As the school year wound down, we hosted a roundtable and spoke with two educators about supporting college-bound students in May’s Remote Roundtable.

Many rising seniors are focusing on college and the application process which can be overwhelming. Our panel discussed ways to support college-bound students and their families. In addition to supporting the process, the panel also went over ways to empower students, offer personalized support, and de-stress the experience.

Read on and listen to the roundtable for helpful tips on all this and more.

Here’s our panel:

Dr. Tonni Grant, Postsecondary Success Coordinator at Fort Worth Independent School District.

Melissa Ostrowski, School Counselor at Penn Manor High School (in Millersville, PA).

What sorts of challenges are students facing that could impede their ability to think about their future goals?

While in many ways, the US is post-pandemic, the impact continues to be felt.

Everything related to post-secondary planning seems to have been impacted by the pandemic according to Ostrowski. She sites testing, how financial aid is awarded, and how visits are done as a few examples. While Ostrowski believes this is not necessarily a bad thing, it does mean things done in the past can’t necessarily be repeated. So, families that had an older child who went through the college process previously can’t simply repeat what they did then.

The economic impact of the pandemic ranged from some families doing quite well to some who face severe negative repercussions. In addition to economics, there are health impacts as well as social-emotional effects that are weighing on students according to Ostrowski and Dr. Grant.

“Life in general, is impeding the ability of many students to think about their future goals,” says Dr. Grant. “Some students are not mentally unprepared to be in a space to think about their future.” To help students, the doors to counselors need to be kept open, and they need to rely on relationships. “The better the relationship educators have with students and parents, the more they are equipped to know how they can support them during this unprecedented time.

Ostrowski has also seen more students considering a gap year. This option is more prominent due to the economy as there are many open jobs in the area.

It’s been a tough year for everybody. How do you recommend counselors help guide their students during the selection time?

In times of challenge, communication and relationships are especially important.

“For us to be impactful and effective, we need to understand and know our students and have good communication methods with the families and local community,” says Ostrowski.

That is especially important during this period. “We need to remind our students that the pandemic is not just happening to them, don’t get stuck, and stay optimistic,” Dr. Grant says. That comes through constant communication and providing them with the services and referrals they need.

By knowing their students, counselors can help students find their right path and educating them on the many paths out there. “Redefining what post-secondary education means and coming up with a working definition is an important conversation to have,” says Ostrowski. By having a relationship with the student and asking them what they want, counselors can assist students and get them on their right path.

Ostrowski has observed that for more and more students, that path is closer to home. In terms of majors, students are focusing more on career-based or secure majors that clearly lead to jobs as opposed to liberal arts majors. Another practical choice she has seen is students/families paying more attention to the number of loans. “Students starting to realize that the generation ahead of them are still paying off loans and they don’t want to be in the same position.”

What strategies or recommendations can you offer for ensuring students are prepared for the college application process?

Key themes emerged here as Ostrowski again focused on communication and relationships which “could be the answer to everything.” Dr. Grant concurred and added the importance of getting students the resources and information they need.

The need to communicate and share is just as important for those students who are not in school on a regular basis – whether it’s because they are working or taking on other responsibilities. Dr. Grant notes her district relies a good deal on the college and career readiness coaches and higher ed partners to reach such individuals. “We let them know there are other ways to continue with some type of post-secondary plan if they must work to support their families and can’t attend college.”

The district also provides summer opportunities including an application boot camp for rising seniors. Beyond the application, the boot camp helps students learn what they need to know about college in general.

Ostrowski is a big believer in one-to-one advising. “Who doesn’t want a guide and someone to listen to their wish list?” The district strives to provide people – staff, alumni, retirees, etc. who can mentor students. The goal is to learn the student’s plans and then connect them to resources.

And for those students who don’t know where to begin? Both Ostrowski and Dr. Grant turn to Xello, particularly Matchmaker assessment. “We go back to the basic and pull up Xello Matchmaker and revisit what they said in past. Soon, they realize they do have some ideas.”

