Sunday, January 19, 2014

Wrong Question and Quick-Fixes

This past week, educational leaders met here in the Washington D.C. area to tackle the problem of assisting low-income students with the college process.  There were concerns ranging from students not understanding that they would be able to attend college at all, students not having enough support to navigate the lengthy college application and acceptance process, and students who are "under-matching," meaning that academically strong students are applying to and attending colleges and universities that are not perceived to be rigorous enough for the level of student.  Heavy issues, indeed, and ones to which all of us in education, in fact in society, should be giving thought.

However, from here the conversation and solutions seemed to have taken a course that has me concerned on a variety of levels.

As reported in this Washington Post article, one of the major solutions is to expand a program known as the College Advising Corps, a group of recent college graduates who go into identified low-income schools to serve as mentors and supports to students through the college selection, application, and admissions process.  Here is a link to the Virginia College Advising Corps, which includes program details as well as frequently asked questions which share information about the training and commitment expectations of the program.  In short, those selected to go into schools will be given a four-to-five week training, as well as continued professional development throughout the year.  The commitment for the program is two years.  One of the major points brought up in both the Post article as well as on the VCAC website is that the members of the corps are close in age to the students they serve in the schools:
"...students are 'more willing to listen to us than to a guidance counselor or teacher who is 30 or 40 years their senior.  Honestly, it's true.  We look like them, we talk like them. We kind of dress like them.'" (source:
Further, the Post article shares that the College Advising Corps is being expanded because:
"The corps aims to supplement what high-school counselors do.  Often those counselors have huge caseloads and are unable to give individual students enough attention." (source:
Additionally, to coincide with this education summit, the radio program Marketplace did a story about school counselors and college advising.  This report again highlighted the high counselor-to-student ratios as a barrier to more individualized student attention through the college admissions process.  However, it also brought in the concern of counselor training to support students in the college admissions process:
"'So by and large, most counselors are leaving their master's degree programs with no formal training at any level of depth about how to help student...' That means they're often unprepared to advise students on things like financial aid, or finding the right fit." (source:
This is further emphasized by an anecdote that Michelle Obama has been sharing about her own experiences with her former school counselors:
"...counselors warned her that she was too ambitious.  'They told me I was never going to get into a school like Princeton...I still hear that doubt ringing in my head.'" (source:
Based on this information, if we work backwards, we find that the question being answered here is:

Because school counselors lack strong training as it pertains to college advising and opportunity gaps and have limited time to work with individual students because of large case-loads, what new program and new personnel do we need to bring into schools to make sure our low-income students, and all students, are aware of the pathway to a college education?

I would challenge you to read that through a second time, because I am about to offer a different question.  To me, there seems to be an inherent disconnect in the question above.  Should the question not rather be:

Because school counselors lack strong training as it pertains to college advising and opportunity gaps and have limited time to work with individual students because of large case-loads, what can we do to insure better training both at the graduate level and school-district level as well as make sure that counselor-to-student ratios fall more in line with those recommended by the American School Counselor Association (1:250 at the high-school level), insuring more time for one-on-one academic and college advising and support?

These are very different questions in my mind, but perhaps not in those of others.  Why not have college advising taken on by groups of younger recently-graduated college students?

