Episode 137: College Support Services: More Important Than You Think

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This is an unusual episode in our series Researching College Options and for USACollegeChat as well. It looks at a critical issue today–one that can have terribly serious consequences for students and their families. The issue was raised in an insightful late August article by Alina Tugend in The Hechinger Report (the article also appeared in U.S. News & World Report). The issue is mental health support services on college campuses and the students–especially nonwhite students–who evidently all too often do not use them when they need to. This is going to be a relatively short episode for us, but I think you will see that it packs a big punch.

1. The Problem

Here are some facts you might not know, as reported in the article:

Nonwhite [college] students are often more stressed than their white classmates, but less likely to seek psychological help.

This further complicates efforts to increase the proportion of black and Hispanic students who succeed in earning college and university degrees, and who graduate at rates lower than whites.

As much as nonwhite students resist taking advantage of mental health services, there’s evidence they’re more in need of them. More than half of black students report feeling overwhelmed most or all of the time, compared with 40 percent of whites, a survey conducted by the Harris Poll, [The Jed] Foundation and other groups found. About half of black and Hispanic students, compared with 41 percent of whites, say it seems everyone has college figured out but them. (quoted from the article)

That’s a lot of college students who could use some support when feeling overwhelmed–not only the half or more of black and Hispanic students, according to these studies, but also the 40 percent of white students. I have to say that I had no idea about the size of this problem.

Let’s look a bit further into the particular stresses faced by black and Hispanic students, according to experts quoted in the article:

. . . “[I]n addition to the stressors most students face at college–being away from home, time management–there are race-related stressors or minority-status stressors,” said Kevin Cokley, a professor of educational psychology and African and African diaspora studies at the University of Texas, Austin.

These stressors include assumptions by some white students and faculty that a minority student wouldn’t be in the classroom but for affirmative action, said David Rivera, an associate professor of counselor education at Queens College of the City University of New York. That perception can make itself felt in seemingly innocuous comments such as, ” ‘I’m surprised you did well on that paper,’ ” Rivera said. “If you confront it, you’re dismissed but if you ignore it, you’re left holding on to that experience,” he added. (quoted from the article)

And this is not an issue only for black and Hispanic students. Asian college students face their own stresses, according to the article:

Asian students often feel burdened by a stereotype that casts them as the “model minority,” always quietly diligent and academically successful, said Doris Chang, director of clinical training and associate professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research. But she said Asian students often fear that speaking to outsiders about the burden of this stereotype will bring shame on them and their families. “By the time they come in [for counseling], they are so impaired, they are already asking for a medical leave of absence.” (quoted from the article)

Wow. Stress on college students clearly knows no racial or ethnic boundaries, and students of all backgrounds should know what to do when that stress becomes just too much for them to handle. But here is what happens too often, according to the article:

Seeking psychological help is “culturally unacceptable in the African-American and Latino communities,” said Terri Wright, executive director of [The] Steve Fund, a nonprofit established by the family of a black graduate student named [Steve] Rose who committed suicide. The organization advocates for mental and emotional well-being for black, Hispanic, Native American and Asian college students.

Within these groups, “the words ‘therapist’ or ‘counselor’ are loaded,” Wright said. “If you have problems, you don’t go outside your family, or maybe you talk to your faith leader.” (quoted from the article)

I think there is no better way to demonstrate the enormous price that students and their families pay when support isn’t found in time than to read to you most of a remarkable letter from Steve’s family (that is, his parents and two brothers), which appears on the website of The Steve Fund:

In 2014, we began a journey, one which no family should ever have to take. It began with the loss of Steve, our beloved son, family member and friend. After graduating from Harvard College and completing a Masters degree at City University, mental illness took Steve from us. We have established the Steve Fund with the aim of preventing other families having to take a journey like ours.

