College Counseling Could Be Better: Just Ask Your School Counselor

cap and book

Credit: Patrick J O’Conner, The Chronicle of Higher Education

The recent wave of college admissions decisions shows more high school seniors applying to more colleges than ever before. This puts top-tier colleges in the position of rejecting more applicants than ever before, inevitably leaving disappointed students and parents to ask “What else could I have done?”, “Did I miss something along the way?”, and, often, “Was my school counselor really in a position to give me the best possible college advice?”

Two recent reports from respected voices in the education community indicate school counselors themselves would answer that last question with a resounding “No.” The College Board’s Annual Survey of School Counselors reports more than half of school counselors polled felt even marginally well trained for their work. In December, those findings were followed by a report from the Education Trust, in which less than half of all counselors surveyed felt they were positioned to advocate for the students they serve.

Both reports offer recommendations for improving the utility and effectiveness of school counselors, including one that screams with common sense: If school counselors are to help students and families make strong college and career decisions, universities that train counselors should provide them with the skills they need to complete these important tasks.

This recommendation speaks to a paucity of current training that is alarming, but not well known. Of the 450 colleges that offer counselor-training programs in the United States, fewer than 10 percent offer a separate course in college advising, and fewer than five programs require this course to be taken by all school counselors. Since counselors report that college readiness and advising take up to 20 percent of their time on the job, a vast majority of counselors effectively enter their chosen careers with a training void that leaves them ill-prepared to answer every question asked of them for one full day out of every work week—a void counselors say takes anywhere from five to 10 years of on-the-job training to even begin to fill.

It is equally dismaying that this absence of significant training has been identified in a number of polls, white papers, and articles that appeared long before the current College Board and Education Trust reports. Counselor educators have been made aware of this need for years, but every time a new study is released, they dismiss claims counselors are poorly trained by pointing to the strong ratings their programs receive from the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), the accreditation body that reviews many counselor training programs.

As for many other entities of higher education, the opinion of a training program that is held by fellow educators outweighs the opinion of the program’s utility by the recipients of their training. Since improved college and career training is of no concern to CACREP—and that is clearly the case—it is of no concern to counselor educators, no matter what counselors, parents, and students may think, and no matter how this lack of training affects our society’s competitiveness in the global economy.

The findings by the College Board and Education Trust may not be new, but there is hope this round of recommendations may lead to the changes needed in training programs and in school counseling offices to create brighter futures for our students and our country. The longstanding effects of a sluggish economy and ever-rising college costs are creating impatience among civic and business leaders for high school graduates who are career savvy and college ready. This pressure, combined with pressures from a taxpaying public and tuition-paying parents looking for a greater return on their investments, demands that state legislatures, state school boards, and universities make sure the educators best positioned to guide young people to better futures have the required training to make as big a difference as possible.

Policymakers at every level should be encouraged to adopt all of the recommendations of the College Board and Education Trust reports immediately, so school counselors can give our students—and our society—every opportunity to realize their full potential.