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College Counseling Must Start Early, NACAC’s President Says

Denver — On Wednesday I caught up with Evelyn Boyd White, the departing president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and the school counseling coordinator at Thomas Dale High School, in Virginia. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q. Tell me about something you’ve learned over the last year that surprised you or changed the way you view a particular issue.

A. The thing that has been most informative to me this year is the whole issue with international-student recruitment. That is such a complicated issue, with so many layers to be peeled back and looked at. I learned a lot this year about education, secondary and postsecondary, in a lot of other countries. It confirms what I already know—the work that we do is extremely important to students and families and, therefore, to society. These are the students who are going to be running our government and our corporations.

Q. Yet there’s a great disparity out there: Some students have good, knowledgeable counselors, and many others have the opposite. What are the long-term implications of that problem?

A. It’s absolutely scary when you realize the disparities between schools, between districts. You hear people’s thoughts about it, but seeing the data, really getting down to the nitty gritty and seeing what’s happening, it’s been a stimulating experience, but it also just lets me know that there’s an awful lot of work to be done. We talk a lot about collaboration with other organizations, how you have to have a unified effort. It’s inspired me to do some things in my school.

Q. Like what?

A. We started a whole program that’s designed to make everybody in our school division be aware of college, and to start talking to these students about college at the kindergarten level. There’s one Wednesday each month when the whole school system focuses with the students on college and career readiness. We have teachers wearing their college gear and talking about their college experiences. Let’s say you’ve got a ninth-grade boy sitting in Algebra I who’s not doing well and thinking, “Why am I here?” We talk to that student about what doing well in algebra might mean. Kids don’t make the connection with the end result—the career and then having families and being able to take care of their families. So we’re talking about that kind of thing in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Q. What you describe echoes what I’ve heard from so many other counselors—that counseling must start early.

A. Students can get to me in ninth grade, and it’s like having to dig them out from under. The only way I know to avoid that is to get with them early, let them know their opportunities. I really do realize that I’m at the end of the road. Those of us who know where these students need to be when they get to the high-school level really have a responsibility to help people at other levels realize that. We think that people should know these things, or know what they should have done, when we’ve really never taken the time to help them understand.

Q. In your conversations with students and families, what are you hearing that you didn’t used to hear so much? What are the key concerns you deal with in your office?

A. The big issue is financing college. We started quite some time ago really pushing to get parents involved early on. We have lots of evening activities and even things during the day to make sure they’re aware of the kind of information that we’re giving students. Students need parents’ support. That’s made a significant difference in terms of parents’ understanding and their level of participation, and they’re more comfortable getting in touch with us if they have a question.

Q. How does this shape parents’ thinking about college?

A. One thing is we’ve been able to convince parents not write off private colleges early on just because of the sticker price. Once a week we have a woman who comes in and works with parents. She helps us grab hold of these kids with lower GPA’s and let them know there’s a future for them as well. We try to do a lot of things early in the year, getting parents in and doing a run-through on financial-aid forms.

Q. How has the task of college counseling changed?

A. We’re getting a lot more questions on the back end of the process. Once students get their award letters, we’re getting pulled into that process much more so than we had been in the past. Parents need much more information in trying to understand it all, and they’re just not understanding the verbiage and how to do things.

Q. Finally, what advice would you give to an admissions officer or a college counselor who’s just starting out in the field? What’s one thing they need to know?

A. I would say, find a good mentor. It’s something that people should deliberately seek out. It doesn’t have to be someone at their institution, just a good, committed professional. Find someone you can use as a role model.

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