It’s been a little over a year since Michelle Obama brought school counselors and the important work they do into the spotlight as never before. Speaking before the annual meeting of the American School Counselor Association, Mrs. Obama brought attendees to their feet when she recognized the important role school counselors play in the lives of students, and the impossible demands placed on their time.
In sharing her Reach Higher initiative, Mrs. Obama also announced a new directive from the Department of Education, encouraging school administrators to offer more relevant professional development to counselors immediately, because “our secretary of education knows that every school counselor in this country should have quality, relevant professional development opportunities, end of story.”
Other components of the Reach Higher initiative -- College Decision Day and the Counselor of the Year celebration at the White House -- are off to an impressive start, but efforts to create new course work and professional development have stalled. No state met Secretary Arne Duncan’s call for increased professional development for current school counselors by last September.
In addition, a 2012 report from Harvard University states “Although graduate course work varies by state … specific course work in higher education or college counseling is rarely required, if even offered.” Less than 10 percent of counselor graduate programs currently offer specific course work in college counseling, as identified by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and the number of new programs adding such a course in the last year is less than a dozen.
Some counselor educators -- those charged with training school counselors -- have responded to this call by insisting a course focused on college counseling is unnecessary. As long as the essential college counseling skills are taught at some point in graduate school, they argue, what’s the value of a focused course?
Those making this argument are unaware of the pressures school counselors are facing in today’s high schools, and in today’s job market. To begin with, a good number of counselor training programs aren’t teaching essential skills in college counseling at any point in their programs. College Board surveys show a clear majority of school counselors report the college counseling training they received in graduate school was inadequate. Combined with surveys of recent high school graduates showing deep dissatisfaction with the college advice their counselors had to offer, the time is now for graduate programs to find ways to emphasize the importance of college counseling in counselor training, since more is being expected from school counselors in this vital area.
Counselors feel particularly undertrained in essential areas such as advising students on how to pay for college, prepare for college tests like the ACT and SAT, develop a rigorous high school schedule that builds college readiness, and complete the basic elements of a college application, including college essays. They also want a greater awareness of the wide array of college options available to students, such as colleges where students take one class at a time, colleges that don’t require any test scores as part of the admission process and colleges that have a proven track record of supporting students with unique talents and needs. Given the increased competition for entrance into many colleges, and the increased financial resources families are devoting to college completion, a graduate course for counselors focused on the rudimentary components of college counseling is no longer a luxury -- it is a must.
An additional consideration for a required course in college counseling lies with the new importance of a credential in this field. More school administrators are looking at alternative ways of offering college advising to students and families, including hiring independent college counselors and college success coaches as independent contractors. Many of these college experts do not have the credentials necessary to be school counselors, but do have transcripts and certificates of completion in college counseling programs to verify their training in college counseling -- something most high school counselors don’t have. In some cases, they also have a track record of success in turning around college counseling programs at private or charter schools.
It’s certainly true that certified school counselors generally have more training in the mental health aspects of school counseling than do college coaches. But when demand for help with college advising is at an all-time high, how can school counselors with no evidence of training in college counseling hope to compete for jobs with independent contractors whose college advising credentials are stronger, and whose services often come at a significantly lower price? These factors almost require school administrators consider reassigning the role of college advising to an independent contractor, reducing the number of school counselors available to assist students with noncollege needs. That change not only hurts a potential school counselor; it hurts the profession.
Far beyond the arguments for a professional credential, a focused course offers particular benefits to counselors working with low-income students in urban and rural areas. Often the only counselor in the building, these professionals lack access to the professional development their suburban counselors are more likely to enjoy, and their higher caseloads leave them even less time to learn the essentials of effective college advising on the job. If for no other reason, a foundation course in college counseling is essential in advancing the efforts of school counselors to advance the college dreams of low-income students, advancing society’s goal of greater social justice.
