The meeting with the high school guidance counselor is expected and routine—a time set aside for students to talk about goals and plans with an adult trained to offer advice, options, and assistance. At least, that's the goal. Unfortunately, the reality sometimes falls short. One young man, now in his early 20s, summed up his experience: "They'd look at your grades and then say, 'Oh, you can get into these schools.'"
Such meetings are impersonal, perfunctory, and more common than you might think, according to a 2009 survey of young adults ages 22–30 conducted by Public Agenda for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Johnson, Rochkind, Ott, & DuPont, 2009). The findings from this survey, along with several others we have conducted in recent years (see, for example, Johnson, Duffett, & Ott, 2005), offer one clear message: As education focuses its attention on bringing today's high schools into the 21st century, the guidance counseling system is a prime candidate for innovation and reform.
A Basic Support Structure
Some of the results of these recent Public Agenda surveys are heartening. The vast majority of young adults recognize the value of knowledge and know-how in today's world. They understand the financial benefits of continuing their education beyond high school. Most (77 percent) say that their parents actively encouraged them to attend college, and more than 80 percent say that even if they knew there were lots of good jobs for people without degrees, they would still make the decision to go to college because what one learns there is so important.
The results also suggest that educators are playing an important role in inspiring young people to go on to college and continue learning. Solid majorities of young adults from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds (75 percent overall) say they had a teacher or coach who "inspired them and motivated them to do their best." Most (67 percent) report that they had a teacher who "took an interest in them personally and encouraged them to go to college."
Moreover, schools seem to have put a basic system in place to offer advice and guidance to young people leaving high school. Only 3 percent of young adults who graduated from high school report that they didn't have a high school guidance counselor or never met with one to discuss their postsecondary plans.
For N Through Z Only
Yet Public Agenda's most recent survey shows that many young people give the high school guidance system stunningly poor reviews (see fig. 1, p. 76). Among young adults who have graduated from high school and at least started some form of postsecondary education, a surprising 6 in 10 give their high school guidance counselors ratings of fair or poor for helping them think about different careers they might want to pursue. Sixty-seven percent give their counselors fair or poor ratings for helping them decide which school to attend, with 35 percent giving the lowest possible rating of poor.
Figure 1. Poor Reviews for High School Guidance Counseling
Source: Adapted from Johnson, J., Rochkind, J., Ott, A. N., & DuPont, S. (2010). Can I get a little advice here? How an overstretched high school guidance system is undermining students' college aspirations. New York: Public Agenda. Used with permission.
Respondents give similarly low ratings for how much counselors helped them find ways to pay for college, with 33 percent of young people saying their counselors' performance was actually poor. Although the ratings are marginally better on helping students with the college applications process, even on this dimension, more than half of the survey respondents (55 percent) assign ratings of fair or poor.
In an episode of The Simpsons, Homer recalled his visit with a guidance counselor who told him that he was glad to help any student whose last name started with a letter from N through Z. The show's writers latched onto a common perception among students— that guidance counselors do not see them as individuals and regard them as little more than a name on a file that somehow wound up on their desk. In the Public Agenda study, nearly one-half of young people (48 percent) say they usually felt like "just another face in the crowd" in dealing with their high school guidance counselor—slightly more than the 47 percent who say that their counselors really made an effort to get to know them and work with them.
In focus groups conducted as part of the research, young people often described experiences that can only be described as jarringly bureaucratic and impersonal. "We had to take a test," one young woman from New York told us. "It asked about all these scenarios and how you would react or what your preference was on a certain topic. It was terrible because it told me I should be a bus driver. They looked at that when you sat with your guidance counselor."
A young man from New York talked about how his guidance counselors prioritized their time on the basis of who they thought was more likely to go to college: "My guidance counselors didn't care about me. You could see other kids getting called in and being asked, 'What are you going to do after high school?' Those kids would come for college day with suits and ties, and their parents would come with them. Then there was everybody else." An individual from St. Louis echoed this view, saying he had given up on expecting the counselors' help because "they really don't care about you." He turned instead to his advanced biology teacher because "some teachers, they care … you can just tell."
