Tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma … That is why we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal: by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.
President Obama said these words during his 2009 State of the Union address. K–12 educators and higher education officials were ecstatic to hear a president talking their talk. President Obama didn't just give facile praise to the 3.29 million U.S. students who head off to college every year (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2008)—he raised the bar to encourage more citizens to further their education.
It's heartening to hear the president support universal postsecondary education so forcefully. But do we have the supports in place to achieve this goal? Specifically, do U.S. schools have enough counselors so that all students can explore college or career training? Navigating the college application process and finding money for tuition are tricky; most students need help. Within schools, counselors are the single most important professionals in terms of improving students' college-going rates (McDonough, 2006). Yet many schools simply don't have enough school counselors to help students with postsecondary plans.
In 2010, the average student-to-school counselor ratio in the United States was 459 to 1; the American School Counselor Association (n.d.) recommends a ratio of 250 to 1. At schools with high student-to-counselor ratios, advising is more limited and is often reactive rather than proactive (Perna et al., 2008).
Compounding the problem is the fact that most counselors have a limited amount of time for college-counseling activities. According to the National Association for College Admission Couseling (NACAC, 2008), high school counselors spend, on average, 29 percent of their time on college counseling (23 percent in public schools and 58 percent in private schools). Even in schools that have a decent student-to-counselor ratio, counselors are consumed by such activities as test administration, substitute coverage, or paperwork. This is especially a problem in terms of guiding low-income students because the school counselor is often the only adult to provide them such information (Cabrera & LaNasa, 2000). In more affluent communities, counselors generally have more time, and most private schools have counselors whose only job is college advising (NACAC, 2008). Ironically, the students who need help most get the least.
Even when a school has enough professionals with the time to give most students guidance on postsecondary plans, willing counselors may not be able to provide well-informed help. Many school counselors don't receive adequate preparation in the area of college-admission counseling. In 2004, only 66 percent of school counselors reported that they had received any kind of training in how to help with the college search and application process during the past year (NACAC, 2004). Only 24 percent said they had taken graduate coursework in this area.
Nor do things look better from the students' point of view: A 2010 study by Public Agenda found that 48 percent of young adults surveyed believed that their school counselor was of little to no assistance in their college search. They felt their counselor treated them like another face in the crowd (Johnson, Rochkind, Ott, & DuPont, 2010).
On the positive side, school counselors and administrators care about helping youth set college as a goal and attaining it. There are things that administrators and school counselors can do to improve the college-going culture in their schools, despite a lack of resources. But we'll need to try different approaches.
Invite the Village to Explore
The phrase "it takes a village" is certainly true when it comes to supporting students' pursuit of higher education. Parents, students, teachers, administrators, business community members, and higher education officials must cooperate in developing an action plan. They must together identify local resource gaps or barriers to higher education—and compose a plan to create solutions.
Working together through existing advisory groups or a new committee, these stakeholders should examine college-going rates of different schools or communities in their area, looking for patterns. To identify which existing programs do or don't work, they should survey community youth. Which students have been most successful and persistent? What helped them? Why did certain groups of students choose not to pursue college? What might have been done differently in middle and early high school to change their minds?
School counselors should lead such efforts at least once a year to ensure that administrators, parents, and business partners use current information as they design and implement programs.
Sometimes studying data is the last thing school counselors want to do. I've heard school personnel say, "I didn't go into this profession to crunch numbers. I want to help students." But if we care about getting kids to college, we can no longer avoid collecting, analyzing, and reporting key data points that affect students' ability to gain access to education.
To better support all students' pursuit of college or high-quality career training, counselors and administrators should look at course enrollment patterns. Is a representative sample of students taking courses needed to pursue postsecondary education? Are girls and students of color enrolling in math courses? Do all students have the opportunity to learn a foreign language?
Math and English faculty and counselors might together review students' results from college admissions tests. They may see, through item analysis, areas in which the existing curriculum supported success and areas in which students struggled on standardized tests. To close the gaps, teachers can then introduce new topics into the curriculum. It's also good to examine data on graduates of the areas' schools, including which colleges accepted students with various qualifications. Counselors and teachers can then sketch the profile of a typical successful applicant for each college.
