Monday, October 12, 2009

Our Best and Brightest: What Has Your Counselor Done For You Lately?

Now that I have a child who is actually in the "looking and applying to college stage," I finally understand why the application process strikes fear and awe into peoples' hearts and minds.

I understand why my co-worker's son, who was initially interested in a small liberal arts college in Michigan where he could play his sport of choice, but whose mom was born in another country and confused by the application process, whose father is deceased--found it easier to pursue a possible career in the Air Force. The Air Force recruiter walks you through the process, step by step. They make it easy.

Last spring I was very puzzled by an Ann Arbor News supplement--you know, the graduation supplement? That is (I guess I should say "was") the one that profiles the top 5 students from every school in the county. Some of these kids can really knock your socks off, and they are all--every single one of them--overachievers. Most of the ones from Ann Arbor told the News they were going to small private schools, the University of Michigan or Michigan State University. But take a look at the ones from some of the outlying areas: Willow Run, Whitmore Lake, Manchester, Chelsea... All of a sudden, Eastern Michigan University, Ferris State, and even Washtenaw Community College pop up as probably school choices. Washtenaw Community College for a valedictorian or salutatorian? That makes no sense at all.

I have nothing against any of those schools, but now that I am experiencing the college application process "up close and personal," I have a different take. All of these students--we are talking the top five in the class--are strong candidates for UM, MSU, and, yes, small private colleges. Those students who don't have money could probably get financial aid. But I'll bet that a lot of them never applied.
Why? The application process is intimidating. The financial aid process? Even more intimidating. Yes, even to those of us who have been to college and graduate school ourselves. The applications are primarily online. What if you don't have a computer at home?

A few years ago, I had an intern who grew up in a working-class school district in Macomb County. She was one of the top 10 students in her graduating class. In 11th grade, she went to her counselor and said, "What do I need to do to get into the University of Michigan?
Replied her counselor, "I have no idea."

Really? Then why are you working as a school counselor? 

Is it any wonder that she reports to me that of her graduating class, one student went to an Ivy League school; 2 or 3 each went to the University of Michigan and Michigan State; a handful went to Oakland University, Wayne State, or Eastern Michigan; a bigger handful went to Macomb Community College, and the majority did not pursue any higher education at all. Nada. Zip.

School counselors have difficult loads. But colleges also expect them to write letters of recommendations for their students. This year, at Pioneer High School, I understand that all of the seniors have been assigned to one counselor; one counselor, who has never met a lot of them before. Do you think that counselor will be able to do a good job writing letters of recommendation?

Even worse--because it does not relate to their workload--are the counselors who cannot advise students on how to apply to the excellent state schools that we have in Michigan.

Worse still are the counselors--and I just heard a story about one of these the other day--who tell students who indicate an interest in applying to schools which are in their range, or even "reach" schools--"Oh, don't bother, you will never get in."
Why don't you let the college or university decide?

Counselors, listen up: If you don't know how to help students apply to the colleges of their choice, then you either need to learn, or you need to get a different job.

Do you ever wonder how we, as a society, perpetuate class differences? This is how. 

As Langston Hughes wrote so beautifully:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?


  1. If students plan to go to WCC and then transfer to a 4-year school it can be a good way to get the basic classes done in a smaller environment and for much less money. Many intro classes at U-M are huge and students get assigned to a TA who may have no teaching experience whatsoever. At WCC they get a much smaller class and faculty or lecturers who have some teaching experience. I agree that it isn't the same social experience as a 4 year school, but WCC has a pretty good established program and counseling facilities to help kids do 2 years of classes at WCC that will all transfer to U-M and EMU. And it can actually be a better choice for kids who aren't ready for dorm-life.

  2. Kate, I agree with you that if it is a conscious choice, community college can be a good thing. My point though, is that some of these kids are sort of being "tracked" into community college, even though they are the school's "best and brightest" (the top students) because nobody is helping them sort out their options. A lot of these kids would qualify for academic scholarships at both small and large schools, if someone helped them apply. An awful lot of community college students do not end up graduating and moving on to 4-year schools.

  3. Ruth,
    I completely agree with you. No matter how good a community college might be, a truly motivated student will find more resources and intellectual options at U-M or a good private school.U-M also has small classes and seminars in programs such as the Residential College.

    It irritates me no end that a student from a Birmingham is given the information and tools to get into a school like U-M whereas a student from a less affluent area in Michigan is not. This is extremely undemocratic. Lolita

  4. I was one of the Pioneer High school students many years ago whose counselor told me not to even apply to UM because I wouldn't get in. I was a strong student, but not the best. Guess what .... not only did I get in, I graduated in 4 years!

    If kids are feeling "tracked" they are limiting themselves. Sometimes we can't depend on the support of others in life...even if it is their job. My advice if you want it bad enough, you will find a way to make it happen!

    It saddens me to hear that the system has not improved in 20+ years.

  5. It doesn't surprise me that this kind of attitude is coming from Pioneer. The only person in the administration there that is friendly to parents is the attendance secretary. The rest are down right rude and nasty. Fortunately, most of the teachers go the extra mile to be helpful.

  6. I didn't really mean to focus on Pioneer. As far as I can tell this is a county-wide issue, not just any particular school.

  7. Teacher Revised has a great post on this topic.