Thinking about the role pathway exploration plays during the college application period, how can counselors encourage students to discover new pathways to college success?

Exploration for the sake of discovery is the only way that students recognize pathways that can suit them.

Both Ostrowski and Dr. Grant note multiple ways to get students to discover pathways. And those ways include Xello.

Fort Worth Independent School District, according to Dr, Grant, relies heavily on Xello for pathway exploration. It’s incorporated into the curriculum and helps students with state requirements in addition to giving students opportunities to learn more about pathways and themselves.

“Getting the information from Xello delivered in several different formats can garner the attention of all of our students,” Dr. Grant says. “It allows for natural discovery and exploration progression that is tailored to student needs and desires. It encourages students to learn more about who they are as individuals in addition to what it is they want to do when they go to college.”

Dr. Grant became convinced of Xello’s ability to help students after she had her son use it. It recommended a path he had not been considering. However, after further use of the program and gaining a greater understanding of himself, her son decided to major in something akin to what Xello suggested.

When Ostrowski works with students using Xello Matchmaker, she encourages them to look for trends – i.e. the top 3-5 jobs all involved doing something that is hands-on. “Careers that come up are not necessarily the most important – it’s looking at what’s common in the top careers that come up,” Ostrowski says. “It forces students to think a bit, and they get it.” She adds that “If you tell a student, they would be great at something, all of a sudden it gives them an identity to latch on to – somebody believes I can do this. They love that.”

Other ways the panelists noted included encouraging students to try dual enrollment classes (if available). It can give a student confidence, save them time and money, and help them if an area is right or not right for them. Similarly, CTE centers are another good opportunity for students to gain exposure and determine if it’s right for them.

Lastly, Ostrowski emphasized the importance of helping students select the right elective that aligns with their interests.

What tips can you share for supporting students with the FAFSA application process?

Most students need some sort of financial aid to pay for college – hence the importance of the FASFA. Getting students and their families to complete the application can be a challenge.

At Ostrowski’s school, they have a strong relationship with their state higher education assistance agency representative who is involved with multiple activities related to financial aid. Plus, the school can see who has and has not completed the application and targets those who have not applied for financial aid. They offer one-to-one help sessions at various times, continually monitor who still needs to complete an application, and help student and their families keep track of deadlines.

While Fort Worth Independent School District goes over the different types of financial aid at the summer application boot camp (students can create a FASFA i.d.), Dr. Grant says, “It’s an ongoing process from the time the student enters the schools to the time it’s needed.” Gaining the trust of students and parents is particularly important in Fort Worth according to Dr. Grant since some families are not U.S. citizens.

The Go Center staff, as well as the higher ed partners, helps students 1-1 on the FASFA process. They created a one-pager that parents can complete. Once the form is completed, the staff help students transfer the information into the FASFA itself. They also offer relevant webinars in both English and Spanish.

Fort Worth Independent School District even goes off-campus in their quest to help students with financial aid. The Go Center staff and community members canvas neighborhoods and go to community centers to reach their families.

What tools or resources are available to educators to help students?

In addition to individuals and department websites and google pages which the districts created, resources mentioned include:

  • Apply Texas
  • State Higher Education Assistance Agency
  • Knowledge hub in Xello (good starting point)
  • American School Counseling Association
  • State Association
  • Local Counseling Association
  • NCAA

Before we open up for questions, do you have any final advice or key learnings you’d like to share?

Dr. Grant advised educators to remember their why as it’s easy to get off track particularly during these challenging times. She also suggested educators remember to consider self-care. “You have to take care of the self so you can give of yourself.”

Ostrowski emphasized again that it’s all about relationships and trust, adding that the giving of financial information does not happen without trust. Second, when dealing with students listen to them, and don’t be bogged down by preconceived ideas.

ABOUT LARRY

Larry is an experienced educator having taught at both the K-12 and post high school level. Outside of the classroom, Larry is a freelance writer whose writing focuses on edtech and general education topics.