The goals of the Reach Higher initiative, combined with the demands of students and parents and the realities of the college counseling marketplace, make it clear that an unfocused approach to training school counselors in college counseling is no longer the answer, if in fact it ever was. As Mrs. Obama’s celebration of school counselors reaches its one-year anniversary, it’s time for policy makers and counselor educators to join the party, and give school counselors the skills, and credentials, they desperately need and deserve.
Patrick O’Connor is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and associate dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Kingswood School, in Michigan.
For today’s enrollment manager, it’s nearly impossible to go a week without someone forwarding an article about another college trying a new way to describe the difference between its listed sticker price, the actual cost of attendance and the institution’s discount rate. The current funding model for higher education is broken and we can only blame ourselves for creating a norm of bargain basement pricing for those families in the know, opaque business models and unexplained annual increases based more on competitors’ current price tag rather than our actual campus needs. We continue to play a game of chicken as we wait for a so-called peer to do what we need to do.
On my own campus, we’ve been discussing this issue for several years and have yet to figure out what, if any, changes we should make, but we do know that honesty is a safe bet.
Gimmicks like so-called tuition resets and freezes, as well as “inflation +” models, are our industry’s desperate attempts to respond to critics and to try to appease the price police, when perhaps we should be discussing why we cost so much instead. These efforts are often undertaken in response to the chorus of calls for affordability, but they seldom illustrate for whom the experience will be more affordable.
Neither these efforts nor simply sticking with the status quo are acceptable over the long term -- families deserve additional information before they pay tuition or incur debt to cover campus costs. But any change has a substantial impact and cannot create spiraling financial scenarios for our campuses, either.
There are significant risks involved in changing how we discuss pricing, cost and value. Private colleges, as tuition-dependent institutions, are hesitant to try something new, especially if all of our peers stick with the currently murky language and approaches to cost and price.
As an industry, we need to work at getting it right for our students, which includes lowering actual costs for students and maintaining sufficient revenue to deliver on our mission. Meanwhile, we are muddling through how we describe our costs, often with too many apologies, and witnessing the shuttering of campuses across the country that didn’t find the right programmatic offerings, words or approaches to make themselves institutions of choice for students.
As best I can tell, there are no clear or easy solutions, but there are a few key elements we need to stress in future rhetoric and approaches:
A clear rationale for a new model. Families would benefit from an honest conversation with college leaders about why unfunded tuition discounting cannot continue at the current rate and why discounting has a negative impact on a college’s short- and long-term finances and bond rating. Further, colleges need to clearly describe their business model to their campus constituents, students and parents of current students and delineate how the annual operation is funded. Finally, leaders need to acknowledge that percentage increases in tuition costs cannot continue in perpetuity. At some point we will price ourselves out of the market and into bankruptcy.
Genuine reductions in cost to students. In too many cases, a clear illustration of exactly what has changed and how much less a student will pay is missing entirely from the launch of a new plan. Some institutions reference averages or scenarios for the financially neediest students while ignoring the middle class. Seldom is there a clear statement that all students will pay at least $XXXX less to attend the next year. I realize this is pretty tricky -- saying that the education offered is less expensive than the previous year -- but this is exactly what’s missing and why many of the efforts so far seem to miss the mark. Without a clear explanation to students and families of the financial benefits of a new model, colleges remain vulnerable to criticism that a new model really doesn’t change the cost of attendance to the student (a criticism that is fair in many cases). Colleges need to clearly articulate whether or not students will benefit.
Substantive changes to the business model and how we operate as institutions. One of the reasons many newly introduced models for calculating costs and how they are applied are viewed as gimmicky is because there is no clear explanation of what (if anything) has changed. Will changes in pricing result in a reduction of departments or student services? Is the college dependent on increasing the size of the student body to make up for lost revenue? Has the college become more efficient? Will the college open a new line of business to generate more revenue? How things will change is the key unanswered question, and our public is smart enough to want to know what changes -- and theoretically reductions -- will occur before they commit.
