What's Keeping Us Up At Night

The Access to Success (A2S) blog

Inside the hearts & minds of NYC College Advisers

Supporting vs Enabling: Are We Doing too Much?

by Jeff Makris
06/05/15 Bookmark
Jeff Makris

Jeffrey C. Makris is the Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology's  first Director of College Counseling.  He served as the Director of College Counseling at the High School of Economics and Finance since 2004 after beginning his school counseling career there in 1999 as a guidance counselor. Jeffrey has been active in the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the New York State Association for College Admission Counseling, and the College Access Consortium of New York, Inc. In June of 2009 he completed a three -year term on the Executive Board of NYSACAC as Co-Chair of the School - College Relations Committee, and in June of 2011 he was awarded the NYSACAC Distinguished Service Award.   In July of 2012 he completed his term as Chair of CACNY, Inc.'s Board of Directors after serving on the Board for four years. For five years Jeffrey taught Counseling the College Bound Student, a graduate level course introducing students to the college counseling profession, for the University of California, Los Angeles through the UCLA Extension program.    He earned his BS in Psychology from Binghamton University, S.U.N.Y. and his MSEd in School Counseling from Hunter College, C.U.N.Y. 


The Bad Old Days

I recall my early days at my former high school, a public high school in lower Manhattan that served primarily first generation, financially disadvantaged students.  College counseling services at schools like this were considered somewhat of a luxury.  We had someone do it part -time at first, then for two years had no one…guidance counselors just tried to figure it out, to mix in time for college planning in between programming, and crisis intervention, and the unexpected parent visit, etc.  In truth, our college planning was, in technical terms, a hot mess.  Training was minimal, time for college counseling even more so, and the opportunity cost to our students was incalculable.

In 2002 or so our then Assistant Principal wanted to go in a different direction.  We partnered with a non-profit and brought in not just a full time college counselor, but a full timer with support staff through his community based organization. Having a fully functioning, selective private school –ish college office was quite rare for an urban public school at the time.  It set us apart from many of our peer institutions, and our entire community felt the benefits of that model for years to come.   From this, a college going culture was born.

The Best of Times…

Today, almost fifteen years later, the climate has changed considerably.  Many urban public schools have fully functioning college offices. Even when student ratios are far less than ideal, there is at least a clear indication that college counseling is an important part of an urban public high school experience.  Organizations such as The Urban Assembly, CollegeBound Initiative, and countless charter schools actively seek to ensure that the schools they run or support have trained and dedicated college counselors. 

Much of this has to do with a welcome change in school culture within New York City, and an increased understanding of the time and effort it takes to successfully guide our students through the college process.  Some of it also has to do with accountability; New York City public high schools are now judged in part based upon the post-secondary outcomes of their students, including enrollment data of graduates as reported by National Student Clearinghouse and other agencies.  

Surely, this a good thing.  But, sometimes I wonder…have we gone too far?

“Can’t you do this for me?”

“Anthony” is a junior, and he needs to register for the SAT.  His mother and I have gone back and forth in recent weeks.  He qualifies for a fee waiver, which I have made clear to them both; he just needs to use it to register.  He can do that right here in my office so I can help, if need be, which is what most of my kids choose to do.

I give Anthony his fee waiver, which he tells me he will bring back to mom.  “Is she doing this for you?  Why don’t you just get it done here right now?” I ask.  “Umm, yeah, she’s gonna do it. “  Anthony takes his fee waiver and goes off for the afternoon.

Two weeks pass, and Anthony still isn’t registered.  Mom tells me they had trouble doing it themselves so I ask her to send him back to me with the waiver.  Anthony arrives during his lunch period, hands me the waiver, and turns to leave.  “Where are you going?” I ask.  “You need to actually register!”  Then he asks the question I should have expected.

“Can’t you do it for me?”

I look over at my colleague from UA, who is helping me out this afternoon. She laughs.  We say “no” in unison. He finally sits at a computer to do what he should have done weeks ago.

Anthony’s behavior here is not uncommon within my student body, and is often seen in many other similarly small, highly supportive urban public schools.  To too many students, college planning is perceived as somebody else’s responsibility.  It was my job to register Anthony for the SATs, not his…even if he could do so in my office, on a school computer, with my checking everything over before submission.  I see the same attitude in many with their college search, or their applications, or FAFSA.  I won’t even go into academics.  That’s a blog for another day.

In other communities, counselors on both sides of the desk complain about the ever present helicopter parent.   They take over the process and, perhaps, in spite of their good intentions, hinder their children’s development into independent young adults. 

Have we become helicopter schools?

What’s the harm in helping?

I have met many counselors working with first gen or socioeconomically disadvantaged students who routinely file FAFSAs for students, or register each of their students for the SAT.  While I don’t go that far, I get it; having each student complete these tasks step by step under your guidance can be painstaking work.  You are dealing with needy students, often too many of them, and in some cases taking things out of a student’s hands may be the most efficient way to get them through these critical tasks. And the consequences of not going to these lengths may extend beyond just negative effects on student outcomes.  Poor college going rates can lead to a non-profit losing their grant, or can cost someone their job. 

I don’t miss the bad old days…I’ll choose “too much” versus “too little” support for my students every time. But I worry that we are setting our students up for a world that doesn’t exist, and how they will fare once they are truly beyond our reach (which in many cases means after college as we, wisely, turn our efforts toward college retention) .  We can’t hire them all in our schools or organizations.  At some point, they will need to transition from a world in which many hands are “helping” them, to one in which there will be very, very few.


Supporting, but not enabling

I don’t claim to have any perfect answers concerning how to provide support to students while attempting to guide them toward a sense of ownership and responsibility for their futures.  I struggle to find the right balance.  Each student will have different needs, capabilities, and motivation; often how much is too much is a question that varies from case to case.

If I am calling an admissions office to clarify a student’s EOP status, for example, or ask a critical question given a chance in circumstances, I will always try to call with the student as opposed to for them.  If they are more capable, I will coach them and have them call from my office but without my getting on the phone.  I want to help them resolve their problem, but not rob them of the opportunity to learn how to self -advocate or gain confidence when dealing with college personnel.  

How do you balance providing vital support services to students while not undermining their ability to become independent, capable adults?  How much is too much? Where do you draw the line?


  • Jeff Makris
    Jeff Makris

    Thank you for your sharing your thoughts and experiences on this issue! Amy, I really like your strategy...you help your student started, but then make sure to shift the onus of responsibility to the student.

  • amybeth

    Great post, Jeff. I struggle with this often and have learned the hard way that if I want it more than the student, I have to back off. Over the past two years I have tried to have open communication with my students about who is driving the bus, and the counselors role in the process.

    I have also found that taking first steps together with the student at my desk and together agreeing on real deadlines has helped the student accomplish needed tasks. (For example, researching a college together and then giving him/her 4 more to research on his/her own with a due date to review with me).

    When I do feel it's necessary to have an open conversation with the student and clearly communicate the boundary lines, they usually get the message loud and clear -whether I communicate in person or through email.

  • NFerizgordon

    I could not agree more! Completing these tasks for our students is not helping them. In fact, once our students gain the confidence from completing college related tasks they learn - that they CAN do it which benefits in the long wrong. So we are helping them.

    Thank you, Jeff! I teach this concept to the parents - every chance I get.

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