Saturday, April 28, 2012

Resource: High School Dropouts

1.3 million students drop out of school each year.  American business needs 97 million skilled workers to fill much needed jobs in the economy, yet only 45 million workers currently possess those skills (source: www.americangraduate.org).  I've written about the employment and skills quandary in a previous post.  If you look around the country, you find some places have really made strides and improvements in helping guide more students to graduation, and there are other places that still struggle a great deal.

American Graduate is an organization that has dedicated itself to investigating why students drop out of school--what are the risk factors and warning signs?  Further, they have also worked to identify solutions and strategies that schools, educators, and families can use to help prevent kids from leaving school without a diploma or a GED.  American Graduate has partnered with local organizations in states and cities across the U.S. as a means of gathering information about the issue locally as well as getting the word out about the problem and ways to find solutions.  For example, here in the Washington D.C. metro area, they partnered with a local NPR radio station, WAMU, to produce a nine-part radio series that looked at the high-school dropout crisis in this area.  Kavitha Cardoza, a reporter at the station, examines the issues from a local point of view, but the strength of this series is that I believe it is applicable anywhere.  It identifies the main risk factors for dropping out, the long term effects of students leaving school without a diploma or certificate, and what some communities have done to try to either prevent dropping out or to give students a second chance:
  • Breaking the Cycle When Dropping Out Runs in the Family:  This episode examines how dropping out can be seen from generation-to-generation (remember your Bowen theory and genograms), and the impact this has on families over time.  Further, it discusses risk factors such as pregnancy and students with learning disabilities.  One part that I found interesting was how connected one of the subjects felt to a former teacher, and how that connection made such a difference in her ability to learn during that particular school year.
  • How Many Students Really Graduate from High School?:  As most of us have known for a while, graduation rate calculations have varied widely from state-to-state, with some involving sampling and self-reporting, some that include both diplomas and GED's, and some that only pull numbers from those in the 12th grade, leaving out any students that may have dropped out before then.  There is now a new method for all states to use in calculating graduation rates, the adjusted graduation cohort rate, which will follow and track all students who enter the 9th grade.  Further, many states are using databases to determine which subgroups of students are most at-risk for dropping out.
  • Why Kids Drop Out: Identifying the Early Warning Signs: There are three large warning signs that are discussed--attendance, behavior, and grades/academic performance.  When one of these is an issue for a student, it can be a risk factor, but when two or three are an issue, that student may be in real danger.  School policies that involve the parents/guardians, connecting abstract coursework to the real world, and having teachers that regularly encourage students are discussed as antidotes.
  • Graduation Rates Increase Around the Globe as U.S. Plateaus:  In 2009, the U.S. ranked 21 out of 26 countries with regards to their graduation rate.  In the past, the U.S. used to rank first.  Some believe that we have fallen because of a stronger emphasis on the social nature of schools--the clubs, the sports, and prom.  Others believe that we have not become weaker, but that other countries have worked hard to improve their graduation rates, and offer multiple paths to a diploma, such as through vocational education, something that U.S. education has shied away from because of the stigma associated with "tracking" students.  In developing countries, graduation rates are on the rise because education is seen as transformative--it can pull people out of poverty and change lives.
  • Battling Homelessness, Crime on the Path to Graduation:  Two stories are presented.  In one, a student who has been homeless most of his life discusses his struggles and how he has overcome them and remained focused on school.  In the other, an older student who was in jail for three years for a felony conviction regains academic focus at an alternative school following his release.
  • In Experimental School, Tight-Knit Community Helps Students Succeed:  At the Baltimore Talent Development High School, students graduate at a 78% rate within five years, which is higher than the school district's average and much higher than neighboring schools.  This is done by focusing on attendance, behavior, and coursework.  Students have daily competitions between the grade levels for attendance, and the school environment is highly structured in order to minimize down time and distractions, everything from uniforms to class schedules built on the concept of "teaming," where students have classes with the same students and teachers all day long.  The idea is that if students are not motivated themselves to succeed, the staff and their peers can help to keep them moving forward.
  • Scaling Up Solutions to the Dropout Problem:  This installment tackles the question, "can you identify and then transfer successful components from one program into others?"  Diplomas Now has done this, showing early success in a school and then expanding into other programs.  Key components of their program involve smaller groups of students, careful monitoring, developing relationships with kids, and a high staff-to-student ratio.  The strong academic program is the first line of defense.  Next, the program involves City Year volunteers who help to keep track of students attendance, behavior, and grades and then, through staffing meetings, design interventions if the child needs support.  Finally, for those students with needs that exceed what can be provided within the walls of the school, there is a social worker who helps to connect them to outside resources.
  • Bridging the Gap Between Home and School: Attendance officers as well as school and community social services reach out to connect parents to what is going on in their children's lives.  Unexcused absences are not the only issue; excused absences are also a reason for concern.  Students will sometimes be excused in order to take care of siblings or to take parents grocery shopping or to the doctor.  By meeting with parents face-to-face and building relationships with them early, the schools try to lessen the "value-disconnect" and help bring families on board with the importance of education.
  • The Impact of the High School Dropout Crisis: Alternative schools and second-chance programs allow dropouts to give high-school another try.  Students can find success at programs that have on-the-job training and that tie education to real-world experience.  Students may attend programs that end in a GED, or some will go through schools that offer mentoring, accelerated credit recovery programs, and more convenient hours.  These programs are important, as those who never get a high-school diploma have less earnings and spending potential, are less likely to vote, less likely to volunteer, are at a higher risk for ending up in the justice system, and are more likely to have health issues.  More important, however, is the loss of human potential.
