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The Guidance Gap: How to Rethink School Counseling

Experts discuss how to effectively steer a student to, through life after high school

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One of Joyce Brown’s former students was getting ready to board a bus to college for the first time when he changed his mind.

“His mom said, ‘Don’t go if you don’t want to,’” Brown recalled. So the student, who grew up in the Robert Taylor Homes housing project on Chicago’s South Side, didn’t go.

But Brown — who spent 40 years working as a school counselor in Chicago Public Schools — knew this student would thrive in a college setting because of the relationship she’d built with him. So she drove him to college herself.

“He got there and he said, ‘I’m never coming home. This is my safe space,’” Brown, now an education consultant, recalled. “He stayed there and got his PhD.”

Her story illustrates the powerful impact an engaged school counselor can have on a student’s path to and through college. But that kind of counseling is the exception.

Nationally, the ratio of school counselors to students averages 455:1, far above the 250:1 ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association. In many schools, counselors lack adequate training to coach students through the college admissions process. As a result, students who can’t get admissions advice elsewhere — usually low-income and first-generation college students — are left navigating a confusing and frustrating system on their own, speakers told journalists at a recent Education Writers Association seminar in Chicago.

Potential solutions speakers cited during the discussion included more training for school counselors, better alignment between high schools and colleges, and programs to supplement counselors’ existing work. These ideas have the potential to help school counselors more effectively serve their high school students — and to set those students up to have a better chance to persist through college.

Getting Prepared

Nationally, most school counselors are trained to look at attendance, grades and behavior, “see who’s falling off a cliff,” and focus specifically on those students, Brown said. That leads to a counseling model that focuses heavily on supporting students’ social and emotional well-being, with college counseling pushed to the side.

Instead, Brown encouraged counselors to get to know their students before they started high school — and to get those students focused on college from day one. Counselors began meeting with students while they were in eighth grade, helping them build a vision for college and complete a prep worksheet for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

(This shift into focusing on all aspects of a student’s school life, rather than just their social and emotional well-being, is also reflected in the move to the term “school counselor” from “guidance counselor.” The American School Counselor Association discusses more about that change here.)

Christine Rodriguez received a similar direction as a high school peer college counselor during her senior year at the Bushwick School for Social Justice in Brooklyn. Since the college admissions process changes frequently, Rodriguez and her fellow counselors underwent “weeks of intense training” before they began their work and completed ongoing training throughout the year, Rodriguez said.

The national college access organization OneGoal provides similar training for teachers, who become “program directors” at their schools, said Lina Fritz, the managing director of program innovations at OneGoal Chicago. These educators teach a for-credit class for juniors and seniors focused entirely on navigating the college admissions process. The participating teachers receive ongoing, data-heavy training from OneGoal staff members — and counselors are freed up to focus specifically on students who need extra help. (Read more here about OneGoal in Chicago.)

Through, Not Just to, College

In OneGoal’s world, effective counseling doesn’t stop when a student leaves high school. OneGoal’s three-year model means students receive coaching through their first year out of high school, regardless of whether they attend college or not.

That’s intentional, because just going to college is no longer enough.

“The bachelor’s degree has become the premier pathway to economic opportunity,” according to a report by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. In 2018, just 37 percent of adults ages 25 to 29 had earned a bachelor’s degree, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. (Those numbers vary greatly depending on a student’s wealth and race, and what kind of institution they attend.)

To help students see a path through college, better alignment is needed between high schools and colleges, said James Rosenbaum, a professor at Northwestern University whose research has provided guidance for programs to help low-income students better access college.

He encourages high schools to create a course that lets students spend a semester exploring their career interests and learning about related college programs. Brown said she advises counselors to follow a “match and fit” advising model, where students make a list of the colleges they “match” with academically and consider which of those colleges are a “fit” for them socially and financially.

Once students are in college, Fritz said, OneGoal encourages its program director teachers to remember that students’ paths to a degree may be different from their own. OneGoal advocates for progressive pathways, which Rosenbaum said he supports, too. By earning a one-year certificate, then a two-year associate’s degree, then a bachelor’s degree, students earn money and get work experience while they pursue their college degree, he said.

Moving toward a bachelor’s degree incrementally means students can immediately experience the tangible benefits of earning a postsecondary credential. Low-income and first-generation college students feel a sense of urgency when it comes to starting their careers, and that urgency should translate into counseling, Rodriguez said.

“We can’t be waiting for systemic change every year,” she said. “We need help now.”