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Perspectives: Inadequate Counseling for Those Who Need It

In their well-researched book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life, Drs. Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford note that it will take significant investments of both resources and time to close the racial and socioeconomic academic achievement gaps. However, an immediate, affordable opportunity exists to improve the quality of academic preparation and postsecondary planning for all students, especially poor students and many students of color.

The need for improved college admission counseling is well documented. From the stands at the high school football game to the checkout line at the local supermarket, parents complain about a lack of access to and information from their child’s school counselor on the steps needed to prepare, visit, apply and pay for college. Data to support these concerns were presented in a Public Agenda study that found that a majority of young adults felt their school counselor was of little or no help in providing information about good college choices or applying to college.

What is not generally known is that a vast majority of school counselors, especially public school counselors, do not receive any meaningful training in college admission counseling. The American School Counseling Association identifies 466 college-based programs that offer graduate training in school counseling, but the National Association for College Admission Counseling lists only 42 degree-granting programs that offer a course in college admission counseling—and only one of them, the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University, is known to require the course of all graduates.

This clearly disadvantages underserved students. Affluent private high schools often hire former admissions officers from well-known colleges to serve as their college admissions counselors, giving students and families insight into the preparation, process and strategies needed to make the right college choices.

Similarly, public schools in communities where college attendance is an expectation—most often in the suburbs—devote substantial funds to training counselors to provide college admissions advise. Through professional workshops, conferences and visits to college campuses, these counselors develop an understanding of the need to tailor college choice to student’s interests, abilities and needs and become familiar with a wide array of colleges—skills all counselors should have learned in graduate school.

Meanwhile, counselors in urban public schools typically have larger student bodies and smaller budgets. The same can be said of counselors in rural schools, who have the added limitation of being miles away from most higher education institutions. This gives these counselors fewer funds to spend on professional development and offers them fewer opportunities for college site visits, since principals are often unwilling to let their lone counselor leave the building.

Urban and rural schools have larger numbers of minority or first-generation college students and have less access to trained admissions counselors. This significantly increases the chances that students will make a less-informed college decision, choose from a smaller array of colleges, and commit to a financial aid package that will burden them with unreasonable levels of loan or work study.

Combined, these factors raise the likelihood that students in rural and urban areas—the students who play a vital role in increasing campus diversity—will be unsupported and unsuccessful in college.

The absence of college admissions training and its subsequent consequences have been raised with a number of stakeholders. All express sympathy for the problem, but none apparently wish to correct it. College professors who run counselor training programs often deride college admission counseling as “not real counseling” but something akin to academic advising, a simplistic conclusion that is counter to the real-life experiences of the counselors they educate. State legislators and other officials respond to the need with hesitation; some feel this is an issue for the graduate schools to decide, while others are wary of how any statewide action would be received by the teachers unions that often represent counselors.

The irony is that counselors want this training. A poll of new counselors in Michigan indicated 95 percent of respondents thought a course in college admission counseling should be offered in graduate school, and 61 percent thought it should be mandatory.

All school counselors care deeply about their students, but, without proper, in-depth graduate school training, even the most well meaning counselors can only do so much—and they are the first to admit more is needed. The longstanding paucity of college admission training will continue to contribute to the equally well-established academic achievement gaps between rich and poor, and White, Black and Hispanic. That one contributes to the other is intuitively and empirically supported; why those who could easily rectify this injustice instead choose to exacerbate it is a mystery, a disservice and a shame.

Patrick O’Connor is a past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling and author of the book College is Yours in 600 Words or Less.

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