How can you, as a school counselor, take the ideas and concepts discussed in this series and apply them to your individual situation?
  • Use data to identify those students who may be at risk, as early as possible.  If I think about my work with my own students, the ABC acronym (attendance, behavior, course performance) is exactly what I use to help me determine who needs additional supports and interventions in order to keep them in school.  Students who consistently miss school, either for excused or unexcused absences, are not getting the instruction they need nor are they engaging in the school community.  Students who are constantly having behavior issues, getting suspended or thrown out of class, are also not getting the instruction they need.  Students who are not performing well academically are not amassing the skills and credits they need for graduation, falling further and further behind, becoming frustrated and more disengaged from education.  If you have a student who is struggling with all three, no matter if they are in elementary school or a junior in high-school, they are at an extremely high-risk for dropping out of school at some point.  
  • Use your counseling skills to help figure out what is behind those risk factors.  Students may be missing school, but is it because they hate school and are disengaged from the process, or is it because they are expected to help take care of siblings, parents, or other family members?  Students may be acting out in class, but is it because they are responding to bullying and harassment because of their LGBT status or is it because they are trying to take attention away from the fact that they do not understand basic math, making Algebra 1 impossible?  Their grades may be low, but is that because they are bored in class, ace every test, and do absolutely no homework, or is it because there may be an unidentified learning disability or other impediment?  As school counselors, we are specifically trained to ask the questions that will help us to get the information we need to truly begin to assist the student.
  • It takes a village.  Once you have identified a student or a group of students who are struggling with one or all three of the ABC's and gotten some ideas as to what may be the background behind their struggles, gather the troops together.  The more people who are involved in assisting the student or students, the better.  Ask the parents to come in and meet with you, all the teachers, the administrator, the student, and any other personnel or community members that might be relevant or helpful.  For each individual student, if you are able to develop a plan with everyone present, you are much more likely to have consistency.  Further, it send a pretty clear message to the student that everyone at that table cares and wants the student to do well.  For groups, get other staff and community members to assist you in running a group for those who struggle with attendance, setting up an after-school or even during-school tutoring session, or partnering with someone in the community to work on anger-management and conflict-resolution skills.
  • Know your resources.  Something that is pretty clear in the radio series is that many school systems have developed alternative programs to help students graduate.  In my own school district, there are multiple programs to help students graduate, from standards-based online coursework to programs that are part vocational, part academic.  We have GED prep-programs that incorporate GED prep, job skills, and career readiness.  Some area school systems have created schools-within-schools to help address at-risk problems like attendance and low grades, developing programs which are small and compact in nature so that students move together with the same students and teachers.  In addition to seeing what options might be available in your school system, gather additional community supports--is there low-cost or free family counseling?  Is there an after-school community resource center for kids?  Do you have a contact or two in social-services to assist with other family needs like housing, medical concerns, or child-care?  Again, you cannot possibly do it all, but if you have a bank of resources in your head (or on your computer), you can more easily help to solve some of the problems that are preventing the student from being successful.
  • Build relationships.  This was pretty clear in the series, time and time again.  Students need someone within their buildings to connect to.  You can be that person.  More than this, though, you can help to facilitate relationship building between the student and their teachers, the teachers and the parent, the parent and the school.  The more people in this situation that feel comfortable talking to each other and problem solving, the better that will be for the student and the possible outcome.
  • Follow-up.  Keep tabs on the student, meeting with them regularly.  Check in with the parent, especially around grade time or any time an attendance or discipline issue comes to light.  Check in with the teachers to see how things are progressing and if they need any assistance from you.  This way you are able to head possible problems off at the pass plus you are continuing to foster and nurture your relationships with the community of support you have helped to build around this student.
The American Graduate website has additional resources, including report cards by state on the dropout situation to include statistics on indicators, dropouts, dropout factories (schools with fewer than 60% of students graduating),  and the economic implications of students dropping out.  Further, it has reports on the student, teacher/principal, and parent perspectives on what causes students to dropout as well as what solutions each group offers.  My one concern that I've discussed before is that school counselors are left out of the discussion in American Graduate.  The parents, teacher, principals, and students surveyed offer solutions such as stronger relationships between the schools and families, between the students and their teachers, more access to support staff (implying school counselors, perhaps?), more collaboration between all the parties involved, and stronger early-warning systems (source: www.americangraduate.org).  It seems to me that the person in the building most able to have a global perspective on a student (academic, personal/family, career aspirations) is the school counselor.  It seems to me the person in the building most able to examine data to identify early warning signs is the school counselor.  It seems to me that the person in the building most able to facilitate the collaboration and relationship building between the teachers, student, family, school personnel, and district/community resources is the school counselor.  We can have a strong impact on the dropout rate in this country if we are able to identify students early, determine what is behind the risk factors, and then develop and follow through with a collaborative plan to see that student through to graduation.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Dear 40-year-old Me