Sufficient marketing of any new model. While I’ve seen some clever YouTube videos and good press releases, strong marketing of a new model seems pretty limited. Some colleges don’t want to be seen “wasting money” on marketing when trying to prove to the world that they care about reducing costs to students. Additionally, many colleges view new models as highly risky, and they don’t want the hangover of a marketing rollout if it doesn’t work. However, the lack of a confident marketing plan results in most of these efforts being viewed as isolated, gimmicky or done with an ulterior motive, like lowering the price to attract more students because there is excess capacity to educate and house them on campus. An aggressive and comprehensive public relations and marketing campaign would have great benefit to a college if it really does want to transform the model and be a market leader.
Clear connection between price and return. Although there have been recent efforts to describe the return on investment of a college degree, historically speaking, connecting price with results and service has been inadequate at best and incredibly opaque at worst. There are so many questions to consider: What goes into a “comprehensive fee”? How does what a student pays for, and gets, differ from year to year in order to justify an increase or not? Are the services students receive as first-year students more comprehensive than as seniors? Should having a full-time faculty member as an adviser add value and cost? Colleges must do a better job connecting the price of attendance with what a student receives from year to year.
Even if a college committed to addressing these missing pieces, could it transform how we calculate cost of attendance for the student and the institution? I don’t know for certain. But a college that starts out willing to change the business model, reduce the actual price (and cost) for students, clearly describe what a student gets for what he or she pays, and aggressively market a new cost/price model -- that college would get attention. And that would be one of those articles forwarded to me that I would be interested to read.
W. Kent Barnds is executive vice president and vice president of enrollment, communication and planning at Augustana College, in Rock Island, Ill.
The most pressing challenge to undergraduate education in the United States is arguably its sharply rising cost. In a 2013 Bloomberg News article, Michelle Jamrisko and Ilan Kolet assert that tuition expenses have increased 538 percent since 1985, compared with a 286 percent jump in medical costs and a 121 percent gain in the Consumer Price Index. Jamrisko and Kolet further write that “the ballooning charges have generated swelling demand for educational loans while threatening to make college unaffordable for domestic and international students. The ‘skyrocketing’ increases exacerbate income inequality by depriving those of less means of the schooling they need to advance….”
The rising cost of higher education in the U.S. is clearly about more than learning; it reaches into the very definition of American society and severely limits fulfillment of the long-touted and distinguishing claim of this country that accessible education rivals hereditary privilege as the path to achievement.
Colleges and universities have tried numerous strategies to contain or reduce tuition so that their institutions are more accessible -- increased fund-raising for financial assistance, online learning, sharp discounting of tuition, a three-year degree, community college articulation agreements to four-year institutions and radical reductions in tuition. None of these strategies have prevented escalation of college costs.
Relying on fund-raising places the university on a never-ending treadmill of solicitation that, pursued too vigorously, alienates alumni and varies in success with the economic conditions out of the colleges’ control. Online learning remains a highly debatable option for the 18- to 21-year-old undergraduate. Discounting has its limits when the discount no longer provides the funds necessary to operate the institution. A three-year degree raises questions about the ability of sufficient academic coverage of courses of study and potentially eliminates time for those activities valued in an American education -- out-of-class activities. And in every case so far in which a college or university has radically reduced tuition, the expected results were not forthcoming, and in most cases, the charges in a few years were quietly adjusted back to their escalating rates.
There is, however, a highly viable alternative that is not often discussed broadly in the United States -- certainly not by the U.S. college and university establishment itself, as it would lead to its own disadvantage, nor by high school counselors, as the option is not yet common practice. The need for options is all the more critical as colleges and universities in marginal financial condition close (Sweet Briar College being a recent example) and students seek alternatives that are affordable. I am talking about an undergraduate degree at one of the 123 British universities -- well beyond the historic focus on only Oxford, Cambridge and St. Andrew’s -- for a limited number of U.S. students in the know.
Annual tuition for British undergraduate degrees averages well below the expense of well-considered private colleges in the U.S. and about the same as that of an out-of-state public flagship university. By only taking three years to complete, however, British degrees stand in striking contrast to American four-year degrees that confront students and their families in the United States with severe, lingering financial challenge. For example, the cost per year for a B.B.A. (honors) degree in Business and Entrepreneurship at Bath Spa University, recently judged one the U.K.’s most creative universities, is, if fully charged, $26,000, or the equivalent of $19,500 per year for a four-year education in the United States.
