Tammy Dodson’s caseload of 340 students is not unusual for a school counselor in an American high school. Nationwide, a typical high school counselor is responsible for helping to chart the futures of about 270 students each year, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling, in Arlington, Va.
But the jobs of Dodson and the other seven counselors at the 2,600-student Grandview High School in Aurora, Colo., are uncommon in that the administrators of her school have freed them from tasks that routinely eat up a lot of time for counselors across the nation—creating the master schedule for courses and conducting state standardized tests. The added flexibility enables the school’s counselors to work with all students to create a four-year high school plan and a postsecondary plan, Dodson says.
The counselors take it upon themselves to make sure each student has a plan in place for what he or she will do after school before walking across the stage at graduation, she adds. “It can be a four-year college, a two-year college, a career and technical education, the military, or work.”
Recognizing that students likely won’t do well in the current economy without some postsecondary education, school districts and states are trying to figure out how to better support guidance counselors so high schoolers learn how to navigate the world after high school. For some, that includes paying attention to how to inform high schoolers about postsecondary options other than attending a four-year college—a set of options that some educators and thinkers say has gotten short shrift in recent years as education reformers trained their sights on boosting the numbers of students seeking bachelor’s degrees.
Reasons Are Hazy
“We’ve done an injustice in this country with selling college as the answer to success,” says Randy A. McPherson, a school counselor at the Trezevant Career and Technical School in Memphis, Tenn., which provides courses such as information technology and welding to high schoolers who also attend a separate comprehensive high school for half a day. McPherson says the following dialogue is common with seniors: “You ask students, what are their plans? ‘Well, going to college.’ ‘Why are you going to college?’ ‘I don’t know why.’”
McPherson says that the guidance counselors at the comprehensive high schools in Memphis tend to direct students only to college, but he’s a specialist in alternative options, such as getting a degree from a postsecondary technical school or a certificate from an apprenticeship program. About half of the 550 students in his school tend to choose postsecondary options other than a four-year college, he says.
In pockets across the country, states and school districts are starting to pay more attention to students who want to take alternative routes that fall short of a baccalaureate. Efforts involve creating curriculum for guidance counselors to learn about a wider range of postsecondary options, spelling out career pathways that inform students of what classes they need to take in high school and after graduation to obtain certificates for specific careers, and engaging teachers and school counselors to support students to develop long-term plans, starting in middle school, for a career.
But experts say many counselors get little preparation themselves on how to advise students on choosing the right four-year college—let alone other kinds of postsecondary options.
“There are numerous graduate school programs around the country that don’t even have a course dedicated to developing college-counseling skills for high school counselors,” says Jim Miller, the president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. His organization helps to fill the gap by providing a means for college and high school counselors to rub elbows and share information. He says counselors need that training, plus the time in which to work with students, in order to help their students make the best postsecondary choices. Graduate schools need to beef up their curriculum for postsecondary counseling and high schools need to make better use of counselors’ time, adds Miller.
Young adults tend to give their guidance counselors a low rating for how they helped them explore a career path, according to a 2009 survey conducted by Public Agenda for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (The philanthropy also provides funding for Editorial Projects in Education, the publisher of Education Week.) Six out of 10 respondents gave their high school guidance counselors “fair” or “poor” ratings for assisting them in thinking about different careers, the survey found. It was carried out with a nationally representative sample of 614 young adults ages 22 to 30 who had acquired some postsecondary education. Previous research suggests that few counselors urge students to look at forms of training such as technical schools or apprenticeships.
Aiming to fill the information gap for school counselors is a project spearheaded by the Southern Regional Education Board, in Atlanta. Through the project, six states have developed online courses for counselors with information about postsecondary education or training that can be paid for with a federal Pell Grant. Participating states are Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee. The courses are customized for each state, so that a counselor can pull up online information about the states’ certificate programs, technical schools, and college-entrance exams. The courses are meant to address the lack of attention to career counseling in master’s programs for guidance counselors, says Joan M. Lord, the SREB’s vice president of education policies.
Making a Plan
Most of those states are also among a growing number of states that now require or encourage students, starting in middle school, to prepare long-term career or education plans, such as those developed by students at Dodson’s school in Aurora. Many have also spelled out “career pathways” so that students know what classes they have to take in high school and afterward to prepare for specific careers.
Utah has been a pioneer in that regard. Both state law and a rule by the state board of education require every 8th grader to create a four-year “student education/occupation plan,” with support from guidance counselors and parents. The state also has made available a curriculum that introduces children to occupational strands such as business, technology and engineering, and health sciences as early as 7th grade.
School counselors are required to attend three state-sponsored professional development sessions each year, says Mary M. Shumway, the state director of career and technical education in Utah. “Our counselors do know about labor-marketing information. They do know about the scholarships for one-year or two-year certificates at a technical college,” she says.
The state has mapped out high school and postsecondary requirements for 60 careers, including “natural resource science,” “business entrepreneurship,” and “rehabilitation and exercise.” Many students graduate from high school well on their way to fulfilling some of the postsecondary requirements by taking courses that give them both high school and college credit, Shumway says.
Shumway said Utah is recognizing the need to get teachers more involved in helping students to explore a full range of career options, and is thus preparing a document to give to teachers about career pathways.
On the ground level, some high schools and postsecondary institutions around the country have developed partnerships to ease the transition between high school and postsecondary education.
Staff from the Lakeshore Technical College in Cleveland, Wis., started administering the exam it uses for admissions, ACCUPLACER, published by the College Board, on the campus of Sheboygan South High School in nearby Sheboygan several years ago as a way to make it easier for students to apply to the college’s various technical programs. As a result, the percentage of students taking that test skyrocketed, says Steve Schneider, a school counselor for the 1,300-student high school.
In Maryland, Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, and the 75,500-student Anne Arundel County school district have developed a close relationship that has enabled students to more easily learn what the two-year school has to offer. The community college hosts an annual event in which it highlights its new programs for the district’s guidance counselors.
The community college also employs four part-time “transition advisers” who work in space provided by the school district’s 12 high schools and two technical centers from September to June. Kathleen Beauman, the director of business-education partnerships for the community college, calls those transition advisers “an extra set of hands” who explain career pathways and college.
The community college posts requirements for various career pathways on its web site. “One of the major things our transition advisors are working on is helping to demystify higher education,” says Beauman. At the same time that some educators and state officials are pushing for schools to support middle school and high school students to explore career options, they stress the importance of educators’ enabling students to keep options open, to avoid anything that smells of “tracking.”
A study based on a survey of high school guidance counselors and published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in March indicated that counselors recommend community colleges to students from lower-income families more strongly than to students from higher-income families. Each survey included descriptions of students, and respondents were asked questions about what kind of admission-related activities they would suggest for students with those characteristics.
In Utah, says Shumway, educators characterize career pathways as “freeways with off ramps,” suggesting that the “off ramps” shouldn’t be options that cut off the opportunity for students to get a four-year college degree. With the use of such frameworks, it’s important for teachers and counselors to support middle and high school students to schedule classes “so no doors are closed,” she says.
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.