Push on Counseling

With less fanfare, the White House once again convenes a conference on getting more low-income students into college. The focus this time is college counseling. 

July 29, 2014

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. -- The White House’s higher education summit in January, as some critics described it, was all about appealing to the cameras.

The event, to be sure, drew mainstream headlines as President Obama exercised his “convening authority” to summon to the White House dozens of college presidents -- many of whom seemed pretty excited to come to Washington and snap photos of the president and first lady.

But the administration’s first public event following up on that summit, hosted here on Monday, was decidedly less publicity-focused. It was about digging into the trenches on school counseling: best practices in college counseling, how to better-train counselors, and how to harness new technology to help students.

The Obama administration gathered some 130 experts in college counseling at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to discuss ways to strengthen the individualized attention that students, especially low-income and first-generation students, need to help them apply for and enroll in college.

The event was billed as both a follow-up to the January White House summit aimed at boosting low-income enrollment in higher education as well as a continuation of the first lady’s initiative -- dubbed “Reach Higher” -- to promote college enrollment.  

Several panelists and presenters called for greater investment in school counseling. Many experts on educational attainment levels have noted that high schools that serve low-income students tend to have overworked counselors who must handle many more students than do their counterparts at wealthier high schools. The national recommended counselor-to-student ratio is one to 200; the actual national average is one counselor for every 471 students, and at some low-income schools that ratio can be as high as one per thousand. 

Like the January summit, Monday’s event was largely about how to make progress short of new federal resources.

“We certainly want to try to do all we can without new money, while at the same time looking for opportunities to create new money,” Undersecretary of Education Ted Mitchell told reporters after the event Monday.  He said the department was exploring ways to bolster counseling through existing federal programs, such as Title II funds, which are geared toward improving teacher and principal quality.

He also said that officials are looking for ways to “boost pre-service training and professional development counselors” in the teacher preparation regulations, a draft of which is due out later this summer.

In addition, Mitchell said, the department also wants to find ways to prod states and local school districts to increase funding. 

“We’re fighting against a decades-long disinvestment from states in counseling,” he said.

The White House’s January summit was criticized by some as focusing too heavily on the nation’s most selective four-year universities rather than the institutions that educate the vast majority of low-income students: community colleges and for-profit institutions.

James Kvaal, the deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, appeared to address those concerns in remarks at Monday’s event.

"I want to be clear,” he told attendees. “Four-year college degrees are important but so too are two-year college degrees and occupational training programs. Certificates often have great value in the workforce. So we’re talking about all of that.”

College counseling “is a key leverage point,” Kvaal said, because it touches on the academic, financial and informational barriers that students – especially low-income and first-generation students – face in going to college. “College counseling is one of the few tools we have that can address all three of those barriers at the same time,” he said.

Mandy Savitz-Romer, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who organized the conference, said that making college counseling more effective is a key bridge to making other higher education policies work, such as college ratings or the net price calculator.

Putting out more and better information to students and families is good, she said, but it is meaningless if they don’t have help interpreting it and personalizing it to their own situations.

Update on Pledges

The event also highlighted the progress of some of the commitments that the White House secured in January from companies and nonprofit groups that work in the college access field.

The Council for Opportunity in Education, for instance, said that it was about 40 percent of the way through its commitment to provide 200 new professional development opportunities for school counselors.

Complete College America, which pledged to scale its corequisite remedial education model -- that is, pairing remedial courses with enhanced academic support for students -- said that by 2015, three-quarters of its remedial education programs will have adopted that model.

The National College Access Network said that it had successfully collected data for a national benchmarking report on counseling that will be published this September. The group, which is a network of nonprofits devoted to helping increase college access, also contracted with a technology company that offers its members access to a texting system to communicate with students. (Studies have shown that text messages are particularly effective in keeping students engaged in the college admissions and financial aid process).

Administration officials also announced Monday that they had won a new commitment from San Diego State University to develop a new specialization in its education doctorate program that would train students in school counseling.

The new program would be the first such program in California and one of only a few similar programs nationwide, according to Trish Hatch, an associate professor at San Diego State who spearheaded the creation of the program.

The new program touched on another theme of the conference: recognizing the professionalization of the field of school counseling. Many presenters and participants said they appreciated the White House-level attention to their field.

Hatch called it a “miracle” that the Obamas had chosen to take up the school counseling issue.

Cheryl Holcomb McCoy, vice provost of faculty affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education, said that the Monday’s event marked “absolutely one of the most important days in school counseling.”

In using her bully pulpit to convince more students to apply to college and fill out the FAFSA, the first lady has become the nation’s “school counselor in chief,” said Eric W. Waldo, a policy adviser to Mrs. Obama. 

Waldo, who leads the Reach Higher initiative, noted that starting next year the White House plans to honor the School Counselor of the Year with the same Rose Garden ceremony it currently has for the Teacher of the Year.

The first lady also addressed a school-counseling group earlier this month. And Education Secretary Arne Duncan in June told high schools that they could use federal money under Title II of the Higher Education Act that is aimed at helping boost teacher and principal training to also enhance school counseling programs.

“In the 1980s, we had 'just say no to drugs,' ” Waldo said. “Mrs. Obama has 'just say yes to college.' ”

The White House and Education Department are also planning future events to follow up on some of the commitments that dozens of colleges and universities made at the January summit, officials said.

Mitchell, the under secretary of education, said that the next event would focus on remedial education and would follow up with the commitments colleges made in that area. 

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Michael Stratford

Michael Stratford, Reporter, covers federal policy for Inside Higher Ed. He joined the publication in August 2013 after a stint covering the Arkansas state legislature for The Associated Press. He previously worked and interned at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine and The Chronicle of Higher Education. At The Chronicle, he wrote about federal policy and covered higher education issues in the 2012 elections. Michael grew up in Belmont, Mass. and graduated from Cornell University, where he was managing editor of The Cornell Daily Sun.

Follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/mstratford.

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