Our nation is not meeting the mental health needs of young people of color. While research shows that the differences in ethnic backgrounds of students necessitate culturally sensitive approaches to supporting their mental health, their needs are still significantly understudied, and insufficiently understood. With minorities forming the majority of Americans by 2044, and the majority of children by 2020, the future success of our nation will depend on the mental health and emotional well-being of these young people.

It is our firm belief that colleges and universities should play a vital role in meeting these needs by providing the best support possible for an increasingly diverse student population. Since we established the Fund, we have focused on developing knowledge and thought leadership, launched effective programs, such as the buildout of a text-based crisis hotline with our partner Crisis Text Line, and have built partnerships with renowned organizations in the field to leverage resources and to direct more effort towards our cause.

The Steve Fund is mobilized to learn about, implement with excellence, and measure the kind of best practices that will protect the mental health and emotional well-being of our nation’s college age students of color. (quoted from the website)

Kudos, of course, to Steve’s family and the work that the Fund is doing.

The article goes on to do a good job of explaining the difficulties that students of color have when faced with college support personnel who are white. According to a survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, only 10 percent of college psychologists and therapists are black, only 8 percent are Asian, and only 7 percent are Hispanic. While some colleges are working to change staff make-up, most probably have a long way to go in order to serve the mental health needs of students of color on their campuses. And perhaps that is something to keep in mind, parents of students of color, when you are looking at colleges for your kids.

2. Get the Information

As we said in our new book, How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students, information about support services on a college campus is one thing prospective applicants and their parents might want to consider. And now that we understand the scope of the mental health problem, I am glad that we included a question about support services on the College Profile Worksheet. We give the Worksheet to students to complete for colleges they are interested in applying to (it is found at the end of our book). Here is some of what we wrote in the new book:

While support services–like academic advising, personal counseling, and employment assistance–can be useful to any undergraduate student, these support services are often particularly important to groups of students who might find it more difficult to adjust to college life, either socially or academically, especially when they find themselves in the minority of students on a college campus.

If you identify with students of color, first-generation-to-college students, LGBTQ students, students with learning disabilities, or another group, you should take a look at whether each college on your long list of college options has support services targeted for you. For example, Georgia State University has an impressive Office of Black Student Achievement, which provides a wide variety of academic, support, leadership, and outreach activities, programs, and services. That says something about its commitment to serving its black student population.

When you are looking for support services like that on a college’s website, see whether you can find any evidence that the services provided are actually successful. Why? Because successful support services can make all the difference between dropping out and graduating.

And now that I have read The Hechinger Report article, I would add, “Because successful support services can make all the difference between life and death–literally.” And remember, you might want to look at the racial and ethnic make-up of the counseling staff that will be available to your kid, if it turns out he or she needs that help. Because, really, what could be more important than that.

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Episode 120: Lots of College Options in Our New Workbook

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Today, we have figured out a way to talk both about our new book–How To Explore Your College Options: A Workbook for High School Students–and to make good on the title of our current series, Colleges in the Spotlight. As we were writing the book, we realized that we could use a lot of college examples, drawn from our earlier podcast episodes, to illuminate the points we were trying to make. I thought it would be interesting to see just how many colleges were mentioned in the book–and by “mentioned,” I mean that they were used to illustrate the answers to some of the 52 questions that teenagers are asked to find the answers to for each college on their Long List of College Options (LLCO). In a way, these colleges are in our spotlight for things that they are doing right or for characteristics they have that are noteworthy. To find out why we mentioned each college, you are going to have to get the book!

1. Colleges in the Spotlight

So, here we go. Here are the colleges that we thought were worth mentioning–for some reason or other (they are listed roughly in the order in which they are mentioned in the book, and I might have missed a few):

That’s more than 60 colleges, which is actually quite a few. Of course, you can always refer back to the virtual college tour we did in Episodes 27 through 53 for a discussion of even more colleges, organized by geographic region of the U.S.

But the new book doesn’t stop with those 60-plus. We also name some great college towns–“great,” according to one of the lists of great college towns that publications love to compile. Do you know what colleges are located in these towns?

