Counseling the Detour

I once said that counseling denied students was one of the most satisfying parts of my job.  Certainly not because it’s fun.  Often it’s anything but.  Nevertheless, when a student comes to see a denial as a detour, rather than a dead-end, the situation is often redeemed.

I should first make sure it is clear that denying an applicant is not a decision that is made lightly.  We understand the sort of trauma that often accompanies the decision.  Lives are changed by that decision.  Tears will fall.  Anger will (sometimes) rise.  It’s hard on a young person to feel rejected.  We know all that, and consequently weigh our decisions very carefully.

The bottom line, when we do deny admission to an applicant, is that we really feel that the student does not have a reasonable chance of success at our institution given the evidence of previous performance.  We do not operate under the philosophy that “everyone deserves a chance to fail.”  Rather, we strive to admit students who have a reasonable chance of success in our specific environment.  If we believe that a student will not be successful here, we do not think we are doing a favor by admitting that student, no matter how intense their desire to be admitted. 

Having said that, I would go back to the concept that this decision can definitely be viewed as a detour, not a dead end.  Remember, I said that our decision is based on the evidence of previous performance.  This suggests that it is possible to pursue a course that allows for new evidence to be developed. 

Most often, when we coach a student regarding options, we suggest that they enroll in another post-secondary environment to earn transferrable course work.  This can be a 2-year UW College, a WTCS campus, or a local satellite campus of another college.  Their task while at that institution will be to change the evidenceregarding their ability to succeed in a post-secondary environment.  Generally, once a student has earned at least 15 transferrable credits with a reasonable level of success, we will reconsider them for admission.  For most students, that is not a lengthy detour.  Helping them to see that starts the mental transition from “dead end” to “detour.” 

This process of changing the evidence may be made necessary by a couple of different things.  One typical profile of a student who is not granted admission is that of a person who has terrific test scores but a very low GPA.  What this tells us is that the student has great potential, but has not used that potential in the past.  When we “coach the detour” for those students, we’re looking for evidence that s/he has become willing to apply that great potential to achieve better grades.  Another typical profile is that of a student who has achieved marginal success in academics (shown by grades and/or test scores), and who may benefit from additional preparation in an academic setting.  Some weaker students benefit from starting college in an environment where freshman class sizes are lower, for instance, and which allow for closer contact with their teachers.  There are also the students who “are just not good test takers.”  We hear that a lot.  The reality of college, however, is that grades (especially in the freshman year) are heavily weighted on a handful of timed tests (in an environment where “extra credit” is virtually unheard of to compensate for low test scores).  If a student in that situation is coached through a detour, the experience will help to provide evidence that they have learned to test successfully in a high-pressure, timed environment.  Or, the experience may get them further along in their academic career to a point that their grades become more project- and research-based.

Whatever the initial reason for the denial, the option of proving one’s ability to succeed in a different environment may help encourage a student.  The key is to make sure they have a plan. 

When I coach the detour with a student, the first thing we do is to decide which environment is most appropriate for them – UW College, WTCS, or another local college.  Then, using TIS (for UW colleges or WTCS), we actually choose courses that will 1) transfer, 2) apply toward General Education requirements, and 3) build needed skills.  We talk about whatever needs to be done to get started at that school, and we talk – in very specific terms – about what the ONE NEXT STEP is.  That keeps in manageable for most students.  Finally, I invite the student to get in touch with me when it’s time to take the step after that.  And the step after that.  And so on.  Most importantly, before the student leaves my office, I ask, “Do you feel like you have a plan?”  If they say no, we go back to whatever point is causing the confusion. 

When the student says, “Yes, I have a plan,” we can both feel good about the fact that the “dead end” has become a “detour.”

Thoughts on “A Higher Calling”

Perhaps the coming of a new year has made me thoughtful.  Perhaps it was attending UW-Green Bay’s commencement ceremony in December.  Perhaps it was a phone conversation earlier in the week during which I was able to reassure an applicant that a documented learning disability is not a cause for embarrassment. 

Whatever the reason, I’ve been thinking about what it means to make one’s life in the realm of education.  I’ve been thinking about having a “higher calling” that involves changing lives, rather than making money for corporate executives.  And in thinking about it, I’ve come to a renewed apprciation for the privilege of working in higher education.

Commencement.  December 19.  As I sat in the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts, surrounded by beaming family members, graduates, and university personnel decked out in academic regalia, I found myself truly moved by what was happening.  At UW-Green Bay, well over half of our students are first-generation (that is, neither parent has earned a college degree).  What an amazing thing to be part of that kind of life change!  These students, decked out in those silly-looking mortarboards, will probably experience dramatically different lives than their parents…because of their college degree.  For many of these students, the pride of college graduation is as acute for the parents and family members as it is for the student.  These parents have dreamed of this moment, just as their sons and daughters have.  And I got to be a part of it.  It doesn’t matter that those people don’t know my name or know what I do.  The fact that I’m part of this organization is enough.  That is so much more satisfying than feeding a corporate bottom line. 

If you are reading this and work in the field of education,  take a moment now and then to reflect on your own “higher calling.”  Clearly, careers in education can be fraught with frustration, politics, budget problems, and challenges too numerous to list.  However, though we may  never get rich in our chosen careers, each of us who has the privilege of changing lives through education would do well to remember that changing a life is priceless.