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Split Personality

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In the early part of this century, guidance counseling was designed to help students pick occupations and secure jobs.

"Counselor education today is focusing too much on a big umbrella of things," Burtnett, a former guidance counselor, says. "We're into human growth and development, we're into self-esteem and self-actualization, and we're not dealing with the nuts and bolts of child and adolescent development," he says. "Seventeen-year-olds are facing educational choices, they're trying to tie those choices into an educational pattern, and we're out there doing warm, fuzzy things."

Now a consultant in Springfield, Va., Burtnett says he salutes those counselors who teach themselves what they need to know. "Many people learn to do this. They learn to do it on the job with the dragon fire coming right at their posteriors."

In the early part of this century, guidance counseling was designed to help students pick occupations and secure jobs. The 1930s brought a recognition that there were three main parts to the guidance process: educational, vocational, and personal-social services.

Secondary school guidance counseling got a lot of attention--and an infusion of federal dollars--following the passage of the National Defense Education Act of 1958. The law, passed shortly after the launch of Sputnik, unleashed money to get more students to pursue postsecondary education, in math and science especially--all the better to fuel the space race against the Soviet Union. One purpose of the federal money was to increase the number of secondary school counselors who not only could guide students into college and into math and science careers, but also advise students whose personal problems might thwart academic success, according to the American School Counselor Association.

That meant a focus on two sets of students, the college-bound and the troubled--an approach that missed many students in the middle and set up a split personality in school counseling that persists to this day.

In the 1960s, schools were urged to provide counseling programs that focused on the overall development of the individual student. And in the '70s, "career education became very big, so that was thrown in again," says Perry, the American School Counselor Association director. Then during the 1980s, state regulations defined more clearly the role and function of guidance counselors, and the term "school counselor"--as opposed to "guidance counselor"--came into wider use, according to the association.

"What [school counseling] evolved to," Perry says, "was a ... shopping mall of services."

To take stock of the profession today, the National Association for College Admission Counseling in Alexandria, Va., polled its members and other counselors last year. It found that counselors considered personal and college counseling their most important duties (that split personality again), yet they carried larger-than-recommended student caseloads and only spent about half their time in direct contact with students.

A lot of what the survey reveals are issues that school reformers and the ASCA's National Standards for School Counseling Programs are both trying to get at. The association's standards, for instance, say counselors should spend 70 percent to 80 percent of their time in direct contact with students.

Counselors also tend to be the staff members saddled with organizing the administration of a school's standardized testing. But the standards argue that counselors are trained to interpret cognitive, aptitude, and achievement tests, not figure out which teacher proctors which room and which students should sit there. Longtime counselors point out you don't need a master's degree to do that.

The standards, which Perry says have already been ordered in bulk by states and districts, are not without their skeptics and detractors. Some wish they would place greater emphasis on high academic standards, equity, and making college more accessible to all. And the standards still champion attention to all three areas of student development-- academic, career, and personal-social.

"My problem is they try to cover the waterfront too much in a traditional way," says Patricia J. Martin, a senior program manager at the Education Trust, a Washington group working on a project to improve the profession. "My greatest fear is when people pick them up, look at them, and read them, they're going to say, 'This is what we've done. We're fine. Business as usual.'"

Burtnett, the former NACAC executive director, calls the standards "a positive step."

"Counseling's been that elusive thing," he says. "We know what we want to have happen in the English classroom. We know what we want to have happen in calculus. We haven't put our finger on what we want to have happen in counseling." But, he says, the standards should be constantly re-evaluated. "Those standards need to change, and grow, and mature."

In the survey for NACAC, the respondents say college counseling is one of the most important tasks they handle, and nearly all report they have responsibility for it. But they devote only about 25 percent of their time to it--one reason experts suggest they aren't more effective.

A private counselor has the time not only to meet with the student and her family but also to visit colleges, unlike harried school counselors.

"A lot of counselors are dealing with course scheduling, personal problems, special-needs students, and the problem is, unfortunately, not enough public school districts have supported [high school] counseling as much as they should," says Antonoff, the Denver consultant, who specializes in college counseling. "Give them more money, let people get off and visit colleges, give people more responsibility for really learning about colleges," he says.

While a national survey shows most high school students turn to their counselors for advice on colleges, in the end the counselors' influence is outweighed by other factors.

According to the annual survey of U.S. college freshmen conducted by the University of California, Los Angeles, 63.7 percent of first-year students at all types of higher education institutions nationwide last fall said they had sought their high school counselors' advice. But when they were asked what reasons were very important in the selection of their colleges, only 8.2 percent pointed to the advice of a high school guidance counselor. The counselor ranked 13th out of 20 reasons--below the influence of friends, relatives, and rankings in national magazines.

That was the case with Amanda Kugel, an 18-year-old senior at Capital High. Ms. Kugel says that as valuable as the college-admission help her counselor provided was, the location of a prospective college figured more heavily in deciding where to enroll than did her counselor's opinion.

All eight of the colleges Ms. Kugel applied to--mostly public universities in the Southeast--sent her letters of acceptance, including Clemson University in South Carolina. Her counselor, Karen Hopkins, "pushed for Clemson," Ms. Kugel says. But when she went to visit the campus, Ms. Kugel found the 11,000-resident town of Clemson "too little." In the fall, she'll head off to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in a city with a population of 165,000.

A small but growing cadre of students and parents, dissatisfied with the kind of college and financial-aid advice high school counselors are able to provide, is voting with its feet. That means more and more business for private counselors, such as Antonoff in Denver. The Independent Educational Consultants Association in Fairfax, Va., has seen its membership double in the past two years to 250. And, says Executive Director Mark Sklarow, his organization only represents full-time consultants, even though most people do college counseling part time. A majority of his group's members, he says, are refugees from public school counseling.

The UCLA survey of freshmen shows that in 1993, the first time the question was asked, 1.6 percent of first-year students at all institutions had hired a private college counselor. By last fall, the rate had increased to 1.9 percent.

Among those students attending private colleges, the growth was even more pronounced. Between 1993 and last year, use of paid counselors went up nearly a full percentage point for those attending private two-year colleges and those attending private universities. Fully 6 percent of those in private universities last fall had hired a college consultant. Families footing a private college bill may be more able to afford a consultant and may be more motivated to do so when tuition, room, and board can run $120,000 for four years.

Sklarow says the chief reason parents and students seek out independent counselors is the limited time a school counselor can devote to an individual student. In addition, two working parents have less time to help their child pick a college. A private counselor has the time not only to meet with the student and her family but also to visit colleges, unlike harried school counselors.

The tab, however, can be hefty. Most college consultants charge $40 to $50 an hour, while in New York City, an hourly fee can run $150. Some offer package deals, priced from $700 to $3,000.

But Antonoff says what really makes the difference between the caliber of help a student can get from a public school counselor and from someone like him is his firsthand familiarity with colleges. "A good educational consultant spends weeks a year visiting colleges," he says.

College consultants acknowledge that some school counselors resent the private consultants and refuse to give them information about the student. But, Sklarow says, his members do not see themselves competing with the public school counselors: "It should be a great team relationship."

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