It’s been a little over a year since Michelle Obama brought school counselors and the important work they do into the spotlight as never before. Speaking before the annual meeting of the American School Counselor Association, Mrs. Obama brought attendees to their feet when she recognized the important role school counselors play in the lives of students, and the impossible demands placed on their time.
In sharing her Reach Higher initiative, Mrs. Obama also announced a new directive from the Department of Education, encouraging school administrators to offer more relevant professional development to counselors immediately, because “our secretary of education knows that every school counselor in this country should have quality, relevant professional development opportunities, end of story.”
Other components of the Reach Higher initiative -- College Decision Day and the Counselor of the Year celebration at the White House -- are off to an impressive start, but efforts to create new course work and professional development have stalled. No state met Secretary Arne Duncan’s call for increased professional development for current school counselors by last September.
In addition, a 2012 report from Harvard University states “Although graduate course work varies by state … specific course work in higher education or college counseling is rarely required, if even offered.” Less than 10 percent of counselor graduate programs currently offer specific course work in college counseling, as identified by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and the number of new programs adding such a course in the last year is less than a dozen.
Some counselor educators -- those charged with training school counselors -- have responded to this call by insisting a course focused on college counseling is unnecessary. As long as the essential college counseling skills are taught at some point in graduate school, they argue, what’s the value of a focused course?
Those making this argument are unaware of the pressures school counselors are facing in today’s high schools, and in today’s job market. To begin with, a good number of counselor training programs aren’t teaching essential skills in college counseling at any point in their programs. College Board surveys show a clear majority of school counselors report the college counseling training they received in graduate school was inadequate. Combined with surveys of recent high school graduates showing deep dissatisfaction with the college advice their counselors had to offer, the time is now for graduate programs to find ways to emphasize the importance of college counseling in counselor training, since more is being expected from school counselors in this vital area.
Counselors feel particularly undertrained in essential areas such as advising students on how to pay for college, prepare for college tests like the ACT and SAT, develop a rigorous high school schedule that builds college readiness, and complete the basic elements of a college application, including college essays. They also want a greater awareness of the wide array of college options available to students, such as colleges where students take one class at a time, colleges that don’t require any test scores as part of the admission process and colleges that have a proven track record of supporting students with unique talents and needs. Given the increased competition for entrance into many colleges, and the increased financial resources families are devoting to college completion, a graduate course for counselors focused on the rudimentary components of college counseling is no longer a luxury -- it is a must.
An additional consideration for a required course in college counseling lies with the new importance of a credential in this field. More school administrators are looking at alternative ways of offering college advising to students and families, including hiring independent college counselors and college success coaches as independent contractors. Many of these college experts do not have the credentials necessary to be school counselors, but do have transcripts and certificates of completion in college counseling programs to verify their training in college counseling -- something most high school counselors don’t have. In some cases, they also have a track record of success in turning around college counseling programs at private or charter schools.
It’s certainly true that certified school counselors generally have more training in the mental health aspects of school counseling than do college coaches. But when demand for help with college advising is at an all-time high, how can school counselors with no evidence of training in college counseling hope to compete for jobs with independent contractors whose college advising credentials are stronger, and whose services often come at a significantly lower price? These factors almost require school administrators consider reassigning the role of college advising to an independent contractor, reducing the number of school counselors available to assist students with noncollege needs. That change not only hurts a potential school counselor; it hurts the profession.
Far beyond the arguments for a professional credential, a focused course offers particular benefits to counselors working with low-income students in urban and rural areas. Often the only counselor in the building, these professionals lack access to the professional development their suburban counselors are more likely to enjoy, and their higher caseloads leave them even less time to learn the essentials of effective college advising on the job. If for no other reason, a foundation course in college counseling is essential in advancing the efforts of school counselors to advance the college dreams of low-income students, advancing society’s goal of greater social justice.
The goals of the Reach Higher initiative, combined with the demands of students and parents and the realities of the college counseling marketplace, make it clear that an unfocused approach to training school counselors in college counseling is no longer the answer, if in fact it ever was. As Mrs. Obama’s celebration of school counselors reaches its one-year anniversary, it’s time for policy makers and counselor educators to join the party, and give school counselors the skills, and credentials, they desperately need and deserve.
Patrick O’Connor is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and associate dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Kingswood School, in Michigan.
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