Savvy Americans are clearly noticing this option. A recent British Council Report entitled “U.S. undergraduates choosing U.K. for their studies” states the following:
“New HESA [Higher Education Statistics Agency] data shows a 28 percent increase in Americans pursuing their full undergraduate degrees at British universities over the past four years, and UCAS [Universities and Colleges Admissions Service] data reveals an 8 percent increase in U.S. applicants for courses starting 2014-15.”
What is fueling this trend? The British Council in the above report identifies several factors:
1. The strong reputation of the British higher education system.
2. The shorter length of the degrees.
3. Increased competitiveness on the job market, where an international experience of duration arguably counts as positive and distinguishing.
4. American students’ ability to use their U.S.-backed government loans to complete full degrees abroad, when scholarships are not available.
While I previously spent my entire professional career working for U.S. education institutions -- nonprofit and for-profit -- I am currently in a position to gain particular insight into Britain as a destination for university-bound American students. Through a private/public joint venture between Shorelight Education (Boston) and Bath Spa University (England), I have become founding dean of the School of Business and Entrepreneurship (SBE) in Bath. The three-year B.B.A. (honors) degree invites young entrepreneurial minds from all over the world to gain a mastery of fundamental business skills and pursue their interests in one of four distinct concentrations -- enterprise innovation, design management, social entrepreneurship or emerging technology.
What I have learned in a short period of time is that a British university education can be most appealing and cost efficient to an American student who is sufficiently adventuresome and mature to defy inherited expectations of a distinctively American education and embrace another way of doing things, and he or she can achieve the same results as an American education. It is not for everyone, but it is certainly a viable option for more students than are currently taking advantage of it.
For example, British universities have numerous opportunities for students to participate in club or intramural athletics, but the big-time university experience -- packed stadiums, mascots, tailgating parties, athletic scholarships, halftime shows and marching bands -- simply is not available. British universities also have abundant clubs for student engagement outside of class -- at the university or in the local community -- but again, the students find their way to these activities independently, although often through peer encouragement, and without the engagement of the elaborate and somewhat massive student life staff that exist at American colleges and universities.
The U.K. undergraduate curriculum also commences in a more focused manner than the initial exploratory curricula in the U.S. (To be accepted to a British university, students must demonstrate in a variety of ways the ability to have already been successful at university-level work -- this necessity attributable to entering British students being a year or two older than most American high school graduates.) To a certain degree there is the assumption that students already have a good idea of their course of study, and they delve deeply into it in a concentrated manner.
What is of particular interest to me is the three-year degree. Only a few years ago on this very site, my co-author, Neil Weissman, and I launched into a vigorous denunciation of such a degree. Here in part is what we said:
“It may be that we can no longer afford the four-year standard for an undergraduate education. If economic realities push against our current model, so be it. But before we fast-forward college in the name of affordability, let's at least be honest about what is being lost. Three is usually not more than or equal to four. Not all results -- especially in education, where widgets are not the product -- are available at lower price and the same quality. Perhaps we can ‘get undergraduates through’ in three years. However, what we may have to alter to achieve that end might severely compromise what we hope to accomplish for our students, particularly in areas vital to a thriving 21st-century democracy and economy.”
We identified several aspects of value to a distinctively American education for the 21st century if a three-year degree were the norm for all students, as advocates were demanding at the time (the three-year degree has historically always been available for those who have advanced academic standing and can discover the option’s availability -- colleges and universities are usually not forthcoming, as at least a year of tuition is thereby lost): global perspective, interdisciplinarity, complexity, choice, creativity, democracy, meaning and technology.