This video has been put out by the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, an organization that helps kids in Illinois advocate for safe schools and an end to bullying and harassment of LGBT teens.  If you have never worked with LGBT youth, some of what they share may shock you.  Not only are these kids at a higher risk of harassment and bullying at school but they can also face harassment and estrangement from their families.  Imagine being a teenager and losing your support system at home.  This is why school counselors and supportive staff and adults at school can be so important.  It is clear that the Safe Schools Alliance has helped to give these children hope and taught them how to advocate for themselves, whether at their own schools or at a legislative level, to effect change.  As a result, their futures, 40 years from now or otherwise, look bright.


Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Follow-Up: Show Me the Money!

Financial aid is on every family's mind right now as they consider various proposals from different colleges in anticipation of making that final decision.  I wrote about scholarship and merit-aid considerations in a previous blog post.  A few more articles have come to light this week that I would recommend sharing with your students and families as food for thought:
  • In the New York Times' The Choice blog, they have been taking questions this week from students and families and posing them to a financial-aid expert.  Part one takes on questions about changes to Pell grants and student loans, information required as part of the FAFSA, and the value of the National Merit Scholar program.  In part two, negotiating financial aid awards after early-admissions, verifying information on the FAFSA, and capital gains tax counting as income are discussed.  
  • The debate about student loans continues.  The questions center around whether to keep federal student loans interest rates down, lower the percentage of the expected monthly repayment from 15% to 10% of a person's income, and allowing loan forgiveness after 20 years instead of 25.

