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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 03/ 6/2010

The link between counselors and kids going to college

By Valerie Strauss

According to a new survey:

High school counselors are overworked! Too many aren’t well trained! Lots of kids think their counselors don’t really know them! Seniors are left alone to navigate the college admissions process! Something must be done yesterday!

Those were key conclusions of the study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (what doesn’t that foundation fund?) and conducted by the nonpartisan, nonprofit research group Public Agenda. [Disclosure: Melinda Gates is a member of the Washington Post Company's Board of Directors.]

The report, entitled “Can I Get A Little Advice Here: How an Overstretched High School Guidance System Is Undermining Students’ College Aspirations,” is the second in a Public Agenda series on college completion.

Good research on all aspects of education is vital to understanding what works and doesn’t work for different populations of students, and how systems need to be changed to meet the needs of young people. It is one of the great laments in the education world that a good deal of its research is problematic--the samples are too small to have any broad application, the methodology is questionable, the folks doing the research have a stake in its outcome, etc.

There are times, too, when you wonder why some research studies were untaken in the first place when the conclusions are as plain as day. I would put this study in that category.

We learn, in Finding 1 of the study, that: “Most students, even those who successfully complete college, give their high school guidance counselors fair or poor ratings.”

Sixty-seven percent of respondents (614 people aged 22 to 30) gave their high school counselors fair or poor ratings for helping to decide which school was right for them. Fifty four percent gave them poor or fair ratings for explaining and helping with the application process. And 48 percent reported that in regard to their experiences with high school counselors, the student “usually felt I was just another face in the crowd.”

Well, they WERE just another face in the crowd, through no fault of their counselor's.

According to the 2009 State of College Admissions report issued last year by the non-profit National Association for College Admission Counseling, 45 percent of public school counselors and 17 percent of private school counselors indicated that the student-to-counselor ratios at their schools increased for this school year.

That ratio already was high when the year started. According to the association’s 2008 Counseling Trends Survey, the average high school student-to counselor ratio--including part-time staff, was 246 to 1.

The 2009 admissions report said that public school counselors reported, on average, an increase of 53 more students each for the 2009-10 year. Private school counselors reported, on average, an increase of 16 students.

That’s a lot of kids for one person to shepherd through the college admissions process, which includes making sure they write essays, fill out all the forms, solicit teacher recommendations, take admissions tests, learn about financial aid, etc.

Counselors also send transcripts for each student to multiple schools, chase teachers to complete grade changes when required, and on and on. College admissions isn’t the only thing they have to do. There is, for example, the little job of helping kids decide what courses to take during high school, partly so they can get into college.

The new study also reports this: Nearly 1 in 5 young adults who believe they were badly counseled delay going to college.

There’s no reason to think that isn’t true. There is a big question, though, about cause and effect. Do we know whether bad counseling was the reason? No.

The study does point out, once again, a truism about education that policymakers tragically seem to forget: Students whose parents have four-year degrees are more likely to themselves be successful in a four-year college or university.

Indeed, the best indicator of student success is the home they came from. If policymakers really understood that, school reform efforts wouldn’t be focused on standardized tests.

The new study on counselors concludes that the whole system of counseling should be improved, and notes that many counselors need training. While teachers are required to take professional development courses to stay abreast of new trends in their fields, most states and districts do not require the same of guidance counselors, the study reports.

But is this news?

Yes, it is long past time that those people in education who have the power to beef up the guidance systems in schools paid attention to these issues. Writing reports does help raise public awareness, but in this case, the public that matters already knows the problems.

Perhaps it would be better at this point to use the money that might be spent on more studies to instead hire and train more counselors.


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By Valerie Strauss  | March 6, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  College Admissions, High School  | Tags:  high school counselors  
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That was about the ratio when I was in high school, but that doesn't excuse everything. During a routine conference, I indicated I wanted to commute to a local college--the counselor immediately suggested the branch campus of a state university. It had just opened a year or two before and consisted of two building with a vending machine for the food service. I mentioned the private religious college (not my religion) where I had taken summer courses and already had 6 hours of credit; the counselor brushed that aside with a remark about only studying with priests and nuns. (Not true--in four years I was taught by one lay brother, one former lay brother, and the rest were non-religious personnel.)