  • College Station, TX
  • Charlottesville, VA
  • Saratoga Springs, NY
  • Asheville, NC
  • Flagstaff, AZ
  • Boulder, CO
  • Santa Cruz, CA
  • St. Augustine, FL
  • Burlington, VT
  • Annapolis, MD
  • Ann Arbor, MI
  • Athens, GA
  • Oxford, MS
  • Iowa City, IA

2. Now, It’s Up to You

Now, it’s up to you. At least, that is what we say at the end of the book. We wrote this to each student, assuming that he or she had done the assignments as they were presented: 

You have done a lot of work to gather information about the colleges on your LLCO. You have completed a College Profile Worksheet on quite a few colleges by now. You have learned more than many high school students know about a variety of specific colleges and about higher education generally. 

So, it’s time to start comparing and contrasting the colleges you have researched. That will be a long process, which will require analysis and evaluation by you and your parents and perhaps other important family members. And it’s okay that it is a long process because this is a big decision for all of you. 

Remember that choosing which colleges to apply to can be every bit as important as choosing which college to attend. In an ideal world, you should be happy with every college you apply to because that will take the pressure off as you wait for acceptances to come in. 

Of course, you might be more excited about some choices than others, but don’t apply to any college that you would not want to attend. That is a waste of your time and money. We are confident that there is a college that you can be admitted to that will make you happy. Even safety schools don’t have to be disappointing choices. If they are for you now, you just haven’t looked hard enough yet! Get busy.

We mean that last point really sincerely: If your teenager’s safety schools are disappointing choices for him or her, you all just haven’t looked hard enough yet. There are great colleges–especially some public flagship universities and some large private universities–that are very likely to admit good students, especially those who come from other states. Having a safety school that your teenager does not want to go to is really not having any safety school at all.

We mean it when we say, “Look harder.” We hope that our new book will help your teenager look harder, think harder, and work harder to expand his or her LLCO, to get exciting colleges onto that LLCO, to learn as much as possible about each one of them (by completing a College Profile Worksheet for each one), and to feel satisfied when all of the applications are submitted–that is, satisfied that all of the colleges he or she applied to are good choices, just for different reasons. And a satisfied teenager is likely to produce a satisfied parent. Or at least it should.

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Episode 117: The Best Case for Historically Black Colleges and Universities?

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We know that some of you are still discussing which college your teenager should attend next fall, and we are sure that, by now, you are tired of re-listening to Episodes 69, 70, 71, and 114 of USACollegeChat–all of which we hoped would guide you through these difficult days. So, we thought we would let someone else do the talking today. Not us, but rather a college student–one we found to be remarkably insightful.

This episode will also start a new series, which we are calling Colleges in the Spotlight. Now, to be honest, I am not sure that we can sustain this series for very long, but we do have a few colleges or types of colleges we find ourselves wanting to put the spotlight on because of what they are doing. You will recall that we took a close look at Georgia State University back in Episode 103, and now I wished that we had saved it for this series. If you can’t remember the impressive stuff we said about Georgia State, you should go back and listen again. Really.

Today’s spotlight is on Spelman College and indeed on HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) generally; therefore, the episode is especially relevant for students of color, but not just for black students. You might recall that we talked about the enrollment of HBCUs back in Episode 100. We noted then that HBCU enrollment seemed to be on the rise and that HBCUs were also becoming more attractive to Latino students for a variety of reasons, which were well described in our episode.

And, if you were with us way back in Episode 30, you might recall that we highlighted Spelman, a well-respected all-female liberal arts college, founded by Baptist leaders, which offers 27 majors to just over 2,000 undergraduate women, drawn from most states across the country (with our home state of New York as one of the top five states sending students to Spelman). Spelman has an enviable student-to-faculty ratio of 10-to-1, meaning that students should typically be in small classes and get close attention from faculty members.

For those of you with seniors and with a letter from an HBCU in your stack of college acceptances (maybe even from Spelman!), this episode is for you. And for those of you with freshmen, sophomores, or juniors at home, this episode should make you think twice.