  • For some of the basics as to what the terms mean in financial aid-speak to tips on getting more money, check out US News and World Report's Financial Aid 101 page.
  • Once families and students have those award packages, it can often be difficult to determine what is grant money (scholarships and money that does not have to be paid back) versus loans, work study, etc.  With the loans, are they federal loans or private?  Subsidized or unsubsidized?  This article sheds some light on the mystique but also lays out the facts and figures of how much debt students often end up with as well as how unprepared many are when they see the total at the end.
  • Finally, why do the costs of college continue to rise?  This article believes that as state and federal funding have decreased at public colleges and universities nationwide, the cost has been shifted to students and families.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Reflection: The Bully Movie

By now, I'm pretty sure most school counselors have heard of the movie, Bully, either from the publicity concerning the controversy over its rating, or from parents, students, or colleagues who are talking about it.  For those of in education, I think it has been one of the most anticipated major release films in a long time.  As school counselors, we tend to be pretty aware of the issue of bullying, as we are often some of the first people that students and parents come to when there is a concern.  Further, we work hard to implement preventative measures in our schools like the Olweus program, and we also employ mediation skills, such as restorative justice, to help resolve conflicts while teaching empathy skills.  Before the movie was released, the questions that seemed to be on everyone's mind was about whether the film would reflect what bullying truly looks like in our schools, and whether all of the various stakeholders (parents, students, school personnel, police) would be reflected in an honest way.


In the film, there are some narratives that are very powerful and, I believe, reflective of some of the realities of our students.  The story of Alex, a student who ultimately gets beaten-up on a bus by another high-school student, will resonate with many of us.  Kelby, the gay student in Oklahoma who is ostracized and harassed at her school by students and teachers alike.  Ja'Meya, a young woman who ultimately fights back, but in a way that changes her own life forever.  Because the film-makers had such unlimited access to these children, they are able to show the impact that the bullying has had on the students and their families, and, in the case of Alex, what the bullying actually looks like on a day-to-day basis.  That is, I think, the film's strength: allowing the audience to empathize and feel what the bullying has done to these adolescents.  Alex undergoes daily harassment, and yet seems to indicate at one point that the people who are harassing him are his "friends."  Kelby, by the end, no longer feels comfortable attending school.  Ja'Meya is incarcerated for a period of time, with the charges ultimately being dropped, but it is fairly clear that the bullying and resulting incident have taken a large emotional toll on both her and her family.  There are moments of hope, strength, and resiliency--Kelby and her family having grown closer and stronger through the adversity, for example.  Ultimately, I would recommend that school counselors make an effort to also see the movie, but there are some things that I believe should be taken into account.
  • Do some prep work beforehand, especially if you are going in a group.  There is a guide available at FacingHistory.org that has activities for adults and students alike both before going to see the movie as well as after.  They include definitions of bullying, ostracism, and synopses with guiding questions to help as you are watching the film, and then discussion questions and role-plays to follow-up.  If you are using the film as a teaching tool or a call to action, these materials can help to make any work done before and/or after much more meaningful and structured.
  • Understand that this is a film that has been edited to fit the director's vision.  This may sound harsh, but it is very clearly explained in the guide by the director himself.  The filmmakers spent a year filming a multitude of stories and at a multitude of schools, and many things did not make it into the film as they did not fit the "dramatic arc." They filmed at a high-school in Sioux City in addition to the middle school: 
"West [High School] had and continues to have really strong and good leadership, and a really strong mentoring program. The difference in culture was like night and day. You could feel it when you walked into the building. You felt it immediately that you were in a different kind of place, where people treated each other better. Ultimately we weren’t able to piece together a story out of West, in part because good climate and culture don’t manifest themselves as drama...the West High stories were really, really hard to leave out. It was the same kind of phone call: 'Hey we filmed in your school for an entire year, but you’re not in the movie. Why? Because you were doing things too well.'"  (Facing History and Ourselves, 2012). 
It is important to know this because the director has clearly organized and selected scenes from the movie for the purpose of evoking certain emotions.  Feeling moved to anger, frustration, laughter, etc. by the stories included is natural, but understand that the film is edited to help you access those feelings.
  • On that note, the film does not depict programs that have succeeded in helping to create a school-culture that does not tolerate bullying.  This was one thing that concerned me about the film--it does not show examples of programs that have worked, of schools that have gotten a handle on bullying successfully.  There are some parts of the guide that seem to be "Olweus" inspired, but the film seems to be a call-to-action and a catalyst for discussion more than a means of offering solutions to the issue.  As school counselors, we should be prepared to fill in this gap and share information about successful programs if we are using this as a means to begin dialogue on the topic within our school communities. 
  • Be careful of making the leap from bullying to suicide.  Two articles were forwarded to me by colleagues this week about the film.  The first, from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, is concerned with the film's depiction of bullying being a cause of suicide for two of the stories in the film.  The article wants to make clear that bullying can be a trigger for mental illnesses such as depression which can, in extreme cases, lead to suicide, but that bullying is almost never a direct "cause of suicide.  Further, in a Slate.com article, there are some concerns that the mental illness of one of the students in the film who committed suicide was left out of the story entirely, leaving the viewers to conclude that it was the bullying that drove him to kill himself, when in reality it may have been one of many triggers or compounding factors of his mental illness.
Overall, I believe this is an important movie that shines a light on a serious issue for our students.  However, as school counselors we must be able to separate the emotions conveyed in the film from facts and research.  If we are able to view this film with background knowledge of how it was edited, the director's intent, as well as an understanding of how bullying and suicide are linked and how they are not, it can be a very powerful and eye-opening tool for us as well as our school communities.

