Reducing the Role of Wealth in College Access Through Counselor Training

Counselors see the impact of economic inequality but need more help to reduce its impact, writes Patrick O’Connor.

November 19, 2018

A new article is out, reminding us it’s generally easier to apply to college if you’re rich. Inside Higher Ed’s coverage of the Harvard University admissions trial reviews a 2016 column written by Jon Boeckenstedt of DePaul University. In the article, Boeckenstedt argues something as fundamental as a teacher letter of recommendation can be influenced by the ability of children of wealthier families to attend schools where teachers have smaller class sizes and fewer students.

Those differences alone give teachers the opportunity to get to know students better and more time to craft their college letters. Combined with the access these teachers have to workshops where they can further hone their writing skills -- workshops often run by admissions officers of elite colleges -- and it’s easy to see how the quality of the letter, in both content and style, could raise its value as part of a college application.

Coverage of Boeckenstedt’s article is the latest of a number of issues raised on social media regarding the many advantages wealth can bring to the college selection process. Counselors and admissions officers have pointed out the advantages wealthy students have in:

  • The quality of the schools they attend.
  • The tutors they have access to who support their understanding of subject matter.
  • The coaches and tutors available to them to help them with SAT and ACT prep.
  • The coaches and other helpers who can help them craft stronger college essays.
  • The counselors at their schools whose sole job is to assist with the college selection process.
  • The independent college counselors who can also help them with the college selection process.
  • The means to visit college campuses, to express greater demonstrated interest in the college.
  • The means to apply to college without requiring financial aid, often placing them in a special category at schools that consider ability to pay as part of the admissions process.

As is the case with the leg up these students enjoy with letters of recommendation, none of these factors come as a surprise to anyone who’s worked in the college admission profession for more than a few years. At the same time, familiarity with the problem does not lend any special insight into its resolution. Even an admissions officer as highly respected as Jon Boeckenstedt confides in his op-ed, “I’m at a loss to recommend exactly what might replace these letters” that wouldn’t be just as biased by the wealth of the student.

Lack of a solid answer to leveling the playing field isn’t deterring colleges from trying. The number of colleges no longer requiring SAT or ACT test results as part of the admissions process is perpetually on the rise, recently breaking the 1,000 threshold. Some colleges have devalued or eliminated demonstrated interest as a factor in their admissions process, recognizing that some students simply don’t have the resources to visit a campus that’s more than a few hours from home. Many colleges have also reduced the expense of applying to college by allowing students to self-report their ACT or SAT scores, rather than paying for official tests scores that have to be sent by the testing agency.

A new report from Penn State suggests another partial solution to the role wealth plays in college access lies in how school counselors are trained to assist students with college choices. Beth Gilfillan’s report on college readiness counseling examines the research results of four key areas associated with effective college counseling: understanding what students need from such counseling, responsibilities of school counselors, benefits of additional counselor training in college readiness, and counselor advocacy of students in the college readiness process.

The section on additional counselor training in college readiness yields two important pieces of information that could go a long way in evening out the economic differences among students looking to go to college. The most notable conclusion in this section is Gilfillan’s research-supported statement that “school counselors rarely receive training in college readiness counseling during their master’s program in school counseling.”

Gilfillan goes on to say that most counselors report any substantive training in college counseling occurs through professional development activities they have access to as practicing school counselors. This puts school counselors in the same situation as Boeckenstedt’s teachers writing their letters of recommendation -- those lucky enough to work in schools with small caseloads have greater time and access to the workshops and seminars where they learn their craft.

Gilfillan’s second observation is equally jolting, when she concludes “a concrete set of standards on college readiness counseling is lacking, making it difficult to teach or plan professional development.” This proves especially challenging to those in charge of counselor training programs. Even if they wanted to include a course in college counseling as part of a degree program, there is on clear consensus on what would go in that course, or how it should be taught.

No clear road exists in reducing the influence of wealth in college admissions, but there are some tangible, and simple, steps that can be taken now to take up the cause. It should go without saying that graduate programs preparing school counselors need to reconsider their commitment to college access and opportunity by developing required courses focused solely on college counseling. Existing models of instruction may be less than perfect, but they are a place to make a start that is long overdue.

This is especially important to school counselors who will take up their work in schools where they will be working with large caseloads, and with students who will be the first in their families to go to college. The results of professional development programs on these topics clearly show adequate counselor preparation can reduce these hurdles, provided the counselor is given the opportunity to explore and develop effective strategies before they arrive in a school. That is the very purpose of a graduate course in college counseling.

As these courses are put into place, it will be vital for their growth and success to develop the concrete standards of college counseling Gilfillan identifies as lacking. One of the outcomes of the college access initiative started in the Obama administration was the creation of the Council of National School Counseling and College Access Organizations. In its early stages, the nine-member council was looking forward to the creation of college counseling standards that had been promised by the Obama administration. The rollout of these standards was delayed several times, and the effort never came to fruition.

Since it is unlikely the deregulatory mind-set of the current administration will advance efforts to create a common set of college counseling standards, the council would do well to take up this work, utilizing the experience and research of its customers and members to guide their development. Until then, this outcomes-based list of competencies for school counselors in college counseling can guide the efforts of counselor educators hoping to increase college opportunities for all students, and decreasing the biases inherent in the existing college admissions process. This may be only one part of a larger solution, but it is an essential step in the right direction.


Patrick O’Connor is associate dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and teaches one of the few graduate courses available in college counseling.


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