Why not, indeed.  First, let's compare the training of a College Advising Corps member to that of a certified school counselor.  Most states require that school counselors have around a 48 credit Master's degree that includes coursework in counseling theory, strategies, groups, assessment, ethics, etc.  This also includes a school counseling internship that typically lasts one full year where school-counselors-in-training are receiving almost daily supervision and advisement from supervisors within their school as well as at the university level.  Overall, school counselors, at a minimum, spend about two full years training to work independently in schools.  Additionally, ask any school counselor and they will tell you that their strong counseling skills and knowledge of ethics come into play on a regular basis as part of the college advising process, which can often involve social-emotional and family concerns beyond simply sharing college resources.  It is hugely important to see students within the context of many systems that intersect: college admissions, family, high-school, social-emotional concerns, etc.  College Advising Corps members have a four-to-five week training focused on college advising.  Secondly, according to their website, College Advising Corps members are in for about a two-year commitment.  As this New York Times article highlights, high-teacher turnover within schools offers diminishing returns over time.  It discusses how programs such as Teach for America, a program that trains young college graduates for five weeks and then places them in a school, with high-turnover, are a short-term solution to a long term problem.  School counselors often put down roots in the school communities that they serve.  They not only know a student for two years, but they may have known a student for four or more years.  Over time, school counselors get to know whole families, and are able to incorporate that knowledge and use those strong relationships built over time to better support students through the college-advising process.  Further, they have knowledge of the student and family within the context of their entire community, which again adds to the depth of understanding that they bring to the table as they explore post-secondary planning.  Third, College Advising Corps members, at least in Virginia, serve in high-schools.  Yet, we have come to know that the college exploration, advising, and planning process is one that begins prior to high-school, with recommendations even being made to start at the 6th grade level.  This is vital.  As students move from elementary to middle school, they begin to make choices about courses in math and world-languages that will have a direct impact on their high-school course sequence and transcript.  This in turn has a direct impact on their college admissions pathway.  College advising is not simply a two to three year process.  Rather, students and families need information, resources to include financial planning, and individual attention well before they enter 9th grade.  School counselors, because of their relationships within schools and communities, are well poised to provide that information and guidance.

This is not to say that I do not support the idea of groups such as the College Advising Corps working with students in schools.  There is always value in students being able to hear from and work with those who have recently been through the process, and who may have similar stories and backgrounds to theirs.  However, I worry that there are those that will come to see programs such as this not as a supplement to the work of seasoned and highly-trained school counselors, but eventually as a replacement.  There is a large difference between a program that is meant to support the work versus replace the work.  I would also challenge the notion in the Post article that students are less likely to listen to the thoughts and receive assistance from those who are older than they are.  I have seen school counselors in their sixties have strong relationships with students from all walks of life, and who bend over backwards to help low-income students access higher-education.  Those students, because they have had a relationship with their school counselor over many years, and because the counselor has built a strong reputation over time within the community, trust and value their expertise.  Further, there is a level of knowledge about the college admissions process that one gains the more years you support students and families and the more years that you interact with colleges and universities.  You begin to see trends.  You begin to see some of the nuances with particular schools.  You begin to build a network of trusted contacts at universities and in the field that can give you and your students straight-forward information in the moment so that families can make more informed decisions.  School counselors like Jeremy Goldman, quoted in the Marketplace segment, even visit college campuses as part of vacations in order to bring that information back to their students.  All students from all backgrounds and in all schools should have access to highly trained and experienced school counselors who are invested in their communities and students' post-secondary success.

Thus, we come back to the question I posed earlier, the one I think we should be asking versus the one that is being asked:

Because school counselors lack strong training as it pertains to college advising and opportunity gaps and have limited time to work with individual students because of large case-loads, what can we do to insure better training both at the graduate level and school-district level as well as make sure that counselor-to-student ratios fall more in line with those recommended by the American School Counselor Association (1:250 at the high-school level), insuring more time for one-on-one academic and college advising and support?