The following guide was referenced in this post:
Facing History and Ourselves. (2012) A guide to the film BULLY: fostering empathy and action in our schools.  Facing History and Ourselves National Foundation, Inc: Brookline, MA.
Thanks to Valerie Hardy of FCPS and Dr. Erin Mason for the two articles on the movie and its depiction of suicide.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Show Me the Money!

In today's Washington Post Magazine there was an article talking about how adolescents are becoming more financially savvy in the current recession.  Their families have undergone a great deal of economic strain due to lost jobs, reduced salaries, and falling returns on investments.  This, combined with state educational requirements regarding economic and financial literacy, is producing teenagers who are more mindful about money issues.

Certainly, as a school counselor, I have seen the impact that the current economy has been having on students and their families--increased stress over meeting day-to-day expenditures, more discussions about applications for free-and-reduced lunch, and, most often, concern over how they are ever going to be able to afford a college education.  I have written several times about the growing levels of anxiety over rising college-costs as well as the increasing level of selectivity of schools.  In the last several years, at every parent night, every parent coffee, in every parent/student meeting that I have about college, the number one question is often no longer "how do I get my kid into college?" but instead "how do I pay for college?"  As school counselors, we receive a great deal of very valuable training in our graduate programs, but very rarely does it involve coursework specific to college admissions and financial aid.  I am not going to debate the pros and cons of that here--we are, contrary to what some people think, more than just college counselors, and the training we receive in counseling theories, mental health, groups, human and adolescent development, assessment, and careers is absolutely vital and necessary in modern public education.  Someone with a certificate in "college counseling" is not going to be aware of how to best develop school-wide bullying and harassment initiatives, how to do depression screenings, intervene with families using systems theories and techniques to effect change, or run study-skills, grief, and social skills groups that help to remove barriers so that students can focus on their academic success.  However, for those of us in high-school counseling,  college admissions is an important piece of our job as well as one of the most visible, and we do need to work towards gaining training and competence in that area, especially if it is one with which we are not overly familiar.  

