Earlier this November, education leaders and innovators met at the White House to share transformative approaches to high school education. This work was celebrated as part of the President’s Next Gen High Schools effort, a grant-funded program borne out of the urgent need to prepare all students for the 21st century global economy, and working in concert with the President’s goal to make the U.S. a leader in postsecondary attainment.
Thus far, the program has amassed $375 million in public and private funds to help states redesign high schools for the next generation U.S workforce. Next Generation High Schools should give students the skills to compete in a global, thought-driven economy that is predicted to place a high premium on STEM expertise and postsecondary education. The list of innovations that the initiative encourages is extensive, and includes every education buzzword from competency-based education to evidence-based professional development. These innovative practices targeted by the Next Gen High Schools Initiative were chosen with the goal of ensuring that all students are prepared for college and careers after they complete their diplomas. But even with an excellent high school that provides opportunities for personalized learning, project-based STEM curriculum, and any number of other evidence-based, college-preparatory measures, will this be enough to propel all students to and through college?
For many high schoolers, the challenge extends beyond the quality of high school instruction. Many students (primarily those who are already underserved in other respects) do not have adequate access to advising resources that help them plan, prepare for, apply to, and fund any kind of postsecondary learning. That is why an integral piece of creating Next Generation High Schools will be investing in Next Generation Counselors. And until they do, schools may not see the fruit of other investments for college-readiness.
If we want all students to be truly prepared for success in college and career, counselors will need to play an integral part in that process. For students without the social capital to guide them through the process of college and career planning with ease, counselors can fill a huge gap by providing students with college advising as early as (and in some cases, before) the start of high school. Counselors can ensure that students are setting goals early, taking the appropriate courses, and when it comes time, researching and applying to colleges or certification programs in line with their goals.
Nationally, the landscape for counseling in schools is not conducive to providing this kind of individualized support for student’s college and career development. School counselors are often tasked with many responsibilities in addition to college and career counseling: administrative duties (scheduling, supporting special education compliance), academic counseling (ensuring students are taking the right courses, counseling struggling students and their families), and even social work (ensuring accommodation for student crises, handling discipline, student mental health, etc.). With so many responsibilities, it’s unsurprising that 54 percent of school counselors say that they spend less 20 percent or less of their time helping students plan for college; even less time was devoted to career counseling for students planning not to attend college.
In addition to the often crushing workload, counselors are also burdened with high caseloads. The average school counselor has a caseload of 470 students, far above the American School Counselors Association’s recommended 250:1 student to counselor ratio. In some states the average is even higher—in California, the average school counselor had a caseload of 818 students in the 2013 school year. For counselors serving low-income students, the ratio is even higher: an average of 1,000 students to one counselor. With so much responsibility for so many students, counselors cannot be expected to adequately support all students.
If we want to recreate the American high school as a place where all students have the resources for success in college and career, we need to reinvent the role of counselors. This could mean reducing the caseload or number of responsibilities each counselor has, or it might mean moving to an entirely different model of support. In some schools, students receive support from a dedicated college counselor, whose role is to help them navigate the process of planning for, applying to, and enrolling in postsecondary education. This role is typically divorced from the myriad other responsibilities shouldered by traditional counselors, and allows the counselor to devote 100 percent of his or her time to supporting students’ college and career aspirations. College and career counselors can also act as coordinators to ensure that all staff are effectively engaged in supporting students’ postsecondary aspirations, and that the school’s climate and culture reflect the importance of those aspirations.
Unfortunately, in a world of crunched budgets, administrators may view counseling staff as ancillary, and not necessarily worth investing in with limited resources. In these cases, the thinking often goes that others (teachers, parents, beyond-school programs) will fill in the gaps to help students prepare for postsecondary education. And for some this might be a correct assumption. But for first-generation college-goers, low-income students, and students of color, these resources have clearly not been sufficient:
- Students whose parents did not attain a postsecondary degree are 39 percent less likely to attend college than students whose parents both had postsecondary degrees.
- Students living in low income households are 31 percent less likely to enroll in college after high school than students with high income families.
- As of 2013, 35 percent of African Americans and 34 percent of Hispanic Americans aged 18-25 were enrolled in college; this compared to 44 percent of Caucasian students.