Launch Innovative Programs
It's essential to get into the hands of students and families information on how to select and apply to colleges. Sometimes we have to do this more than once through attention-grabbing formats. Consider sponsoring a career-and-college-awareness week at middle and high schools, filled with activities like these to expose students to new information:
- Field trips to local or regional college fairs.
- Evening programs for parents about the basics of the college application and admission process.
- Speakers who cover such topics as writing a great college essay, understanding financial aid, or completing the Common Application online.
Some schools conduct a friendly competition centered on postsecondary options, for example, the best door display highlighting a college or career. A display could include information about costs for the nearby state university, demographics for typical attendees, and a list of its strongest majors and activities. Bring in celebrity judges, such as noted alumni, district administrators, or community business leaders. Create opportunities for all students to explore the information showcased through the contest.
Another way to get attention is to bring recent alumni back to speak to students about their college experiences. Try January programs for freshmen and sophomores and a May program for seniors focused on surviving the stress of the transition into college.
Changing a school's culture to promote pursuit of postsecondary education should be a K–12 responsibility. Counselors can deliver developmentally appropriate lessons at any grade level on such topics as how to set career goals; different types of colleges (such as community versus four-year, private versus public); and the relationship between education attainment and income. These efforts will communicate early on the expectation that all students must be career- and college-ready by high school graduation.
Besides traditional lessons, try providing activities like these:
- A career or college fair for elementary and middle school students.
- Exploratory and hands-on programs that showcase a particular career cluster.
- A College Pride day for which faculty wear a sweatshirt or other fashion item from their alma mater.
Reach Out to Underserved Groups
Some groups, such as students with learning disabilities, first-generation college goers, English language learners, and undocumented students or families, will need targeted programs that deliver information and encouragement about postsecondary options in a clear and convincing way. Schools might
- Host a potluck dinner for first-generation college-going students and their parents that includes presentations—in families' native languages when possible—on the college application process. Emphasize the importance of college in a fun way, such as by creating a trivia game of facts about local colleges or aspects of the college application process for the group to play.
- Partner with community groups to translate programs and materials for ethnic groups.
- Ask students who have either successfully completed college or are currently in a postsecondary program to mentor youth who need extra attention.
President Obama's admirable goal will never be achieved without significant changes in how we deliver career and college counseling services. Schools must get past the idea that only counselors, using traditional one-on-one visits, can point students toward postsecondary options. Let's keep our focus on doing more with less so we can guide all students, and guide those who want to go into college successfully down that route. There's too much at stake not to.
American School Counselor Association. (n.d.). Student-to-school-counselor-ratios. Alexandria, VA: Author. Retrieved from www.schoolcounselor.org/content.asp?pl=655&contentid=655).
Chronicle of Higher Education. (2008) Almanac Issue, 55(1).
Cabrera, A. F., & LaNasa, S. M. (2000). Understanding the college process. New Directions for Institutional Research, 107, 5–22.
Johnson, J., Rochkind, J. Ott, A. N., & DuPont, S. (2010). Can I get a little advice here? New York: Public Agenda.
McDonough, P. (2006). Counseling and college counseling in America's schools. In Fundamentals of College Admission Counseling (2nd ed., pp. 2–21). Alexandria, VA: NACAC.
NACAC. (2004) State of college admission report. Alexandria, VA: Author.
NACAC. (2008). State of college admission report. Alexandria, VA: NACAC.
National Center for Education Statistics. (2003). High school guidance counseling. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2003/2003015.pdf.
Perna, L. W., Rowan-Kenyon, H. T., Thomas, S., Bell, A., Anderson, R., & Li, C., (2008). The role of college counseling in shaping college opportunities: Variations across high schools. The Review of Higher Education, 31(2), 131–159.
Robert Bardwell is a school counselor and director of guidance and student support services at Monson High School in Monson, Massachusetts.
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