1. Ms. Mitchell’s Piece

As our regular listeners can probably recite by now because we frequently find ourselves talking on this topic, HBCUs were founded to serve students who had previously been excluded from many other higher education institutions because of their race. The three earliest HBCUs were founded in Pennsylvania and Ohio before the Civil War, but many were founded in the South shortly after the Civil War. Those Southern HBCUs share a proud tradition of becoming the first colleges to provide higher education to the family members of freed slaves. Over the years, HBCUs have produced extraordinary leaders in every field of endeavor and thousands and thousands of well-educated American citizens.

Today’s focus is on an opinion piece published in The New York Times by Skylar Mitchell earlier this month. It is part of the On Campus series in the Times?”dispatches from college students, professors and administrators on higher education and university life” (quoted from the website). That makes two weeks in a row we have used the On Campus series to bring you an insight that we thought was extraordinary. Last week, the piece was written by a college admissions office staffer, but this week it is written by an actual college student. And now we are going to stop giving the Times free advertising unless it wants to start sponsoring the podcast.

Because Ms. Mitchell wrote her piece in her own voice, with a rare combination of thinking and feeling for a college sophomore, I would like to read it to you in its entirety. It is not long, but you won’t forget it anytime soon. Her voice is, quite obviously, not our voice, so here are Ms. Mitchell’s own words from “Why I Chose a Historically Black College.” Listen on the podcast or follow this link to read her essay.

For once in my life, I have absolutely nothing to add. She speaks eloquently for herself.

2. Think Again

Ms. Mitchell obviously did a great job in choosing colleges to apply to, and we have tried again and again to emphasize how important that step is. Choosing colleges to apply to is every bit as important as choosing which college to attend–probably more so.

And I believe that Ms. Mitchell did get into some great ones, if Swarthmore and Spelman are any indications. What she had, obviously, were options. And regardless of whether your teenager is as smart as Ms. Mitchell must be, what you need are options. Remember that, parents of freshmen and sophomores and juniors.

And, finally, we will say this one more time at USACollegeChat: Think hard about putting an HBCU on your teenager’s list of possibilities. If we couldn’t convince you before, surely Ms. Mitchell has.

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Episode 103: Can You Find a College Like Georgia State?

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We are going to Georgia–well, not literally–in today’s episode to talk about a college that we did not include in our virtual nationwide college tour (Episodes 27 through 53), but I now wish we had. I have to admit that I did not know virtually anything about the college we are going to talk about, and that’s why Marie and I say all the time that we learn something every day while navigating the ever-changing world of college. I think this episode will be eye-opening to many of you.

1. What’s in a Headline?

It all started when I read the following headline in a recent issue of The Hechinger Report: “At Georgia State, more black students graduate each year than at any U.S. college.” This excellent article, which was written by Nick Chiles and which also appeared in The Atlanta Journal Constitution, takes a close look at how one college has changed the game for many students (and not just black students) who might have found it difficult–and perhaps unfairly difficult–to get into and succeed at other colleges. You all should really go read the whole article, because I can’t do it justice without reading it aloud to you in its entirety.

Mr. Chiles offers these statistics to make his case:

With its jumble of slate-gray concrete buildings mixed in with the skyscrapers of downtown Atlanta, Georgia State now graduates more black students with bachelor’s degrees every year than any other nonprofit school in the United States (1,777 in 2015). That stat includes the nation’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like Spelman, Howard and Florida A&M.

From 2003 to 2015, according to GSU, its graduation rate (finishing a bachelor’s degree within six years of starting) for African-American students rose from 29 to 57 percent. For Hispanic students, it went from 22 to 54 percent. By 2014, for lower-income students (those eligible for a federal Pell grant), it reached 51 percent–nearly the same as for non-Pell students. Its graduation rate for first-generation students went up 32 percent between 2010 and 2014.

