High school counselors play a key role in helping students prepare for college and find a college that will be a good fit for their goals. Yet many school districts finance counseling with minimal resources, leaving some counselors with hundreds of students to advise. Meanwhile, wealthy and many middle-class families turn to private counselors.
How can all students receive the counseling they deserve? That's the topic of Fulfilling the Promise: Reimagining School Counseling to Advance Student Success (Harvard Education Press). The author is Mandy Savitz-Romer, a former high school counselor who is the Nancy Pforzheimer Aronson Senior Lecturer in Human Development and Education at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.
She responded via email to questions about her new book.
Q: What do you see as the essential failings of the current model of school counseling?
A: The state of school counseling is hard to characterize because of its variability. There are many places where school counselors are front and center supporting students through classroom lessons, data-driven approaches, managing community-based partnerships and providing leadership to create college-going cultures. At the same time, there are perhaps more places where counselors’ work is guided by a model developed over 30 years ago. And, instead of applying the innovative approaches above, they are putting out fires, managing administrative duties and spending inordinate amounts of time on testing.
To date, we have attempted to solve the problem of a gap in access to a postsecondary credential by adding services. The problem has been framed as this: "counselors are overworked, untrained and don’t have time to provide college counseling, especially to those who are first in their family to attend college." Because the problem has been framed this way, the solution -- adding services with nonprofit programs, implementing advisory curricula, creating partnerships with universities -- makes sense. Unfortunately, that has led to a fragmentation of services that has yet to show any real progress, especially among black, Latinx and Native American students. And worse, we failed to address the real problem: that counselors are overworked, untrained and don’t have time for the very thing that drew them to the profession in the first place. Thus, we have professionals with master’s degrees managing testing and then adding new programs to compensate for the lack of progress.
There have been some efforts to improve school counseling practice. There is a national model that guides many in the profession and innovative programs and initiatives scattered around the country. However, these reforms remain largely invisible to these outside the profession (i.e., school and district leaders, policy makers, and philanthropists). This must become a shared responsibility among educators and policy makers.
Q: Ratios of counselors to students vary widely and are almost uniformly above the recommendations of experts. Can real reform happen without more counselors?
A: We certainly have a numbers problem. It is simply untenable to expect a student to have their needs met when they need to compete with upwards of 800 peers for time with a counselor. Even when that number is 400, it is hard to imagine counselors being able to form the types of trusting relationships that are needed for counselors to do their job well.
However, more counselors alone will not ensure that all students have access to the supports they need to thrive in school and in life. Put another way, placing more counselors in an outdated system might reduce the workload of counselors, but it will not translate to an equitable system that reduces inequality. And I believe school counselors are the right people to create that kind of system.
We know that counselors in some districts, particularly those that educate a high concentration of students from low-income communities, spend inordinate amounts of time on administrative duties, crisis response and testing. This stands in stark contrast to more affluent areas, where counselors are able to dedicate more time and attention to students’ postsecondary planning or social-emotional classroom lessons. Addressing glaring opportunity and achievement gaps is going to require that we position counselors to identify students who are struggling or off track and connect them to supports and interventions either in schools or the community.
Q: In many school districts that serve low-income students, students are not guided into rigorous courses that would prepare them for college. How can counseling change to encourage more of these students with the ability to take more challenging courses?
A: There is a great deal counselors could do, and in some places, are doing to address this. For starters, counselors can work with students early in high school (or before!) to see themselves as capable of doing advanced-level work. They can help students understand the benefits of taking on challenging course work, even if it means struggling.
Related to this, counselors need time and space to raise students’ future aspirations and educate them about what steps are needed to realize those goals. Ensuring this happens early can widen the pool of students who choose to take college-preparatory courses.
To avoid bias or discriminatory practices, school counselors should access and use data and early-warning indicator systems to identify who is and, importantly, who is not enrolling in these classes. Counselors can then examine patterns in course taking, or any college preparatory steps, to ensure that students are not missing out on these important opportunities. Finally, students often struggle in rigorous course. Counselors can help students and teachers identify barriers to learning and achievement and work with them, and families, to mitigate them.
But for counselors to do these things, they need to know their students so that they are better able counsel them. Simply telling students to take challenging courses is insufficient. However, encouragement amid a trusting relationship will go a long way.
Q: How should college counseling in high schools change?
A: Simply put, we need a system for how college counseling is delivered. Today, we have a fragmented approach that works really well for some students and not at all for others. Especially in school districts that educate low-income students, we have become program rich and system poor.
A system that is driven by a clear vision, monitored using data, developmental in scope, achieved through partnerships with community partners and aligned with other educational priorities is sorely needed.
We need to clarify what we want school counselors to do in the college counseling domain, and what we want to call on others from community programs to do. We further need to articulate how these programs and people will work together to form an efficient way to support students from early aspirations to final decisions and transitions. We don’t need more people helping students fill out college applications. We need counselors to have early and often conversations with students about their sense of purpose, their future-oriented identity and their career interests, and then they need to call on peer mentors to provide specialized support filling out the paperwork. We need counselors to build trusting relationships with students so that they can have conversations about personal issues that are getting in the way of their learning or succeeding in rigorous course work so that counselors can connect them to more intensive counseling or interventions. We need counselors to lead classroom lessons on career exploration and education so that students are poised to take advantage of work-based learning and career pathway opportunities taking shape in many places around the country.
What was needed from counselors in 1970 is quite different from what we need today. Today, a counselor is just as likely to help an undocumented student figure out how to access funds for college as they are to support a student who is questioning their sexuality. School counselors need to be positioned in schools and trained to do both of these things. The needs are different and thus, the role needs to be, too.
Q: Many parents who can afford to do so hire private counselors to guide them through the college admissions process. What do you think of this trend?
A: In short, this trend is a result of parents’ growing anxiety about getting their child into the “right” college and growing concerns about our state of school counseling. Of course, both need to be addressed, however, the consequence is one of further stratification. As a society, we seem to have grown comfortable with the fact that private schools retain veteran, highly trained college counselors, whereas students in underperforming schools are provided counselors that are overworked, poorly trained and managing testing. And to compensate for that, we’ve assigned them young adults from nonprofit programs that at best serve a small percentage of students. To be clear, I am a fierce advocate for student-led and near-peer supports. However, in no way can they compete with a seasoned, dedicated school-based college counselor or a private college counselor who has been hired by parents. The personalized supports that are characteristic of private college counselors should not be limited to those with the most means. Students who experience poverty likely need more personalized supports to develop the aspirations, purpose, skills and plans to attain a postsecondary degree. And yet, they get less.
At the end of the day, ensuring that all students have access to higher education is going to require that we take the bumpier road -- fixing the system. The good news is that with all of the supplemental programming and community programs, counselors who are eager to be part of the solution, and public interest in making a college degree more attainable, we have many of the right parts -- we just need to build the system. And I believe that can only happen by making changes to how school counselors perform their jobs.