Additionally, a friend of mine being raised by an aunt and uncle asked the counselor's help in tactfully getting her aunt to help her lose weight. (The aunt was much older than the girl's parents and had some outdated ideas about nutrition; my friend realized it was a generation gap and was asking how she could update her aunt's knowledge without offending her.) When she got home that afternoon she found the guidance counselor had called the aunt to say she wasn't feeding the girl properly and the aunt was very hurt.

Maybe counselors do have too many students, but driving them away be violating confidences or giving inaccurate advice will solve that problem quickly.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | March 6, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

It is more important for high school guidance counselors to help the student through high school, by helping the student choose the right classes so they have the necessary prerequisites to apply to college. Just having enough credits to graduate is not enough. This is most valuable in the current economic environment, when so many schools are cutting back on teachers, sometimes eliminating certain classes entirely.

Most schools have career counselors - these are the people who can provide information and assistance with college applications.

Posted by: leuchars | March 6, 2010 3:11 PM | Report abuse

Speaking as someone who was a "special needs" student throughout HS & college, I can attest to the truth of these conclusions. Far too often I found myself in the role of being a pathfinder for my fellow students who did not have to cope with a variety of problems that I had to deal with right away.

I would have made some better decisions about my career had I gotten a bit better guidance at some key points.

Posted by: Nymous | March 6, 2010 10:51 PM | Report abuse

As an educational consultant, I have a lot of empathy for high school counselors. I believe, however, that many parents are turning to educational consultants for help with the college admissions process because they do feel their students need more time and attention. Educational consultants have the expertise to assist students with their college search, applications and essays and advise them throughout the college planning process. They will always work with the high school counselor and consider him or her a vital part of the college application process.

Susie Watts
College Direction

Posted by: collegedirection | March 6, 2010 11:29 PM | Report abuse

As a Professional School Counselor who was riffed at McKinley Technology HS in DCPS on November 2, 2009, I strongly believe an effective comprehensive educational program must consists of a certified school counselor in all schools for students' success. In addition, it is critical to have 4 certified school counselors on the high school level to meet each student's academic needs, social/personal development, college and career preparation. I'm confident that certified professional school counselors are the heart of education and impact students performance.

Question: Why did Rhee riffed over 22 certified professional school counselors in DCPS, especially on the secondary level?

Very Concerned!!!!

Posted by: sheilahgill | March 7, 2010 12:13 AM | Report abuse

My high school counselor was in a word, useless.

Posted by: maus92 | March 7, 2010 12:56 AM | Report abuse

The whole counseling process is typically not very good in high school. However, from experience I will tell you it is even worse in college.. I think that is the reason so many kids do not graduate in 4 years. So I think learning to be proactive is important. There is a great series of articles written by a mom of 4 college kids that covers the whole process from her point of view: They are interesting and helpful. Parents have to help, you just don't want to hijack the process.

Posted by: amy3e | March 7, 2010 6:54 AM | Report abuse

When I taught test prep, I started every class with a brief talk that boiled down to "Never, ever, EVER trust a single thing your high school counsellor tells you. Ask them for evidence, or find it on your own. In absence of supporting data, figure they don't know what they are talking about."

In my son's high school, I directly assisted close to a dozen kids who had been given flatly false information about UC admissions policy. I have emails from Kaplan students through the years, forwarding their high school counsellor's advice that was profoundly wrong.

And their opinions! My lord, they're absurd. One of my students is graduating from Harvard this year. Her exclusive private school high school counsellor told her she should consider UC Santa Barbara her desirable school, and UC San Diego her "stretch" school.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | March 7, 2010 11:56 AM | Report abuse

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