Last spring, Public Agenda, a nonprofit research organization, released a report on behalf of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The report, entitled "Can I Get a Little Advice Here?" presented the results of a survey administered to 600 adults from 22 to 30 who had at least begun some form of higher education. The survey asked the respondents to reflect on the quality of their interactions with their high school counselors. When asked to evaluate their counselor's efficacy in helping find the right college, manage the application process, research scholarships and financial aid, and develop career awareness, most respondents gave their high school counselor a poor or fair rating. The most disappointing finding in the report was that nearly 50 percent of students said that, in relation to their experience with their school counselor, they felt like just another face in the crowd.
The vast majority of counselors that I have worked with are hardworking, caring and bright people who want to make a positive difference in the lives of their students. Most high school counselors work tirelessly to support students as they navigate the demands of high school and the challenges of adolescence. And so we must ask the million-dollar question: If counselors are working hard and caring about our students, then why are they getting such low marks from graduates?
First, we must look at caseloads. High student-to-counselor ratios preclude meaningful interactions and effective counseling. The American School Counselor Association recommends that student-to-counselor ratios do not exceed a ratio of 250:1, but the national average is 460:1, and in California, to give one example, the ratio can approach 1000:1. In addition, counselors are often assigned responsibilities that limit the amount of face-to-face time they have with students, and, in some schools, they essentially function more like support staff in the operations of the school. Counselors are often expected to complete application materials and process admissions forms, prepare and revise student schedules, manage student transcripts and graduation requirements, respond to attendance, grading and discipline concerns, and provide support for testing, registration and data collection. These are critical functions within the organization, but having counselors assume responsibility for them can certainly have an impact on how they are perceived by students. The survey by Public Agenda did not account for these counselor caseloads. If it had, I imagine that we would have seen a direct relationship between student perception of counseling and the studentto- counselor ratio.
Another critical issue is counselor training. As a graduate student, I studied personality theories, counseling and therapeutic techniques, group dynamics, psychopathology and educational research. But in practice, I have worked primarily as an academic case manager, a career and college counselor, a resource on educational policy and regulations, and a source of encouragement for students. Students who present with social or psychological maladjustments are referred to clinical specialists for therapy. Therefore, counselor training programs should instead focus on transition planning, understanding the complexities of college admissions, financial aid and scholarships, career development, educational policy and regulation, and the technologies supporting these processes.
The Counselor As Scapegoat
That said, in my years of counseling I cannot tell you how many times I have heard the same horror stories about guidance counselors: "My counselor told me I could not get into X College and I did!" "My counselor told me that all I could do was become a secretary and now, look at me. I am a CEO!" Although I am certain that counselors have said some terrible things to students, I now suspect that the story of personal triumph over the dimwitted guidance counselor has become just another slice of Americana. In popular media, the guidance counselor is often portrayed as the naysayer, the uncaring bureaucrat who is unavailable and unsupportive. Counselors are often the first to be blamed when things go wrong, but even this study shows that there are many other factors involved.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, fewer than 50 percent of college students receive a degree within six years. Participants in the Public Agenda study who did not complete a degree were asked additional questions related to their college experience. The researchers found that most students who drop out of college do so because (1) they cannot manage the demands of both school and work, (2) they are often fully responsible for the costs of attending college, and (3) they are more often enrolled in colleges that are convenient, rather than ones that meet their academic needs. In addition, most students who do not complete college do not fully realize the negative impact not having a degree will have on their future. These same students, having had such negative experiences, were then asked to evaluate their high school counselor, the educator who was supposed to find them the right school at the right price. It is no surprise to me that these students would hold their counselors responsible and give them poor ratings.
But in the end, it is clear that the issue of counselors helping students get into and succeed in college is far more than just inadequate services in school. It is systemic and fundamentally economic in nature. Those students with greater access to a variety of resources in high school are more likely to be successful in their endeavor to get a college degree. The student at the private academy who has both a college counselor and a guidance counselor, each appropriately trained and with caseloads below 100, is going to have far greater access than a student at a school with limited resources, where it is not uncommon for a counselor to serve as case manager to 500 students or more.
Christopher Griffin is the director of guidance for the Katonah-Lewisboro (N.Y.) School District.