I still stand by our argument against the comprehensive adoption of the three-year degree in the U.S. for all the reasons cited at the time. But just as we left room for advanced placement students who had the necessary credits and the desire and discipline for a shorter undergraduate degree, I believe that those students with a desire to embrace early a global commitment through education, and thus prepare for a later life of global engagement quite fitting the demands of the century, and who do not need or desire the trappings of American education but desire something different that still results in the same accomplishment, should readily seek a British undergraduate education as alternative.
Objections to obtaining an undergraduate degree in Britain are historically numerous, but all inconsequential. Some worry about the distance from the U.S. Of course, a flight from the East Coast of the U.S. to London is in duration about the same as that to Los Angeles. Others are concerned about perceived inability to ever return for graduate studies or a job in the United States. This is a most provincial and U.S.-centric comment, as British-educated people obviously work all over the world, and U.S. citizens educated in the U.K. have returned to the U.S. without difficulty to further education and work. The positive employability of U.K. university graduates in the U.S. is presented in a December 2011 report (“U.S. Employers’ Perceptions of U.K. University Degrees Earned in the United Kingdom”) conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs for the British Council:
“Most employers in the United States consider degrees earned in the United Kingdom to be the same as or better than those earned in the U.S.”
The report notes that all U.K. universities profit for the “halo effect” of those prestigious institutions known to American employers, such as Oxford and Cambridge. That said, the report urges that other U.K. universities engage efforts to make themselves known in the U.S. to enhance even further their graduates’ employability. This is no different, of course, from U.S. colleges and universities with specific name recognition challenges internationally if they are not the likes of Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford or MIT. Even the most prestigious liberal arts colleges in the U.S., as well as many other universities, are abstractions globally.
And the transition for American undergraduates at U.K. universities back to the U.S. for advanced education is being further promoted by articulation agreements between U.K. universities and American graduate and professional schools. I personally am currently engaged in negotiations with numerous American graduate schools to provide just such a transition in the form of “early screening” agreements, whereby in the second year of study in the U.K., the American students submit an unofficial application to the U.S. institution. Other arrangements will follow, to include what I call “integrated degrees” -- a U.K. bachelor’s degree extended to contain course work jointly designed and overseen by U.S. graduate schools with the awarding of “merged” degrees -- that is, a bachelor’s/master’s degree from both institutions. Students holding such degrees arguably signal that they are prepared to operate in a globally engaged world.
Centuries ago, of course, an emerging American higher education was often complemented by study at a European university. The international university fulfilled a need to offer what the U.S. at that time could not provide, for example, medicine and other scientific fields of study. The U.S. today is having a difficult time providing an affordable education. The solution may well be to recommit to this historic international interdependency, embrace a multiplicity of place for education and prepare as a by-product a graduate who is informed and prepared for the globally complex world that surely awaits them.
William G. Durden is dean of the School of Business and Entrepreneurship at Bath Spa University and a professor (research) in the School of Education at Johns Hopkins University.
The deluge of student data privacy laws proposed at both the state and federal levels attempt to provide much-needed updates to antiquated privacy regulations that allow far too many loopholes for the access and sharing of data. But in the rush to protect students’ information and keep profiteers from accessing students’ personal data, we risk losing crucial opportunities to use these data to help students, particularly those from less privileged backgrounds.
How can this be the case? In response to justifiable concerns about who has access to student data and what they do with it, many proposed student data privacy laws -- more than 140 have been introduced in 49 states, and more than 30 have already passed -- include stipulations to prevent “operators” and/or “school service providers” from sharing data, even for educational purposes.
Some, but not all, of the state bills make exceptions for nonprofit organizations like ACT, which play an important role in connecting students to crucial information and resources that can increase the likelihood that they will enroll in college, learn about scholarships and connect with organizations that support student success in postsecondary education. One of the proposed federal bills that has surfaced on Capitol Hill, the Student Data Privacy Rights Act, would, in its current form, negatively affect our ability to conduct and provide educational research for the public good, and make it more difficult for students to receive information about college opportunities and scholarships.