Beleaguered and Overworked
These are harsh judgments—perhaps too harsh—of a group of professionals who must routinely feel besieged and overworked, scarcely able to keep up with the demands and expectations placed on them. The American School Counselor Association, a professional group representing the field, recommends a student-counselor ratio of 100 to 1 but points out that, on average, in public schools across the United States, the ratio is more than twice that—265 students for every counselor (Clinedinst & Hawkins, 2009). Some states have much higher ratios. In California, each counselor serves nearly a thousand students. In Minnesota, Arizona, Washington, D.C., and Utah, the numbers are above 700.
What's more, studies have shown that guidance counselors do not necessarily spend most of their time advising students (McDonough, 2004a, 2004b; U.S. Department of Education, 2004). Much of their day is devoted to administrative tasks, discipline issues, and untangling scheduling snafus, according to experts on the profession. Many counselors are involved in overseeing testing programs, along with lunch duty, attendance monitoring, and substitute teaching. Under the current system, public schools often seem to assume that counselors can juggle a whole roster of duties and still effectively assist hundreds of students in planning their futures.
This kind of system might have worked reasonably well when fairly small numbers of students went to college and a high school diploma was all that graduates needed to find a good job in manufacturing or to enter fields like firefighting or police work. But such a system is almost certain to misfire, given the rising numbers of students pursuing postsecondary education and an economy in which the vast majority of good jobs require some college or some kind of certification.
What Happens to Students?
Many students, especially those with college-educated parents, will get plenty of advice and considerable help thinking about different careers and different kinds of postsecondary education, making sure their high school coursework positions them to pursue their goals, and accumulating the financial resources they will need. In some families, planning for college and career begins the moment a child is born.
But not all students come from families in which college attendance is routine. Nearly 6 in 10 students in public schools are from families in which neither parent has completed college (U.S. Department of Education, 2008).
How does a less-than-optimal counseling process affect the lives and prospects of such students? Many factors go into a student's long-term educational success or failure, so it's neither fair nor accurate to blame a lack of good counseling for student disappointment later in life. Nevertheless, analysis of the Public Agenda study of young adults reveals some disturbing patterns that warrant a closer look. These suggest that students who don't have access to good counseling are not making the most advantageous choices about postsecondary education and work.
For example, compared with young people who say their counselors really made an effort to get to know them, those who say they felt like "a face in the crowd" when talking with their high school counselor are
- Less likely to say they chose their college because they believed that it would help them get a good job on graduation (48 percent versus 64 percent).
- Less likely to say that they chose their college on the basis of financial aid that was offered to them (32 percent versus 44 percent).
- More likely to say that they would have gone to a different college if money were not an issue (46 percent versus 35 percent).
- Less likely to say that they chose their college on the basis of its academic reputation (41 percent versus 51 percent).
- Less likely to go to college directly after high school (39 percent versus 54 percent).
A Striking Gap in the System
Our mission in reporting these results is not to bash counselors, who in many cases lack the support or time necessary to assist and counsel students adequately. Instead, our aim is to focus on a striking gap in the education system—one that students themselves recognize and take to heart.
When our survey asked young adults to rate a broad array of different ideas that might help them successfully complete college and other postsecondary programs, 72 percent said that "the opportunity to talk with advisors who know all about the different college and job training programs so you can make a good choice" would help a lot. Those numbers rise to 91 percent among black students and 83 percent among Hispanics. Among reforms and proposals that could help, improved advice and counseling in high school ranks at least as high as ideas like having better access to student loans, providing daycare for college students who are parents, and improving teaching at the college level so that the classes are more interesting and relevant.
What kinds of changes are we actually talking about? One possibility is to improve student-counselor ratios and relieve guidance counselors of some of the other chores they now assume. Another option would be to improve the preparation and training of counselors. Research has shown that counseling education programs do not include instruction or coursework on how to help parents and students navigate the financial aid system or on advising students about college selection, apprenticeships, or other postsecondary options (McDonough, 2004a). Relatively few public high schools require ongoing professional development for counselors (Clinedinst & Hawkins, 2009), so even this avenue for bolstering counselors' skills and knowledge is not widely available.