Here are some thoughts as to answers:
  • Training:  The time has come for CACREP, school counseling graduate programs, and school-districts to have serious conversations about the training school counselors receive in the post-secondary planning and college admissions process.  Given that this information is important at all levels of education, elementary through high-school, all school counselors would benefit from coursework that provides them with solid theory, resources, and considerations with regards to the needs of low-income and first generation students.  If graduate programs are unable to or unwilling to require and/or provide this training, then school districts need to look at their offerings and professional development to insure that school counselors are properly informed to support all students with post-secondary planning.  For example, in our district we provide opportunities to take coursework about college admissions, offer internships that place school counselors in college admissions offices from a variety of schools, and incorporate the goal of post-secondary planning into our regular professional development offerings.  In fact, a few weeks ago my co-resource counselor and I focused on "Closing Opportunity Gaps" as part of the academic advising process during a session with our new K-12 school counselors. This was an effort to get them to consider students who are "undermatching" with regards to coursework or college options and then provide appropriate guidance and resources to support their decision-making process.
  • Advocacy:  We are a maligned people, school counselors.  Sadly, Michelle Obama's story of being told she would not get into Princeton is similar to other stories I have been told by friends, colleagues, and families.  Additionally, from shows like Glee to movies like Easy A, we are consistently portrayed as incompetent, unethical, lazy, or worse.  Often, it is drawn from experiences and images of school counselors from one or two generations ago.  We must take charge and change this narrative.  In my new role, I am witness daily to the powerful work that school counselors are doing.  School counselors do not just have an impact on individual students, they are now having an impact on schools, academic success, and in communities as they use their training and the ASCA model to support student achievement and close gaps.  Where are the stories of school counselors who have helped low-income or first generation students navigate the college process?  Where are the stories of school counseling teams who have collaborated to tackle issues like "summer melt" or "opportunity gaps" with strong results that are supported with data?  They are out there, and yet we rarely hear of them within our own community, let alone the larger public.  Our ratios are high across the country, which does limit our ability to support students individually through the college process.  This will not change unless we are more able to demonstrate our effectiveness on a district, state, and national level.  I think of the counselors in Philadelphia, one of whom presented at the ASCA conference last summer.  She had done extensive work in supporting undocumented students through the college admissions process, with strong outcomes.  Her position was cut, and overall the students in Philadelphia are suffering as a result in this current admissions season.  On a micro-level, every school counselor needs to continue to find ways to share the work they are doing with their stakeholders--students, parents, teachers, administrators, and community members.  This is especially important as it relates to post-secondary outcomes. On a macro-level, we need to explore ways to begin to share our strong work with larger communities.
These solutions are not quick-fixes.  They will take time and many conversations in order for perceptions to change and for foundations to be laid.  However, over the long haul, better college-advising training for school counselors and a reduction in the average student-to-counselor ratio as a result of advocacy can result in better outcomes for students and more stable communities and resources for years to come. 


  1. Darrell: What a great article. the one thing I don't agree with is "Because school counselors lack strong training as it pertains to college advising and opportunity gaps "
    I know that many of my colleagues have had ongoing training in this regard. Although in our particular district we are grateful to have Career Practitioners to assist us. We could certainly use more to help us with this very important part of our Schoool Counselling role. We are fortunate to work together with our Career Practitioners in assisting students with what it is that they need to make decisions regarding post -secondary.

    I do agree that the school counsellor to teacher ratio impacts what we would like to do and what we can actually do " and we have limited time to work with individual students because of large case-loads, what can we do to insure better training both at the graduate level and school-district level as well as make sure that counselor-to-student ratios fall more in line with those recommended by the American School Counselor Association (1:250 at the high-school level), insuring more time for one-on-one academic and College and University advising and support?"

    As School Counsellors we have several responsibilities , a lower ratio not only helps with post secondary planning but assists us in being proactive rather than reactive.

    I look forward to working with school counsellors across the world to come up with solutions around issues that we have in common.

    I appreciate your honesty and thoughtful responses in addressing this important issue. Keep up the fantastic work.

  2. Thanks so much for your thoughts. The question I raise with regards to the training is the one I see the public raising, not necessarily one I hold entirely true myself. There are graduate programs that offer college advising programs, either as a requirement or as an elective, but they are few and far between, and I would venture to say that most have not had formal training on this topic prior to their work in schools. Most of what we learn is on the job, through practice and targeted professional development, gaining skills over time. I do think there would be benefit to having training on post-secondary planning, K-12, be more standard.

    Thanks so much, Susan!

  3. So well articulated, Darrell. Hardly surprised that something so thoughtful and eloquent as this comes from you. I'd be curious to know how ASCA is responding. We have a Career and College Planning Course in our Masters program; its more than many programs but still seems like not enough. I'm sharing your blog post with the instructor right now. Excellent my friend, excellent.

