Consider these alarming statistics: Nationwide, K-12 school counselors serve an average of approximately 460 students. In larger school districts, this ratio can rise to more than 700 students per counselor. Only 21 percent of public high schools have a dedicated college-counseling position, compared with 77 percent of private schools. These numbers highlight a crucial, yet often overlooked, aspect of the college-access and -completion debate: the role of high school counselors.
Public schools should encourage every student to achieve an education commensurate with his or her potential. To do this, college counseling must become a core service that public schools provide, especially in the neediest school districts. Otherwise, the nation will not reach the Obama administration’s ambitious goal to lead the world in college graduates by 2020, and existing investments in K-12 education reform will not achieve their expected results.
Ineffective college counseling, when coupled with other obstacles, places many students—particularly those low-income and minority students who would be the first in their families to go to college—at a disadvantage when they navigate the college-selection process. Compared with their more-privileged peers, these students are more likely to rely on counselors and teachers for higher education information because they lack access to other social and information networks that help students navigate the complex college admissions process. Consequently, without sufficient and strong advising, many vulnerable students fail to apply to college or, if they do, they choose to attend less selective vocational schools, community colleges, and for-profit universities, even though many of them would be admitted to and succeed at more selective four-year colleges.
Higher education access involves two separate, but related, dimensions: a quantitative dimension related to expansion in absolute terms; and a qualitative dimension related to the higher education setting students enter (e.g., community college vs. a more selective four-year college). College-counseling reform would significantly impact both dimensions.
Current reform efforts to promote college access among vulnerable students emphasize closing K-12 academic-achievement gaps, preserving college discretion for diversity admissions, and providing financial aid. But, although helpful, these approaches construct an inadequate bridge between high school and college; they underestimate how many vulnerable students, for reasons largely beyond their control, are unable to convert their high school academic achievement into college outcomes matching their potential.
Ironically, students with the greatest need for high-quality college counseling often face the greatest structural barriers to receiving guidance. Private, independent, and more affluent public schools are typically more likely to have a counseling staff that provides the hands-on and targeted approach to college advising that broadens student access to a range of higher education institutions. Meanwhile, public schools with predominantly low-income and minority students often have inadequate college-counseling resources.
The barriers to effective college counseling lie not only in counselor-to-student ratios, but also stem from competing counselor roles and inadequate counselor professional development. High school counselors perform an assortment of roles, including scheduling, school discipline, testing, college counseling, psychological development, and administrative support. Dividing these professionals’ focus among so many tasks limits the amount of time counselors can spend on helping students explore their college options.
Even assuming high school counselors target their exclusive attention on college counseling, most have little college-related advising expertise. The constantly changing college-selection market requires keeping abreast of admissions and financial-aid trends and data. But many counselors lack the requisite specialized knowledge and the institutional support to secure such expertise.
Although 466 colleges offer graduate training for counselors, fewer than 45 of them offer a course on the college-selection process. The School Counseling Fellows program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education is an example of an innovative program tackling this serious issue.
College enrollment and completion are among a number of extremely important educational metrics that better reflect the return on investment from K-12 education than narrower testing metrics. For example, two schools may share similar aggregate test scores and student demographics, but exhibit stark differences in student higher education outcomes. Such discrepancies might signal ineffective counseling support or the lack of a college-going culture within a particular school. The importance of college-access data underscores the need for longitudinal-data systems that link K-12 data with data sets from higher education and beyond. The combination of college-access data and other educational metrics such as test scores renders a more complete picture of student achievement.
The United States is at a critical juncture on the college-access issue—a moment that could profoundly affect its future and prosperity. Enhancing college counseling in the nation’s public schools will require a massive coordination of governmental, nongovernmental, and community efforts—hard work undoubtedly, but necessary. The failure to do so will thwart the American Dream for many students and the egalitarian notion of equality through education.
Special coverage of district and high school reform and its impact on student opportunities for success is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.