Asking More Fundamental Questions
Perhaps the moment has come to ask broader, more basic questions about how schools help students plan for their futures and what roles counselors, teachers, and others should play in that enterprise. Here are some questions educators may want to consider:
- When should students begin thinking about their overall education and career goals? Is high school too late? Or is it actually too early for some students?
- What kinds of opportunities should we provide for students to try out different ideas about their future careers? How can we give them multiple chances to reconsider and change their minds as their skills and personalities develop?
- Should we encourage all students to go to college? What do we actually mean by "going to college"? How can we ensure that students and their families have a chance to understand and think about a diverse set of options?
- What should we do when a student's academic skills simply do not match his or her career goals? How do we intercede to help such students prepare for what they say they want or to help them find another goal that will also lead to a satisfying and productive future?
Leaders in government, business, and education have set some ambitious college completion goals for the United States— namely, to have 60 percent of high school graduates complete a college degree or other certification program. (See, for example,
www.luminafoundation.org/goal_2005.) But what do public schools owe to the remaining 40 percent of graduates? Do we leave them to navigate their entry into the work force on their own? Should business or other institutions step in?
And what about the profession of counseling itself? Perhaps it's time to reimagine the counselor's role as one that extends far beyond laying out a menu of postsecondary programs for students to pore over. Should counselors be more specialized, with some focusing mainly on short-term issues like preventing students from dropping out of high school and helping troubled teens, while others focus on helping students plan their future education and careers? What can the profession do to individualize and personalize the services it offers?
Needed: Partners and Ingenuity
During the last few decades, schools have repeatedly taken on difficult new missions that range from assuming responsibility for preschool, afternoon, and summer programs to fighting child abuse, substance abuse, and obesity. Reenvisioning the counseling process— in fact, reenvisioning students' transition from school into their future lives—is another difficult challenge, and a historic one.
But schools don't have to do it alone. A wide range of allies and potential hands-on helpers exist—families, to be sure, but also institutions of higher education, the business community, professional associations, unions, philanthropic organizations, and community groups. (For examples of integrated efforts, see "Resources for Helping Students Transition to Higher Education" on p. 77.) The difficulty we all face in this enterprise is letting go of the staid, routine rituals of high school and garnering the ingenuity and resourcefulness required to consider a dramatically different approach.
Resources for Helping Students Transition to Higher Education
Admission Possible is a nonprofit organization that provides college advising services to more than 1,400 low-income students in the Minneapolis–St. Paul, Minnesota, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, metropolitan regions. Recently praised by President Obama for having sent 99 percent of its 2008 program participants to college, Admission Possible assists students in the college application process by offering after-school programming focusing on test preparation for the SAT/ACT college admission exams, intensive support in preparing college applications, help in obtaining financial aid, and guidance in the transition to college. The majority of program staff members are AmeriCorps members, and most are recent college graduates.
Talent Search, a federally supported outreach program, identifies disadvantaged youth who have the potential to excel in postsecondary education and provides comprehensive services to help them succeed in both secondary and postsecondary education. Program services include academic, financial, career, or personal counseling, including advice on entry or reentry to secondary or postsecondary programs; career exploration and aptitude assessment; tutorial services; mentoring; information on postsecondary education; exposure to college campuses; information on student financial assistance; assistance in completing college admissions and financial aid applications; assistance in preparing for college entrance exams; and workshops for participants' families.
Launched in 2007 by the American Council on Education, Lumina Foundation for Education, and the Ad Council, KnowHow2Go is a comprehensive multimedia campaign aimed at students from middle school through 12th grade. The program provides interactive tools to encourage students to go to college and to help them choose the right college, find financial aid, and get help from adults around them in applying to college.
Clinedinst, M., & Hawkins, D. (2009).
State of college admission. Alexandria, VA: National Association for College Admission Counseling.
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Johnson, J., Rochkind, J., Ott, A., & DuPont, S. (2009). With their whole lives ahead of them: Myths and realities about why so many students fail to finish college. New York: Public Agenda. Available:
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McDonough, P. (2004b). The school-to-college transition: Challenges and prospects. Washington, DC: American Council on Education, Center for Policy Analysis.
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Parent and family involvement in education, 2006–07 school year, from the National Household Education Surveys Program of 2007–2008. Washington, DC: Author.