Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Texting Students into College? OK, But…

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

It’s been a busy news week for school counselors—and it isn’t even National School Counselor Week yet!  The cycle of attention began last week, when First Lady Michelle Obama honored the School Counselor of the Year at a White House Ceremony. As is generally the case, her remarks moved all those in attendance, and inspired our profession in ways no other First Family has been able to match.

The public focus on college access continued with ample social media coverage of a New York Times article on the challenges low income students face when applying to college in general, and to highly selective colleges in particular.  Citing studies that are fairly well known by school counselors, the article places special emphasis on the role cell phones play in helping these students attain their college goals.  By creating a system of support through text messages, school counselors, college access professionals, and others, are able to reach out to low income students in ways that drive the message home to apply to college, complete the FAFSA, and finish the steps necessary to enroll in college.  Early studies show these texting programs work especially well in keeping students on track in the summer months, when school counselors aren’t on hand to offer reminders to check emails, pay tuition, and submit essential documents to the college.

It’s heartening to see the creation of a communication system that touches students and gets them to close the college deal, but the good intentions of these programs call attention to questions that require some serious reflection.

Why aren’t the colleges texting the students?  There’s a lot to be said for having school counselors text students.  Even if their caseload is typically astronomical, counselors are more likely to know the students than the student services division of the college, and that familiarity can increase the chance the student will pay attention to the text.

But the college’s lack of familiarity with the student is going to be a problem sooner or later, and summer is the best time to fix that.  By supporting high school counselor’s efforts to help students stay on track, college student service offices would be texting specific information to students on what they need to do, when they need to do it—and, most important, who the student talks to at the college if they run into a problem. It’s one thing for a high school counselor to text a graduate to sign up for college orientation; a follow-up text from the college with the link that allows the student to do that builds an essential bridge to a new support group, and a new dimension of autonomy.

What prevents school counselors from solving these problems during the school year?  Everything in life has a “last minute” nature to it, and that’s definitely true when it comes to teenagers applying to college.  That’s why our offices are always the busiest before a college application deadline.

The need for some summer help getting ready for college will always be with us, but that need would be greatly diminished if counselors’ time during the school year was focused more on preparing students for the transition to college, and less on tasks that have nothing to do with counseling.  Schedule changes and test organization are administrative tasks that counselors receive little training in, and whose insights are rarely needed.  If schools really want to help young people create bright futures after high school, they should make the most of the time and talents of the counseling professionals trained to do just that.

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