  4. In aspects I can agree - college advising is a component not all counselors receive. Some of us do go after it with great vigor though as part of our perceived duties and responsibilities as professionals. I use very trip I can take to interact with admissions and programs officers - looking for opportunities for my students. More importantly I share what I find with any and all who ask. We all need to continue looking for new information to share. We all need to look out for all students including that giant middle 50% as they will be the workers of the future who make our world work.
    Participating in our organizations learning opportunities is important but not all of us are allowed to participate.
    My principal emailed us all his first summer and every summer thereafter for Counselors to visit colleges, universities, and programs we passed by as we traveled. As I travel o the UP of Michigan I discovered there are a great number of routes and all have colleges & universities along the way; some really cool places and programs. Great opportunities; great locations, great financial aid support programs - there are amazing opportunities available out there. And, my trips are now a business expense.
    What is your standard set of questions for college representatives? Do you have one? I ask about match. I ask about options. I ask about pathways for that middle 50% - I will soon start asking about the bottom 50% - that forgotten group of students that most expect to go to work - forgetting that some are there because they are uninterested in college. I know of several who went to college because a college was interested in them and those few made excellent grades, graduating in four-years and are now pursuing employment or graduate school including medical school because college connected with them.
    That is what College Advising Corps needs to do also but as I read it unless the student sis in the lower SES that won't happen. Uninterested students occur in all levels of SES.
    You cannot just advocate for the lower SES - you need to advocate for ALL students at all levels because they are our future.
    They will be taking care of us as we retire.
    They are our future.
    When we succeed with them we are succeeding ourselves.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts! Indeed, we need to continue to find opportunities to share our experiences and knowledge with each other to help increase all school counselors' comfort level with this topic.
      You provide some great questions when talking to universities and colleges. I would also add first generation students, as schools have targeted and supportive programs for this group that can make a huge difference not only in getting students to apply to college, but in sticking with and finishing college. Yes, all students need support, and I think you bring up an excellent point in not forgetting those students in the "middle." A lot of smaller liberal arts schools are strong matches--socially, academically, and financially--for these middle students. However, they need school counselors who are aware of this fact and are able to help them to explore the field.
      Thanks so much!

  5. Well said, Darrell. An excellent response to a slew of ignorant comments generated from articles reporting about a gathering of educational and political leaders to discuss the fate of low income students attempting to further their education.
    I don't think there is a lack of training. I think most, if not all counselor education programs provide future school counselors with the tools and resources they need to develop a comprehensive counseling program for their school.
    It is my position that my job is to carry out my school district and school mission, which is to prepare my students to become lifelong learners. I concentrate on "getting kids OUT of high school" as opposed to "getting them into college.” I am PREPARING my students for the world beyond K-12. I am an expert in ASSISTING in processes. I provide the resources and tools so that students, can navigate the waters towards higher education, vocational school, or simply graduating from high school.
    I find it curious (and annoying) that the federal government is willing to throw money at the highest organization/project bidder instead of investing in what the system already has; well trained school counselors who know how to provide services to educate the whole child. <3

    1. Elissa,

      I too am concerned that school counselors were not brought up as a part of the solution. I do agree that we are trained to provide comprehensive services that impart life and learning skills to students. However, most school counselors receive little training about college and post-secondary planning as part of their formal graduate programs. We need to be mindful of the fact that the college process is not one that some families are at all familiar with, and for others the college process is based on their own experiences from twenty years ago. Not all students will go to a four-year college right upon graduating from high-school, but I think we have a responsibilility to make sure that this is because they were aware of all of their options and the choices needed along the way, not because they and/or their families did not have the information they needed to plan forward, starting even in late elementary school. Even for our students who do not go into a four-year school right away, many of them will apply to college at some point in their adult lives as they firm-up occupational decisions. That knowledge of the process is just as important for those starting it at 30 as it is for those doing it at 18.

      Thanks so much, Elissa!

  6. Darrell,

    Well said! I agree that the missing key components are large caseloads and lack of training. And again, not just training at the graduate school/licensure level, but ongoing. If counselors receive their only training pertaining to college admissions in grad school and then 25 years later are going by that same training, then woe to the student who is seeking help and expecting a professional who is competent with current-day trends. Kat Coy and I are making slow but significant steps in reaching out to colleges and universities in Tennessee. Additionally, we are looking at ways to enhance ongoing training at district levels and we encourage others to do the same.

    See you at ASCA where this discussion will continue at our breakout session on July 1 with Bob Bardwell and Blair Mynatt. Take care,

    Bev Anderson


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