Monday, February 14, 2011

School Counselors and Independent Consultants Working Together

An article I wrote titled "School Counselors and Independent Consultants Working Together" was published last week in the New York State Association for College Admission Counseling newsletter. In the article I talk about the benefits of guidance counselors and independent consultants collaborating on behalf of students, yet I also seek to clarify the role each one plays and the value each brings to a student's college search process. Since I occasionally am asked the question, 'how is what you do different from what we can expect from the guidance counselor,' I have decided to share the article here in my blog.

When I began working as an independent educational consultant, I was admittedly na├»ve. It had not occurred to me that school guidance counselors might not welcome me with open arms. After all, weren’t we working towards the same goal, doing what we thought best for the student?

Today I have a better understanding for a guidance counselor’s position, though believe more fervently than ever that the relationship between school counselor and independent consultant should and can be collaborative. Within my own school district I have come to know and truly appreciate the challenges of the guidance staff. While I have the luxury to focus solely on the goal of finding the right fit for college and guiding students through that process, I recognize that college admission is only a small part of the school counselor’s responsibilities. Discipline, scheduling, transcripts and recommendations are not in my job description, and my case load is generally much smaller. Therefore, I can spend more time getting to know a student outside the school environment. This often leads to a more holistic picture of his or her personal as well as academic needs for a college experience.

Independent educational consultants are not substitutes for guidance counselors, but they can supplement what counselors provide. When guidance staff and IECs work together, the process runs more smoothly and effectively for everyone, most of all, for the student. So here are some thoughts that will hopefully foster a better understanding for the value that each offers, which can ultimately work to the benefit of the student.

- Guidance counselors often have the inside scoop on how students from their school fare in admission at specific colleges. IECs can benefit from this knowledge which only adds to the trove of useful data for compiling a college list.

- Independent consultants generally spend far more time on the road visiting colleges since their travel is typically not restricted by school calendars and district budgets. Many IECs visit at least 50 colleges a year. We can be a great resource for school counselors hoping to uncover lesser known gems that might perfectly suit a student.

- The better I do my job, the easier I make the life of the guidance counselor. I keep after students about deadlines, and parents often call me first with their questions and concerns. I hope and believe that this lightens the counselor’s load and alleviates some of the stress that builds as due dates near.

- Many IECs develop specializations, whether in learning disabilities, athletic recruiting, or performing and visual arts. Collaborating with someone who understands the nuances of particular programs will most likely result in greater success for the student.

A recent study done by Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education noted the rapid growth in the field of educational consulting. Up to 26% of seniors nationally now use an IEC to assist with their college planning process. However, the study also cautions parents and others to be wary of independent educational consultants who do not abide by certain standards and practices. IECs who are members of organizations such as NACAC, NYSACAC, IECA (Independent Educational Consultants Association) and HECA (Higher Education Consultants Association) commit to hold themselves to the high standards that their affiliations require. School counselors might want to advise families contemplating retention of an IEC to carefully check one’s credentials and affiliations before making a commitment.

Families retain the services of an independent educational consultant when they feel their child needs extra assistance, much in the way they hire a tutor for additional help beyond the classroom. We are all members of the same team. In this case, the objective is not about scoring a goal, but rather ensuring students have the best guidance and options for college.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Colleges Need to Change with the Times

The financial health of colleges is looking up. Alumni giving and endowment returns are on the upswing so the future is rosy, right? Well, not quite. Though returns in 2010 averaged 12%, endowments are still around 20% below their 2007 levels. And since schools typically draw down 5% of their endowments each year to cover operating expenses, this 20% decline means less money to spend on students, whether for academic programs, financial aid or capital improvements. The solution for many colleges is to raise tuition, which is why the cost of attendance continues to outpace the rate of inflation. The question begging for a satisfactory answer is, how long can this continue, especially since the bill for a four-year college education is already out of reach for most families?

How did we get into this situation? The race to attract students has motivated campus upgrades and enhancements to surpass the competition. Ask yourself honestly: if you have visited college campuses recently, were you most impressed by the schools with new dorms, student centers, state-of-the-art labs and sprawling athletic facilities? Unfortunately all of this now comes at the cost of academic programs and the increasing debt load that students are carrying.

With the exception of the colleges and universities that still have large endowments to support their student populations (and by that I mean the size of the endowment per student), most schools will not be able to continue along their current paths indefinitely. They will ultimately price themselves right out of business if they don’t change with the times and differentiate themselves through their programs and offerings. Many colleges have already come to the realization that they cannot be everything for everyone. SUNY Albany, for example, is in the process of phasing out its programs in Italian, Russian, French, the classics and theater.

Why is this important to families? The college your child is applying to today may have a different profile and focus in the future. Perhaps never before on this scale has the business of higher education been so desperately in need of a restructuring. In a way, colleges are experiencing what many individuals have recently had to face. The world has changed; what we know and the skills we possess may no longer be relevant, and we are then confronted with the task of reinventing ourselves to survive. Just like individuals, colleges that possess self-awareness and succeed in capitalizing on their strengths are the ones most likely to adapt to the changing times by embracing a clear mission and vision.

So when you visit college campuses, try to look beyond the newly renovated and air-conditioned dorms that you can now find at New England schools where it is cold throughout most of the school year, or the fabulous athletic facilities with the climbing wall that your child will never use. Read in between the lines and listen closely to how a college conveys its mission, or whether it has one at all. What majors have been eliminated and what are they now emphasizing? Colleges are starting to realize that they are just like people. They have to be flexible and adapt to the times.