important differences in working with students.  Some cite the ability to develop a comprehensive college counseling curriculum for all students in grades 9-12 or 6-12—knowing how to organize and present college awareness activities in an organized way helps them make the most of what little time they have with students.

Other counselors point to the “nuts and bolts” of college counseling they get in a focused class, logistics that aren’t covered in many theory classes.  As one counselor put it:

"If you think about it you would be hard pressed to find a teacher that only had training in classroom management and lesson planning but no training in the subject which they teach. That is how I see school counselors; we are teachers of career exploration and college planning but most of us receive no training in this subject."

Something as basic as developing a list of schools with strong engineering programs may seem simple enough to learn on the job—until the demands of your time and the size of your caseload don’t allow you the time to learn how to do that, let alone actually do it.  Training in the details makes a world of difference.

Job Security  More and more counselors are realizing that strong college and career knowledge is a key to more satisfied students, parents, and school administrators.  While some families place a high value on the mental health components of school counselor services, all students need help making strong college and career plans—and if a family feels like they’re getting real help in these essential areas, they’re not going to keep it a secret.  Unfortunately, polls indicate deep dissatisfaction with the level of counselor knowledge in these areas; turning that perspective around can be the key to greater public support of school counselors.

Some counselors also express concern that their lack of knowledge in these crucial areas make them more vulnerable to replacement by career coaches, college success advocates, or college advisers.  To be clear, no college adviser is placed in a school that has laid off a school counselor.  Having said that, it is worth noting that members of the College Advising Corps receive 160 clock hours in training in college counseling—training some school counselors have asked to have themselves.  Ensuring that all counselors complete college and career classes early in their careers gives them a credential and a competitive advantage over outside independent agents; not only will school counselors have comprehensive college and career expertise, but they will have the training in mental health and development education needed to offer affective support for students as well.

A class that makes both your boss and your students happy-- that's something to consider.