And GSU increased those percentages while also increasing its number of black, Hispanic and low-income students by 10 percent. (quoted from the article)

Any way you look at it, those are some impressive statistics. This is not a new topic for USACollegeChat. We have talked in previous episodes about the shockingly low graduation rates in too many colleges, and we have talked about the scandalously low number of students of color in too many public universities. Both issues concern us. So, we are especially pleased to spotlight the work that Georgia State has been doing on both of these fronts.

2. How Georgia State Won

To what does Georgia State credit its success when so many other colleges have failed? Here is what Mr. Chiles said about that:

The centerpiece of GSU’s turnaround is the system it created and calls “GPS Advising.” Using computer algorithms, it closely tracks student performance, and GSU’s army of advisors monitors every student’s academic output on a daily basis. If a student’s performance veers off course just a bit, counselors receive an alert. They reach out to the student to find the source of the problem. According to GSU calculations, in 2014-15 the system generated more than 43,000 individual meetings between advisors and students.

In addition, knowing how frequently students drop out because they find themselves unable to cover tuition, GSU instituted a program that provides modest “retention grants” to students who are short of money. Last year it offered nearly 2,000.

Another program, called “Keep HOPE Alive,” helps students who have lost Georgia’s HOPE scholarship–which covers tuition costs at state institutions–re-qualify for the money by working to lift their GPAs back to the required 3.0. And for incoming [freshmen] it considers “at risk,” GSU offers an intensive seven-week summer prep program. (quoted from the article)

We are sure that these ideas cost Georgia State both administrative time and money. But look at the results. And haven’t we all known kids who had a scholarship and lost it when they underperformed during that important freshman year; Marie and I certainly have. Look at the support that Georgia State provides to its students who might otherwise have dropped out and suboptimized their entire futures: black kids, Hispanic kids, low-income kids, first-generation-to-college kids, and plenty of other kids who needed just a bit of help to win.

But, as Mr. Chiles goes on to say, it’s not just about these supports. It’s about the whole culture of Georgia State. Mr. Chiles continues his explanation:

In interviews at Georgia State, many black students said they feel they have the best of both worlds: the black peers, support staff and cultural environment they might find at an HBCU, but the resources and the diversity of a large state school.

On the weekends, GSU students said the campus feels even more like an HBCU. That’s because the number of black students who live on the downtown Atlanta campus is more than double the number of white students–2,794 black students this fall compared to 1,209 white students. Most of its 25,000 [undergraduate] students commute from nearby homes or apartments. (quoted from the article)

Well, there are lots of things to comment on here. First, we have talked in previous episodes about the nurturing and supportive environment of many HBCUs and how that sometimes makes all the difference to a student, especially to a student far from home. Georgia State seems to have that environment, even though it is not an HBCU. By the way, according to College Navigator (our favorite research tool for finding out important stuff about colleges), the undergraduate student body at Georgia State is 42 percent black/African American, 27 percent white, 12 percent Asian, 9 percent Hispanic/Latino, and 10 percent everything else (Fall, 2015). Incidentally, Mr. Chiles notes that Georgia State has also recruited a large number of black administrators, advisors, and professors. According to a Georgia State administrator, 10 percent of Georgia State instructors are black–compared to only about 4 percent at other colleges that are not HBCUs.

Second, we want to point out the number of black students who live on Georgia State’s campus, which is largely a commuter campus. Being able to house those students gives them all of the advantages of college life that they otherwise would not get by living at home. We should note here that, according to College Navigator, 94 percent of Georgia State students are from Georgia (Fall, 2015). If you are not from Georgia, but you are impressed by what Georgia State has done, you might think about becoming part of the out-of-staters who make the trip to Atlanta (a group that might get bigger as more and more parents around the country look at what Georgia State has accomplished). We should also say that out-of-state tuition and fees will run more than $25,000 per year, so it’s not the cheapest option you are going to find, but we do believe that you might actually get what you pay for. We should also say that the deadline for applications for next fall is not until March 1, so you still have plenty of time to take a longer look.

