Report Cites Counseling’s Importance, Unevenness

By Robert Rothman — February 05, 1986 4 min read

Counseling can often make the difference in whether a student drops out of school or graduates and goes on to college, but the availability of high-quality guidance services varies widely, according to a preliminary report by a commission of the College Board.

“The first year of investigation has left the commission with the broad impression that there is a considerable waste of human talent as a result of the ways our schools are now operated, and that the counseling and guidance functions of our schools can contribute significantly to reducing that waste,” writes Harold Howe 2nd, chairman of the College Board’s commission on precollege guidance and counseling, in an introduction to the report.

The commission found that few students see their school counselors to discuss their academic plans, preferring instead to take advice from parents or siblings. Partly as a result, students whose parents did not attend college may be less likely to consider that option.

In addition, the commission noted, counseling services are often overlooked as a factor in student success. Thus, because the role of counselors is not sufficiently recognized, they are often assigned other tasks, such as substitute-teaching, and are among the first laid off during budget crunches.

Furthermore, the commission determined, the problem of the availability of effective counseling is particularly acute in schools in low-income areas, where students are already less likely to attend college.

“If your family is well off and you are attending a suburban school, you are likely to find good counseling services,” said Mr. Howe. “If you are not well off and attend an urban school, you are not likely to find it.”

Frank Burtnett, assistant executive director of the American Association of Counseling and Development, said he supports the report’s major findings. But he noted that counselors play roles other than preparing students for college, and said they are doing generally a good job.

“There is good counseling in America,” he said. “One doesn’t have to look that far to find it.” The commission also found:

  • Counseling services in elementary and junior high schools can have a strong effect on later academic success. But, although some communities have made effective use of counseling in the early grades, few schools provide such services.
  • The complexity of financial aid and the prospect of financing college through heavy debt is intimidating I to many families, particularly those with low incomes.
  • The school-reform movement has largely ignored counseling’s role.
  • Student-to-counselor ratios are considered inordinately high by counselors--and rise as high as 700 to 1 in many large city schools.
  • The formal requirements for counselors make little or no mention of preparing them to assist students and parents with the process of applying for college.

The report is the result of a yearlong review of existing literature on counseling, together with a series of five “dialogues” involving counselors, administrators, principals, parents, and students.

The document was issued in order to solicit additional public comment. A final report, including recommendations, will be issued in October.

Mr. Howe said the commission undertook its study because the need for counseling is often overlooked in discussions of school reform. In fact, he said, some reforms--such as stricter graduation standards--could exacerbate the problems disadvantaged students face, if counseling is not provided.

“Speaking for myself, and not the commission,” Mr. Howe said, “I don’t think that the setting up of standards without that kind of help is a very humane thing to do in a central-city school.”

Mr. Howe noted that dropout rate in many urban school districts exceed 40 percent. He maintained that most students drop out because they think their schools consider them failures--which, he said, contributes to their loss of self-esteem.

“We’re unwilling to accept the notion that 40 percent of the kids in any city cannot finish high school. With appropriate energies on their behalf, with more attention to motivation, those youths can find a higher rate of success,” Mr. Howe said.

While the report does not include formal recommendations, it does suggest ways to improve counseling. These include: using paraprofessionals to perform certain functions at a lower cost; providing counselors with secretarial help to help manage the large volume of paperwork; increasing the use of computers to provide college information more efficiently; and improving the cooperation between school-guidance, church, and community agencies. But many of the proposed solutions cost money, and the commission is divided over whether to recommend increasing funding for counseling.

George H. Hanford, president of the College Board, said he is opposed to recommending that course.

“Money is not the only answer,” he said, noting that in the current reform movement schools have “started doing more with less,” by stressing quality over quantity.

But Mr. Howe said he favored increased funding. “Additional money is absolutely essential,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 05, 1986 edition of Education Week