Counselors Make a Difference

They have an impact on high school graduation and college enrollment, study finds.

May 11, 2020
(iStockphoto.com/SDI Productions)

The effectiveness of high school counselors has an impact on whether students graduate from high school and attend a four-year college. The impact is especially great with low-income students. And students benefit from having a counselor of the same race.

These are some of the findings of a new study, published in Education Next, by Christine Mulhern, a doctoral candidate in public policy at Harvard University.

For the study, Mulhern focused on Massachusetts because public schools in the state largely assign counselors to students by the students' last names. She examined 131 high schools for which she could link counselors to students, for a sample of 510 counselors serving 142,000 students.

She found that students assigned to counselors who are one standard deviation more effective than the median are two percentage points more likely to graduate high school, 1.7 percentage points more likely to attend a four-year college and 1.4 percentage points more likely to persist in college into a second year. The graduation rates of the colleges students choose to attend are also 1.3 percentage points higher.

A minority student assigned to an effective counselor is 3.2 percentage points more likely to graduate high school and 2.2 percentage points more likely to attend college that are minority students with white counselors.

"These results indicate that counselors may be an important resource for closing racial and economic gaps in college completion," Mulhern writes.

She adds, "In general, the counselors who are effective at improving high-school graduation are also effective at increasing college attendance. This may not be surprising since students must graduate high school in order to attend college. If, however, we expect that the marginal student induced by a counselor to graduate high school is unlikely to be a college attendee, it suggests that counselors who are particularly effective in boosting educational attainment are able to do so for different kinds of students."

And Mulhern concludes that having a counselor of the same race has a large positive impact. Nonwhite students with nonwhite counselors are 3.8 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school and attend college than they would be with a white counselor.

In an email interview, Mulhern said, "I think the main implication of the study as a whole is that counselors can be important resources for students and can have large effects on what their students do in high school and afterwards. The results on the same-race counselors indicate that there may be large benefits to hiring more nonwhite counselors in schools with many nonwhite students. The fraction of counselors who are white is much larger than the fraction of students who are white."

Share Article

Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

Back to Top