That being said, let's talk about college financial aid.  I have two Master's degrees that were funded with a mixture of assistantships and student loans.  I attended a private undergraduate institution where I received almost full-tuition every year, entirely from merit scholarships (academic and music).  I can fill out a FAFSA in probably ten minutes flat (having done it 8 times over my life thus far) and have, through some tough personal experiences through all of this education, spent many an afternoon in college financial aid offices.  Further, I've always been fascinated by the college admissions process, and have made a point over the years to talk to admissions counselors, families, students, as well as read blogs, articles, etc. to gain more knowledge.  So, while I would never tout myself as an "expert" in college financial aid, I have learned a few things along the way that I hope will be helpful to you.  This post will touch on the many various forms of financial aid, but will be primarily focused on scholarships.
  • Everyone should fill out the FAFSA.  Everyone.  I get asked this question all of the time by families.  There seems to be a thought out there that if you make too much money, it's not worth filling out the FAFSA because you won't qualify for any federal grants or loans.  Indeed, you may not necessarily qualify for federal aid (certainly not grants, but I would venture to say that most people who fill out the FAFSA don't qualify for Pell grants--that threshold is pretty low), but colleges use this document as a base-line for all of their students to put together financial aid packages.  It is vital that every family fill out the FAFSA to get the process started at the schools that they have applied to.  For those families that want to get ahead of the game, point them in the direction of the FAFSA Forecaster.  Again, regardless of the results of the forecaster, all families should fill out the FAFSA.  They can't officially file until January of their senior year as the information is based on the previous year's tax returns.  That being said, I always advise families to do their taxes early that year so they can file the FAFSA in February or March at the latest.  If you look at the "priority" deadlines for financial aid awards at many colleges, it tends to be March 1.  Have I mentioned that all families should fill out the FAFSA?
  • College-based (need and merit) scholarships should be the focus.  Outside scholarships should be secondary.  Parents are often ask me about when they should start applying for scholarships and how they find those scholarships.  This is definitely a time for some education, and I strongly recommend that you put this information out in your e-newsletter or make it a talking point at your post-secondary planning nights.  The little $1,000 and $500 one-time-only awards are helpful, but when you are looking at $20,000 a year over the course of four years, they aren't going to go a long way--they are a drop in the bucket.  The large financial awards that are typically renewable each year come from the colleges and universities themselves--this should be the main focus.
  • Where do we find information about merit based aid and scholarships from the colleges?  One place to look is at the colleges and universities themselves--what do their financial aid pages say about merit and need based monies?  Are there separate applications for some of the scholarships, or are students automatically in the running for them simply by applying?  Is there an earlier application deadline if students want to be considered?  Then, there are a few websites that I highly recommend.  The first is MeritAid.com.  This website can match students to colleges that they may stand a strong chance of getting merit scholarships from based on their academic criteria (GPA, test-scores, etc.).  Further, it has the same general information on colleges and universities that you can find at many websites (number of applicants, size of the school, etc.) but it also has statistics as to how many students applied for aid and how much, on average, each student receives.  Thus, if a student is considering a private college (and I wish more would--the sticker price is high, but for strong students, athletes, and musicians/actors/artists there are amazing scholarship opportunties), they may be apprehensive if only 29% of students receive any type of institutional aid, but they may feel more confident if the college provides institutional aid to 89% of its population.  You and the students do have to register for an account.  Another extremely useful tool comes from College Board and is their Big Future website.  This website is a full-service college admissions website, but like MeritAid it can help match students to colleges, and it also gives very easy to find and understand information about the percentage of students receiving aid, both need-based and overall, as well as additional information as to what type of merit-aid might be available as well as deadlines.  Just type in a college and click on the "paying" tab.
