It’s the beginning of college application season and the first application cycle after we learned more about the black box that is the college admissions process at highly selective colleges and universities. Since then, we’ve seen that admissions officials at some colleges are more than complicit in giving preferential treatment to children of wealthy donors.
We have also witnessed how the College Board tried and failed, and failed again, to introduce an “adversity score” to aid holistic admissions practices, which would take into account students’ contexts as well as their abilities. And just last month, Paul Tough and Asher Price, journalists writing in The New York Times and The Atlantic respectively, highlighted how colleges and universities prioritize standardized tests in admissions, ultimately disadvantaging the very students who are most marginalized by our society. These revelations, of both legal and illegal practices, have challenged our notion that the students who stand to benefit the most from higher education have somewhere near an equal crack at getting it.
If we invested in America’s school counselors, we could begin to level the playing field almost right away."
It’s no surprise, then, that many educators and advocates are calling for radical change in the college admissions process. There is one lever, though, that we could pull that would not require rethinking a complex and variable admissions landscape. If we invested in America’s school counselors, we could begin to level the playing field almost right away.
We have long known that school counselors, who used to be widely known as “guidance counselors,” can play a pivotal role in helping students apply for college. But many education leaders, in both K-12 and higher education, don’t recognize how much they have to offer.
School counselors, particularly those who work with low-income students of color, as I did, are uniquely positioned to help. Counselors can raise students’ postsecondary aspirations, decrease their anxiety about whether they belong in higher education, explain the financial complexities of attending college, and ensure all students have access to the information and experiences they need to pursue a college degree. Unlike students whose families have higher education experience, students who would be in the first college-going generation rely on their high schools for college readiness.
If we are to leverage school counselors’ potential to increase college-going equity, we need to provide the support they need and often don’t get. For starters, let’s more strictly regulate counselor caseloads. Importantly, counselors in low-income school districts are burdened with the greatest caseloads—and are also dealing with much higher rates of student trauma, dropping out, and family poverty. How could a counselor with a caseload of 500 students and daily student crises possibly write a thoughtful recommendation for every student, never mind provide personalized college and career counseling? Meanwhile, in affluent communities, students often have access to both school counselors and highly paid private college advisers.
Still, sheer numbers won’t alter the odds for underrepresented students. Changes to the conditions and institutional structures of counselors’ work are long overdue. Limited professional development, outdated job descriptions, and an overemphasis on administrative duties are some of the obstacles that are preventing school counselors from advocating for the students who need them most.
With better clarity and support for their roles, counselors can help colleges build a more equitable and holistic admissions process. Rather than using adversity scores that reinforce a deficit lens or practices that encourage students to exploit their families’ hardships in pursuit of an acceptance letter, counselors need to be empowered to present high school profiles that capture students’ educational experience.
When I was a high school counselor, I desperately wanted admissions officers to understand the particular context of our school. I hoped they knew the impact on our students of factors such as high teacher turnover, limited Advanced Placement opportunities, a busing system that restricted participation in extracurricular activities, and family responsibilities that meant students prioritized working part-time or helping at home over internships or volunteer activities. But all I could do was send a one-page high school profile that didn’t cover any of that and probably reiterated what was available online. I didn’t know that other high schools carefully curated facts and images for their profiles to create a certain context. This was just one illustration of how little I understood at the time about the broader admissions process.
We also need to give more thought to how school counselors and admissions counselors can build working relationships for the benefit of students. For example, school counselors should know how their students fare in college. This would help counselors continually improve the supports they offer to students, such as information about the academic, social, and emotional obstacles students might need to overcome. Stronger K-16 relationships would help admissions officers promote more informed decisionmaking in admissions.
Professional development opportunities that bring together school counselors and college admissions professionals are clearly a good strategy to facilitate these relationships. School counselors who work in economically disadvantaged schools, however, report they often don’t take advantage of professional learning opportunities because of limited financial resources and minimal support from school and district leaders, who are reluctant to approve time away from school. We need to offer these counselors job-embedded learning opportunities or enable counselors and admissions professionals to step into one another’s shoes to better understand each other’s experience. These approaches would help bridge the college-access divide.
The recent admissions scandal and the College Board’s attempt to address the inequality that is inherent in our current admissions system illustrate the importance of communication and transparency between college admissions professionals and school counselors. We need a college admissions process that is more honest and more equitable. Achieving that means a role for school counselors in the design of the new system as well as real institutional support for their work. At stake is nothing less than equal access to higher education.