The arrival of March signals not just the beginning of spring but also of college admission decision season—when thousands of anxious 17-year-olds across the country frantically refresh their email inboxes, eagerly awaiting notification of their academic fate. The reality, however, is that not all high school students have the opportunity to engage in this time-honored tradition; those from low-income and other historically marginalized backgrounds are the least likely to apply to and ultimately attend college.
The preservice training in college and career guidance of our nation’s school counselors tasked with supporting high school students through the postsecondary transition process is partially to blame.
Counseling professionals simply aren’t equipped to effectively assist students with their college planning. There isn’t a great deal of nationally representative data about school counselors’ access to professional development, but what we do know is discouraging. In 2012, a College Board national survey found that 32 percent of high school counselors did not receive any training in graduate school about college and career admission processes. Nearly an additional third of counselors deemed the little training they did receive as inadequate. Furthermore, over half of respondents reported needing additional training in both college affordability planning and assisting students through the high school-to-college transition.
In theory, inservice training opportunities could fill these preparation gaps. However, fewer than 40 percent of high schools mandate that counselors with postsecondary counseling responsibilities participate in professional development, according to a 2015 National Association for College Admission Counseling report.
How can we expect school counselors to promote the college-going aspirations of their students if these professionals lack the requisite knowledge to do so?
College counseling is arguably one of school counselors’ most important responsibilities. High school counselors devote a significant portion of their time—20 percent, according to the NACAC’s 2019 State of College Admission report—to advising students about their plans for postsecondary education. Research indicates that speaking with a counselor about college not only increases a student’s likelihood of applying to a postsecondary institution and submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), but also of attending a bachelor’s degree program in the fall immediately following high school graduation.
There is no quick fix to subpar training."
School counselors can be especially influential in the decisionmaking process of low-income and first-generation students, whose immediate friends and family may not have significant firsthand experience with the higher education sector. This support, in many cases, extends beyond simply helping a student apply to also encompass addressing any financial or social-emotional barriers that may impede college matriculation.
Given the strong empirical evidence linking college counseling with student outcomes, one would assume that preservice training programs strive to equip their graduates with the skills to navigate the increasingly complex college and career counseling field.
And yet, this is not the case.
Although the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs requires preservice training to address “college and career readiness,” many university-based programs do not prioritize these areas. Some offer limited coursework, while others provide no courses directly related to college and career counseling. And not all state licensing boards even require college counseling coursework, partially explaining its absence from preservice training curricula.
Learning how to craft a stellar recommendation letter, understanding the process of obtaining application and standardized testing fee waivers, and decoding financial aid regulations are all skills that counselors are expected to acquire on the job.
Counselors do want to enhance their skill sets. Yet, given their high caseloads—each counselor oversees 455 students on average—many simply do not have the time to take advantage of inservice training programs offered by local, state, and private organizations. A lack of support from school officials as well as inadequate funding can be additional barriers to vital professional development opportunities.
One solution to this problem is decidedly clear: Preservice training programs must better prepare their graduates for their future roles as college counselors, incorporating academic coursework that addresses undergraduate admission and financial aid processes. In addition, school, district, and state leaders must recognize that staying abreast of the latest issues and trends in the admission field is an essential responsibility of the school counselor and must provide their counseling professionals the opportunity to continually update their knowledge.
Some may argue that a more effective means of improving college access is to employ additional counselors in our public schools, and thus increase the availability of college counseling services. But simply hiring additional counselors is not the answer if they are not trained to do the job completely.
In practice, there is no quick fix to subpar training. University educators must overhaul preservice training programs, and state and district leaders must reform counseling licensure requirements and professional development policies.
In the short term, what can school, district, and state leaders do to support the training of today’s counseling professionals? One viable means of bolstering counselors’ knowledge is increasing awareness of free, online resources that are already available. A number of organizations including NACAC, the National College Access Network, and the American School Counselor Association offer free publications, lesson plans, and webinars that address all aspects of the college admission process. Because the counselors who would benefit most from these resources are often unaware of them, state departments of education and school districts are especially well positioned to share these resources with their counselors.
Ensuring that counselors can effectively assist diverse populations of students throughout the postsecondary transition process is no easy task. But, for too long, educators have failed to address this issue of insufficient training within the school counseling field.
Individuals enter the counseling profession to make a difference in students’ lives—it is time to ensure that they have all the tools to do just that.
A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 2020 edition of Education Week as School Counselors Need Proper Training