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Patrick O'Connor Headshot

Mr. President, Here's the College Reform You Forgot

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It's been a big summer for advocates of college reform. The Oregon legislature started things off by passing a bill where students would get all the money they need to attend a public college, in exchange for a percentage of income the students earn after graduation.

This action was bookended yesterday when President Obama announced plans for a new scorecard where colleges will be ranked on factors like graduation rates, affordability, and salaries for graduates. The president also put in a word for innovative approaches to offering college courses at a reduced price, including the much-praised online learning classes known as MOOCs.

Each of these ideas has merit, but each also has its drawbacks. The Oregon program will pay for itself, once students who participate are gainfully employed. Until then, the state will have to find the $9 billion needed to jump start the program, money that won't be coming from Harry and David sales.

President Obama's approach to college reform relies on defining affordability and graduation rates. Since public colleges tend to charge higher tuition for out-of-state residents, how will affordability be defined? Why will graduation rates matter at two-year colleges, since students attending those schools are often looking to update skills, not to earn a degree? As for online learning, completion rates for most MOOCs rarely exceed 10 percent. This is a breakthrough?

Besides, many of these reforms miss the point. Parents and students who have been through the college search say the problem isn't a lack of good data -- it's a lack of good help interpreting the data that already exists. A Public Agenda survey indicates students felt their school counselor was of little to no help making college plans, and a College Board survey shows counselors themselves feel poorly trained in college advising.

In other words, students feel school counselors aren't doing their job, and the counselors agree.

If you think this problem has an easy solution, you're right. If students want better college advice, and counselors want to give better college advice, it makes sense to require counselors to learn how to give better college advice. Only about 35 counselor training programs currently offer such a course, and only two require all future counselors to take it, so it's fair to say there's room for improvement.

This takes us back to yesterday. Instead of calling for reforms that will take years to implement with questionable results, President Obama could have directed every college that trains school counselors to include a separate class in college advising -- or face a complete loss of federal funding. The same is true for K-12 schools; give them two years to get every counselor trained in college advising, or those schools can forget about federal dollars.

The impact is immediate. The quality of training improves, so the quality of advising improves, and students make better choices. Even better, the cost of the training is minimal, since the class replaces an elective course or required professional development, and is already available through a variety of instructional methods -- including an online version.

It will be wonderful once the Oregon program is up and running, and it will be a very happy day when the U.S. government defines college affordability in a way that makes sense to everyone. In the meantime, there is another graduating class of high school seniors looking to go to college, and ample data that already exists to confuse them. Wouldn't it be better to equip their school counselors with the skills needed to do their jobs more effectively, and to improve the quality of college planning today?