And third, for those of you who don’t know it, Atlanta is a great city. In addition to the popular culture that is so evident there, it is home to great civic institutions, like the truly memorable National Center for Civil and Human Rights and The Carter Center (“Waging Peace. Fighting Disease. Building Hope.”). By the way, you can go to Georgia State’s website and take the virtual campus tour, which will give you a good idea of what its piece of Atlanta looks like.

Let’s take one last look at Mr. Chiles’s well-researched article (again, please go read the whole piece, really):

Bernard McCrary, director of Georgia State’s Black Student Achievement office, said it helps that many of GSU’s black staff members were the first in their families to attend college, just as he was.

“I think when you have a lot of first-generation folk, these are people who understand what that struggle is like for students because they’ve gone through it or had family members go through it,” McCrary said. “They get it, they understand and will do everything in their power to make sure the students they service are successful.” (quoted from the article)

First, Georgia State has an Office of Black Student Achievement, which provides a wide variety of academic, support, leadership, and outreach activities, programs, and services. So, that says something about its commitment to serving its African and African-American student population. Second, the staffing of the university says something about its commitment to serving first-generation-to-college students. Giving these students role models–just like giving black students role models on its staff and faculty–is obviously intentional and should make parents of first-generation-to-college students rest a bit easier when sending their kids off to this university.

Although we were not necessarily trying to champion Georgia State in this episode, but rather the kinds of successful programs and services that Georgia State has put in place for students of color and first-generation-to-college students, I guess we have ended up championing Georgia State. So, while we are at it, let’s talk about one interesting thing we noticed on its website, and that is its methods for reviewing applications. Here is what the website says:

At Georgia State, we recognize that everyone is different. We give you options on how we evaluate your application because we know that every student is unique. Selecting how you would like to be reviewed as a freshman applicant is as simple as choosing which information to supply when you complete the application–skip the optional essay and letter of recommendation sections for the merit-based evaluation, or include an essay and letter(s) of recommendation to be evaluated holistically. It’s your choice; either way, we hope you choose Georgia State University.

The Merit Review is based purely on your academic merits as they align with Georgia State’s admissions requirements, including your high school transcript(s) and test scores. Choosing this method of review means that you have elected not to complete the optional essay and letter of recommendation sections of the admissions application, and that you will be assessed solely on your previous academic performance and scores. If you choose this review method, Georgia State will reach out to you if any other information is necessary to make our admissions decision.

The Holistic Review gives the Office of Undergraduate Admissions an enhanced picture of your abilities through the admissions application. For this option, please complete the essay and letter of recommendation sections of the Common Application, in addition to providing your transcript(s) and test scores. We strongly encourage the holistic review option if you would like to be considered for merit scholarships, if you are an international applicant, or if you’d simply like to share more about yourself as we make our admissions decisions.

Our decisions are based primarily on academic merit. The optional essay and letters of recommendation provide additional insight about you as an applicant as Georgia State selects its freshman class. (quoted from the website)

So, it’s your choice, kids. If you have the grades and test scores, you don’t have to bother with everything else. Interesting. By the way, according to College Navigator’s figures from Fall, 2015, about 57 percent of Georgia State applicants were admitted. Those admitted had SAT average scores in the low to mid-500s across all three subtests.

3. What Does This Mean for You?

So, let us say again that we were not necessarily trying to put the spotlight just on Georgia State University in this episode, but rather on the kinds of successful programs and services that Georgia State has put together to meet the needs of many of its own students of color and first-generation-to-college students.

With that in mind, parents, consider whether the colleges on your teenager’s list have similar academic and support services, programs, and even offices, especially if your teenager is a student of color or first-generation-to-college student. You should be able to find that information on a college’s website, but you can always call and ask. Finding a college that can nurture a teenager who needs a bit more support can make all the difference, as Georgia State has indeed proved.

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $0.99 through 2016! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

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