How many students could be negatively affected by a poorly written law? In 2014, 1.8 million students took the ACT test, including 57 percent of all graduating high school seniors nationwide. When students register to take the ACT, they have the option of completing a survey about their plans and aspirations for life after high school. Participation is voluntary, though 86 percent chose to complete the survey. By completing the survey and indicating their desire to opt in, students give permission for their information to be shared with colleges and scholarship organizations that send them information about programs and resources matching their financial needs and academic interests.
For over 50 years, ACT has been a trusted and proven partner in collecting such data. Organizations that provide millions of dollars of college scholarships to qualified students rely on ACT’s data to help them reach students who might not otherwise know that they qualify for their programs and funding. But if proposed laws lack flexibility in their definitions of “operator” or “school service provider,” these scholarship organizations stand to lose access to those data. And the end result is that deserving students would lose an important and possibly life-changing opportunity.
Among the concerns raised about sharing students’ personal data is that it can lead to them being stereotyped or pigeonholed too early in their lives. I think we have to trust students to make decisions about their data, and about the opportunities that they might or might not decide to pursue.
As a student affairs administrator at Stanford University, Dartmouth College and other institutions, I’ve worked with countless students who, at one point, hadn’t thought they were “college material,” or qualified to attend the most competitive colleges. What changed their minds and motivated them was receiving information from institutions and organizations that recognized their talent, work ethic and potential and encouraged them to apply for admission and scholarship programs. And colleges send this information after they use services like ACT to identify those who can benefit from their programs. I’d rather help students consider all of their options than deny them the opportunity to do so.
At ACT, we are developing new initiatives and partnerships to expand data-driven outreach efforts to increase college opportunity. Earlier this academic year, ACT launched the Get Your Name in the Game initiative to provide college and scholarship information to underserved students who waited until senior year to take the ACT, and who opted in to share their personal data. Our research shows that few of these students received information from colleges or scholarship programs, which tended to focus their outreach efforts on students who had taken the ACT during their junior year. To level the playing field where we could, we offered educational institutions and organizations free access to the data these students provided, in order to contact them about educational opportunities. The result is that nearly 750,000 more underserved high school seniors were connected with colleges and scholarship funders who were interested in them. Despite the promising early results of this initiative, it would have to be discontinued if the proposed laws forbid us from sharing these data.
As our federal and state governments continue to collaborate with educational organizations to sort out the details of these laws, it’s important that they are also vigilant in preserving opportunities for nonprofits to share data within strict ethical and legal standards. Responsible and effective stewards of data like ACT are already doing this.
To ensure that our data are only shared for the benefit of students, we strictly vet any organizations that request access to students’ information. Companies that charge students or their families fees for services are banned. Only organizations with an educational mission are eligible for access, and they are not allowed to share the data with any other organizations.
We also recognize that students and their families are often confused about what information is being shared and for what purposes. This is why we support the current push for greater transparency -- it’s important that organizations like ACT are clear and forthcoming about how they regulate and safeguard access to students’ data. We provide detailed information on our policies and practices on student data privacy here.
There is also a strong need for parents to educate themselves, and teach their children, about how to make wise decisions about sharing their personal data. On Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, children are deemed old enough to authorize their data to be shared with these companies at age 13 -- including birth dates, personal photos and where they go to school. As a parent and former student affairs dean, I cannot tell you how important it is for parents to discuss these matters with their children.
There is a lot of monitoring that parents need to do in the current environment of massive social networks, and for-profit companies taking advantage of the ease of access to tons of data about their children. But students and their families also need to be given the choice to share their data with trusted education organizations. If data-sharing restrictions are placed on nonprofits like ACT, students and their families will lose the right to make the decision for themselves to receive information from colleges and scholarship funds.
As these laws evolve and gain clarity, policy makers should balance the need for updated safeguards while preserving the ability for proven programs that benefit students to continue to do so by virtue of collecting and sharing data.
Jim Larimore is the chief officer for underserved learners at ACT. He previously served as deputy director for student success at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and has been a student affairs professional at Stanford University, Dartmouth College, Swarthmore College, NYU Abu Dhabi and Amherst College.