Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Financial Aid Call to Arms for School Counselors

By:  Patrick O'Connor  PhD

The end of the college application season is here, and thanks to our friends at WikiLeaks, it comes with a twist.  Soon after WikiLeaks published a series focusing on how it’s possible to hack just about anything, the federal government suspended the IRS Retrieval Tool so many students use to file for financial aid.  

While this was done in the interest of keeping taxpayer information secure, students just deciding to apply for financial aid are finding more hurdles in their way—and there were plenty to begin with.  It’s been possible to file for financial aid since October, but this is the first year filing started that early, so many students, families—and, ahem, counselors—aren’t used to the new calendar.  That means many students (especially low income students, or students who are the first in their family to go to college), will be applying now, where they have to use their tax information from 2015.

Quick now—where is your tax information from 2015?

And that’s the problem.  Without the retrieval tool, most people will be more challenged to find their 2015 tax information than they would trying to remember what they ate for lunch yesterday.  Since this affects more first-time college attenders, this could be the game changer that leads them to decide not to bother applying to college at all; if you’re not sure you can afford it, why bother?

That’s where we come in.  Thousands of students will be getting college decisions in the next two weeks, so we’re going to be plenty busy high fiving students who heard yes, and designing new plans for those students who didn’t.  In the midst of that traditional mix, we’ll also have to keep an eye out for the late FAFSA filers, a challenge we didn’t think we were going to have.

Here’s what to do:

Make sure the student has applied to college.  If they haven’t applied for aid til now, there’s a good chance they haven’t applied for college, either.  The IRS tool is expected to be back up in a month, and giving them something to do until then can keep their college hopes up.  Check and see if their applications are in.

If they have applied, have them contact the financial aid office.  Counselors aren’t the only ones freaking out about the FAFSA disconnect, since financial aid offices can’t do much without applicants.  Some colleges are developing Plan B for creating packages, relying on applicant’s best recollection of their taxes, using 2016 tax information, or some combination of both.  Your student’s school may be one of those colleges, and if that’s the case, they can still give your student college cash.  Calling them will help you—and the student—discover the answer. 

Review Plan B.  The IRS tool may be back online in late April, but many colleges will have given all their aid away by then.  If a student’s top choice is a school that tends to run their funds dry by May 1, it’s time to make sure the student applies to a college that’s known to fund students who apply late.  That’s usually colleges that have a smaller percentage of students on campus, and community colleges, but a phone call to the college’s financial aid office will let you know for sure.

Tell ED to fix this problem now.  Education Secretary Betsy DeVos , 400 Maryland Ave  SW, Washington DC 20202.  A letter there, encouraging the federal government to work with the National Association of Financial Aid Administrators to find a workaround, might help us reach a faster, better solution for all. 

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Essential Reading for School Counselors

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

There’s a report floating around your state capitol that school counselors really need to read. As we were electing a new president last year, Congress managed to pass the Elementary and Secondary School Act, or ESSA. ESSA replaces the much-discussed No Child Left Behind Act, the legislation counselors knew as No Child Left Untested. Noble in its goals, No Child Left Behind got bogged down in its own details, neve delivering most of its promise. That’s why Republicans and Democrats were only too happy to replace it in an election year; they could campaign take credit for killing an unpopular program, and improving education.

That’s where the report comes in. ESSA puts a great deal of planning (and a little bit of funding) back to the state level, something Republicans really like to do with education, and something we’re likely to see more of with the Trump administration. Before getting federal funding, each state must submit an ESSA plan, outlining just how they’re going to use this newly given power and money—and before that plan is read by the federal government, it must remain open for public comment for at least 30 days.

It’s important for counselors to read this report for three reasons. No Child Left Behind included monies that may have been used for counseling-related activities. Now that all Federal funds have been lumped together in one big block and given to the states (this is creatively known as a block grant), states are no longer limited to how they use that money. If your state was using this funding for counseling activities, they can now use it on just about anything else related to schools. A quick call to the legislative committee of your state counseling association will let you know if your state was using this money for counseling services. A quick look at your state’s ESSA report will show if it’s still being used for that purpose.

Taking the limits off of education funding makes it possible for states to use ESSA funding to increase the amount of federal funding they use for counseling activities. Yes, this means your state could end up taking federal money from some other worthy program and giving it to you, so that means counselors would have to live with expanding their services at the expense of some other department. On the other hand, this creates an opportunity for the state to look at how it’s been using Federal funding, and realize ways to spend the money more efficiently, creating a surplus that could go to counseling. How do you find out if they’ve used this opportunity to run a tighter fiscal ship? You read the report.

Finally, and most important, many states are using ESSA as an opportunity to review how they are spending state funds on education. Not every state will do this, but now that federal funding is one more money source the state gets to use to meet state needs, some states will use this as an opportunity to review all spending, and see if money could be used more wisely.

If your state is taking this approach to ESSA funding, it’s time to stop reading this article and figure out where your state’s ESSA report is located. This zero-based budgeting approach was popular in the 80s and 90s, and it can certainly add more money to counseling services—but it can also wipe out programs completely. Thanks to ESSA, you have the ability to help shape the education power in your state. The first step in plugging into that power is reading the report.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Reducing “Other Duties as Assigned”

By:  Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D


For reasons that have never been clear, many schools either give the task of test coordination to counselors, or assume counselors do that as part of their job. Either way, counselors who have taken courses in test interpretation—as in, here’s what the results of the test mean—spend the better part of March putting Number 2 pencils in groups of 25, setting up seating assignments for a special testing schedule, and hustling to find speakers to keep the non-testing grades busy, and far away from the part of the building where testing is occurring.

It isn’t easy to say just how this “tradition” came to be, but it’s easy to see how it can come to an end. Many counselors have just spent the last month or so working with students on scheduling for next year. Since most high school counselors spent the last half of January working out schedule changes for the next semester or trimester, that means many school counseling offices have been on “other duties as assigned” mode since returning from Christmas Break. Sure, students with urgent needs have trickled in here and there, but since the bulk of the counseling office’s work has focused on logistics, it isn’t hard to see how the word is out among students that the counselors just have other things to do this time of year—and that isn’t good.

What can you do to end the madness and make sure everyone understands student access is your top priority? Try these:
  • Make sure the person in charge of your schedule understands what you’re up against. You might assume your administrator knows that schedule changes turns in to scheduling, and that turns in to testing—but maybe they’ve never put all the pieces together.
            The solution is twofold. First, take a look at the Annual Agreement form produced by the American School Counselor Association.     This form helps provide structure to what could be an awkward conversation with your administrator. On the other hand, since administrators usually don’t know what counselors are really supposed to do, this handout helps guide them, and your discussion about duties. Once it’s done, it can be refreshed every year.

            The only thing missing from this document is a calendar that outlines your major and minor counseling duties on a monthly basis. You’ll want to set this up using the calendar program your administrator uses—this makes it easy for them to understand just what you’re doing each month. You give them a master calendar at the start of the year, then a monthly calendar at the start of each month. This is a reminder of what’s coming up, in case they’re thinking about “surprising” you with a new project.

  • Once your administrator is on board, make sure you communicate with your parents and students. I’m still a fan of a weekly one-page newsletter to let them know what’s going on in your office. This can remind them of your big projects, but remind them you’re still there for them. “Yes, it’s March, so I will be testing the juniors, but I’m never so busy that I don’t have time for you. If we need to talk, come right in.” This allows you to keep a “students first” tone in your work—and once you write a year’s worth of newsletters, you’ll only have to tweak them the following year.