Back to the Future: Giving “Guidance”

I just read an article in Consumer Reports, “I Kind of Ruined my Life by Going to College.”  It was pretty depressing, rife with examples of students who were so far underwater and overextended that they would likely never get out from under it.  I am not hopeful that there will be changes to benefit student borrowers in the next four years.  (Though I also read that San Francisco is making college free for residents, so there is at least a glimmer of hope on the state or local level).

But what I was really struck by was how each student seemed to have no idea of the consequences of this borrowing, with multiple quotes about counselors being unhelpful in this area.  I was a Director of Guidance at three public schools and at each I was shocked that counselors did not discuss paying for college beyond discussing the forms that needed to be filled out, or general comments about loans, grants, scholarships, merit aid, or arcane terms like “expected family contribution”.

There seemed to be this fear of talking to students and parents in a real way about paying for college.  Sure, it’s uncomfortable to talk about money, especially with a parent talking about money with their kid in the room.  The parent wants to be brave and tell the kid “if you get into your dream school, we’ll make it work.”  And so often they don’t.  This is, in my opinion, a true abrogation of responsibility.  If counselors who do not have a heart to heart talk with every family about ACTUALLY paying for college, then it is time for them to rethink their methods and their priorities.

There are a whole bunch of uncomfortable questions to be asked.  Is there money set aside for college?  How much?  How much out of your income and assets could you comfortably spare each month to help pay for college?  Is there a younger sibling or a few that need to be taken care of?  Or is there already debt from an older child?

Its pretty predictable what public colleges cost.  Sure, the kid may want to get out of New Jersey in the worst kind of way, but that may not be affordable.  Counselors need to be clear about the financial and educational consequences of college decisions, such as how a diploma from a 4-year college doesn’t have an asterisk that the student spent the first two years in community college.

The scourge of debt is weighing on our students.  Unfortunately, the students who are suffering the most are probably from high schools that do not have the ability to give much personal attention to every student. Some have caseloads of 500 or more and have little ability to do individual counseling.  If you attend one of the schools that has that luxury, make sure counselors don’t serve up pablum that they could read on a million web sites.  Have honest discussions about how the family is going to make this work.  Each family should have a firm plan upon leaving a junior conference on how they are going to make this work.

This actually is a much a broader issue:  when having discussions with students, MOST of the meeting should be a discussion with the family about the student’s future.  There is obviously a need for some providing of information, but this should be no more than 25 – 50% of the meeting.  Counselors should give hand-outs with information so they can quickly get that out of the way and the family has something to refer to if they didn’t remember what was said.  Having said that, many if not most of the observations I did when first arriving at a school were heavily laden with information sharing with little interaction.

It is tough work to train counselors to get outside their comfort zone of discussing the specifics of applying to college.  And to be honest, most directors I know do not encourage or enforce having discussions with families.  I’ve entered high schools where I was told the previous directors discouraged talking about money, giving college lists, informing students of their admissibility at the colleges they are considering, helping kids pick teachers for recommendations, etc.  The majority of many of the conferences at these schools could be done by playing a recording.

Besides not being helpful, this must be just incredibly boring to do day-after-day for weeks on end.  I am neither a proponent nor detractor of independent counseling.  The more that counselors actually do counseling, the less the need for independent counselors.  There are risks involved with making judgments, asking uncomfortable questions, giving advice and working to get families to discuss things like limitations (financial, geographic, etc.)

Students often come in with “I want” statements, about a career, particularly colleges, a major, size, etc.  It is up to the counselor to continually test whether these are best for the student.  Students, even at elite suburban or private schools, frequently, to be blunt, have no idea what they are talking about.  They frequently do not know the difference between a liberal arts college, a comprehensive college and a university.  They frequently have never been on the campus of different kinds of colleges and have no idea of how much preparation they need for a career and what they can do with a given major.  Accepting what the student says they want without following up to make sure they are knowledgeable is like discussing colors with a blind person.

So I didn’t mean to limit my comments to just discussing how to pay for college.  Yes there are triggers that can set kids and parents off (such as even mentioning community college to some families), and it may be necessary to ease into a discussion.  But this should never be an excuse for avoiding difficult discussions altogether.  Counselors need to be brave, be bold, be helpful, take risks.  This is the formula for really helping the families they counsel.

Author: Scott White

I am a nationally recognized expert on college admissions, having worked in schools and colleges for 35 years. I have been regularly quoted in major publications including the NY Times, the LA Times, The Boston Globe, the Washington Post, Atlantic Monthly, Time Magazine and others. I am widely published on various aspects of the college admissions process and present at state and national conferences on a variety of college admissions related topics. I have worked in college admissions as well as independent day and boarding schools. The last 25 years I have worked in public schools, 14 as a school counselor and then as a Director of Guidance at elite, suburban public schools including Montclair High School, Westfield High School and Morristown High School. I am now an independent college counselor for SW College Consulting in Montclair. I can be contacted as or 973-919-6798.

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