  • I need merit based scholarships to go to college.  What can I do to increase my chances?  This is one I get a lot from families, but the answer often challenges what they have long held as a belief, that being that they should attend the best college they can get into.  The simple answer is that merit based money is exactly that--merit based.  The student has something that the college or university wants, so the university is going to entice that student to go there by giving them scholarships.  In my experience there are three areas that this typically falls into--academics, talent, and athletics.  Thus, if merit aid is something that a family feels they need to have in order to get into college, then they need to be applying to schools where academically that student is above the average threshold for those students who are typically admitted, one where that student has a talent that is desirable to the school (they need more viola players, they are looking for more tenors, they are trying to recruit actors to build a theater program), or they have proven athletic skills or interests that the school finds valuable.  Thus, for example, a student might apply and get into their top choice large Division I school called HighBrowU, but they were towards the bottom of the applicant pool and did not receive any merit aid at all.  The same student with the same academic criteria might also have applied to a smaller school called LiberalArtsU and be towards to top of their applicant pool and be offered academic scholarships as well as an athletic scholarship to play on their Division III soccer team.  If merit scholarships are what you are looking for, than students should really look at the statistics of past applicant pools as well as their own talents and abilities to find schools where they would be a sought-after candidate.  Again, MeritAid.com.
  • What about non-school based scholarships?  These are the scholarships that are typically your one-time, single dollar amount awards.  In my opinion, these are a wonderful addition to a college financial plan, but they probably should not be the major player in the plan.  You can find information about these scholarships through Naviance if your school district has that platform.  Outside of Naviance, there is College Data's scholarship finder, which, similar to MeritAid can help match students to a plethora of scholarships across the country.  The schools and immediate community are another great resource--I know that our parent booster groups offer scholarships, area churches/mosques/synagogues/temples offer scholarships, and area businesses and community groups offer scholarships.  A new website has been getting a lot of attention recently, ScholarPro.  This is a fee-for-service website, meaning that there is a cost involved, but the strength of it seems to be in that you fill out the applications online, which can centralize what can be a maddeningly time-consuming process for students and families.  That is something to warn your students and families about ahead of time--these one-time scholarships often involve separate applications, often with essays.  Plan ahead for time to fill them out.
So, your families have done their searches, filled out the FAFSA, contacted the financial aid offices of the colleges, and round about March and April they get financial aid package proposals which could be a mix of federal grants, federal loans, and college/university scholarships/grants/aid.  What next?
  • Compare the proposals.  Let's say the student and family have it narrowed down to four schools, and amidst all the mumbo-jumbo on the pages they want to compare the proposals to see what the ultimate bottom line is going to be, at least financially.  Two websites come to mind.  First, again, College Board has a cost-comparison tool as part of their Big Future platform.  Students just fill in the appropriate information in the boxes.  Similar to this is a cost-comparison website recently out from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  
  • Ask the right questions.  From personal experience, I am telling you that families should always ask at least two questions of the financial aid office.  First, is the aid automatically renewable each year of attendance, up to four years?  Secondly, how will the aid award be modified each year to encompass tuition increases?  This second one is a big one that most families don't think to ask, and then come March of next year they see their expected family contribution jump by several thousand dollars.  Whatever you work out on the tuition increase topic, make sure to get it in writing, and expect that there may need to be a discussion each and every year with the financial aid office.  Other important questions should be about minimum requirements needed to maintain scholarships (oftentimes academic scholarships come with GPA requirements) as well as what would happen to the aid if for some reason the student would need to extend their education by a semester or a year.
  • Feel free to negotiate...within reason.  If a student and their family have multiple offers, but they are really leaning to one school and just need a bit more aid to make that decision, it is always worth a call to the financial aid office to see if something can be worked out.  The worst they can say to a family is, "no."
  • Talk to the financial aid office about any changes to the family situation.  A lot can happen in a family between the time you fill out the FAFSA and the time that a student begins school.  Sadly, parents lose jobs, cutting the family's income by sometimes more than half.  Parents may divorce.  Parents may even die, be injured, or be hospitalized, which can at times result in the loss of two incomes if one parent ends up becoming a caretaker.  As soon as an event like this happens, students should contact the financial aid office to let them know that their previous FAFSA is no longer reflective of the in-the-moment family situation.
This is just part of the picture when it comes to college financial aid--I did not spend much time discussing student loans, although my rule of thumb is that the pecking order is federal subsidized loans, then federal unsubsidized, and then, if all else fails and you have no other choice, parent PLUS loans and lastly, private loans, although, quite honestly, the latter should be avoided if at all possible, as college debt can have far-reaching implications for students and families.  Additionally, here are some great tips for cutting those college costs before going and once students are on campus.

