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.”

Opening Doors for Foster Youth

Ever been to a conference or professional meeting, and find that one of the sessions really sticks with you?  It happened to me last week.  The conference was for Admissions professionals and Registrars.  (The organization is called WACRAO – please no cracks about how it sounds like “wacko!”)  The session was called “Opening Doors to College for Foster Youth.” 

 Check out these YouTube videos, by a remarkable young lady who testified before Congress: Greta’s testimony part 1, Greta’s testimony part 2, and Greta’s testimony part 3.

At some level I had certainly understood about the challenges facing foster youth, especially as they “aged out” of the foster care system (which, in Wisconsin, happens at age 18).  What I didn’t realize was how astonishing some of the numbers are: on a national basis, foster youth are 20% less likely to graduate from high school and 40% less likely to attend postsecondary education than their non-foster peers.  Thing is, a majority – 64% – say they want to graduate from college (or beyond) when surveyed at age 17.

So, somewhere the dream dies.

And why wouldn’t it? 

Foster youth have a high probability of changing schools and of missing extensive amounts of school.  They often do not have in-home adults who value and promote higher education.  They are disproportionately low-income and/or homeless.  They perceive the cost of college as more of a barrier than it is in fact.  They often lack a stable, long-term relationship with an adult who can help them navigate the bureaucratic barriers often inherent in higher education.

Discouraging isn’t it?  Imagine how much more so for them.

There is some good news, though – we are in a position to help: “we” being you as school counselors, and “we” being those of us in college admissions.  How?  Well, first we in admissions need to know who these kids are – that’s where you can help, either by telling us (with permission, of course) or by encouraging the student to self-disclose in the applicant statement/essay.  Once the situation is identified, then we can proceed sensitively…taking into account the unique challenges inherent in the foster-youth experience.  This does not mean that we throw standards to the wind – but it does mean that we can look deeper into the student’s experience to better assess the student’s likelihood for success on campus.   Knowing circumstances can explain a lot, and can help us better translate prior experience into present potential. 

In addition, we can help the student to navigate the sometimes-tricky bureaucracy of higher education.  There are designated campus contacts in Wisconsin, at both the University of Wisconsin campuses and the Wisconsin independent colleges and universities.  Contact Denny Roark at UW HELP ( for the list.   (Contacts at the Wisconsin technical college campuses are forthcoming.) 

Let’s face it, we didn’t get into higher education for the money.  We are in the profession because we believe in the value of education and its potential for life transformation.  So, when the opportunity arises to truly change a life, most of us will welcome the opportunity.  Once a student is identified, we can get to know the student can become the “go-to” contact on campus.  Sometimes the saying holds true: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know….”  Most of us have been in higher ed (and on our campuses) long enough to know who to go to for what, and how to get things done.  Our expertise and familiarity with “the system” can help roadblocks become mere speedbumps. 

So, if you have a student who might benefit from a savvy campus contact, let us know.  Perhaps we can work together to make college a reality for another deserving student like Greta.  Isn’t that why we’re in this business?

Helpful links:

Wisconsin Department of Children and Families

Chaffee Foster Care Independence Act of 1999

McKinney Vento Homeless Assistance Act

Education and Training Vouchers (ETV)

DCF Scholarship Application

Orphan Foundation of America

Talent Incentive Program (TIP) Grant

Tips for Foster Youth Completing the FAFSA

Higher Education Act Reauthorization: Homeless and Foster Youth

Foster Club