My hope is that this entry is helpful.  If you feel any of the information is incorrect or should be further clarified, please feel free to share in the comments section at the end.  I would only ask that this be used as a forum to help share information to increase the knowledge base of school-counselors more than anything else.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

It Gets Better: BYU

Many LGBT teens struggle to reconcile their faith with their sexual orientation--I have seen this in my own work with adolescents.  Recently, the Understanding Same-Gender Attraction (USGA) at Brigham Young University in Utah created this video for the It Gets Better Project that tackles the issue of faith and sexual orientation:


Day of Silence

Wednesday, April 20, 2012 has been designated to be this year's Day of Silence.  For those of you who may not be aware, the Day of Silence is a day each year in which students take a vow of silence in order to draw attention to the silencing effects of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment.  The first Day of Silence was in 1996 at the University of Virginia, and since then has grown to an event in which over 8,000 middle schools, high schools, and colleges participate annually. (source:www.dayofsilence.org)  There are many different supporters of this event around the country, from high-fashion to television anchors.  Further, students around the nation create their own videos to enlist support:


Oftentimes, Gay-Straight Alliances (GSA's) will organize events throughout the day, signing students up to participate, advertising through posters and through school announcements, and even holding a rally at the end of the day to Break the Silence.  It is always advised that students follow the following guidelines:
  • Do talk about participation with school administrators.  Even if there is some fear that there won't be school support, it is important for students to discuss this with their Principals, Assistant Principals, and Directors of Student Activities.  One of the overarching aims of the Day of Silence is to draw awareness to the extensive bullying and harassment of all students--this can be an opportunity for students to actively educate school administration on the issues.  As I've talked about before, LGBT students or students who are perceived to be LGBT are at a much higher risk of being bullied and harassed.  Students can find statistics here about LGBT bullying and harassment.  By working together with school administration, students can plan a successful day that will garner support and work within school or district policy for student-led events.
  • Know their rights with regards to participation.  The general rule of thumb for the Day of Silence is that students can remain silent between classes and at lunch.  However, if a teacher asks a direct question of a student during class as part of the instructional process, then they do need to respond and participate.  However, students are encouraged to discuss their planned participation ahead of time with their teachers.  This can have many positive effects, ranging from the teacher being respectful of that student remaining silent throughout his/her class, the teacher designing an instructional activity for the whole class that involves silence, or the teacher becoming more aware of the issues behind the Day of Silence.
  • Use this as an opportunity for education.  As previously discussed, students who are participating should attempt to discuss the issue of bullying and harassment with administrators and teachers.  Further, students should help to educate their peers and community at large, as well.  This can be done with their friends, one-on-one, or students can organize with a larger group, like their GSA, and perhaps have information during lunches, put together videos (like the one above) to be aired on the school news, or, as previously mentioned, organize a rally for the end of the day to Break the Silence.
As counselors, there are many ways that we can show support for the students who choose to participate in this event.  You may already be serving as your school's GSA advisor and are thus involved in supporting the students through the planning process.  If students are apprehensive about approaching school administration, you could be an ally and agree to go with them as they ask for support.  As you go around the school on April 20, you could simply show support by smiling at students or giving them a thumbs up as you see participants in the hallways, or you could place a Safe Space sticker in your office window as a sign to all students that you are a support to LGBT students.  Additionally, you could help to address any bullying or harassment of Day of Silence participants that you may witness.  If you want more detail and thoughts about how you or other educators can best support students on this day, take a look at the educator's guide.  GLSEN is also running a blog about the Day of Silence, and you can look at both the GLSEN and Day of Silence websites for more information.

Note--much of the information presented in this blog post was found at www.dayofsilence.org.