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Class, Race Factor in Counselors’ College Recommendations

High-school guidance counselors advise middle-class Black students without a strong academic record to apply to community colleges more than middle-class White students with the same academic record, concludes a new study. However, when it came to students from upper-income families with low performances, White students were more likely to be recommended to community colleges than Black students.

The study, “High School Guidance Counselors: Facilitators or Pre-Emptors of Social Stratification in Education,” found that class was a bigger factor than race when it came to counseling high-school students.

“Counselors seem sensitive to class and race. They both have impacts separately,” says Dr. Frank Linnehan, associate dean for undergraduate programs at Drexel University’s Lebow College of Business and the study’s co-author. “But class is positively related when it came to counselor recommendations to four-year colleges and negatively related when it came to community colleges.”

But researchers were surprised that race made a difference, even after taking social class into account.

“Race only became a factor when it came to four-year schools as counselors recommended Black students to attend these institutions more strongly than White students,” says Linnehan. “It was not a racist view but favored supporting the students.”

These findings took into account the students’ gender, academic performance and family income.

Counselors were also more likely to recommend students with higher family incomes to four-year colleges regardless of the students’ gender, academic performance and race. The income factor was not surprising, Linnehan says, because counselors may assume students from high-income families can afford a four-year college more so than middle-income families.

Conversely, counselors were more likely to recommend students with lower family incomes than students with higher family incomes to community colleges. 

The study, which was sponsored by the National Commission for Cooperative Education, was based on a sample of 1,700 responses from a survey sent to 20,000 high-school counselors throughout the nation.

“It’s good for the profession to be aware of it [the study] … there might be a possible unconscious bias,” says Brad McGowen, who has been a high school counselor for more than 20 years in Newton, Mass. He says the predominantly White Boston suburb has become more diverse, with recent immigrants from Asia and South America.

“Some students might be looking at a program only offered at a community college, and getting the same education at one-tenth the cost,” he says.

Dr. Carolyn Stone, a counselor educator at the University of North Florida and a member of the American School Counselor Association, says the organization is working hard to improve equity and access issues.

“The old image of counselor as gatekeeper is not viable,” she says. “It’s about supporting every student, not sifting and sorting … we can’t have their choices stratified back in 8th grade or even the 3rd grade.”

Stone says counseling should not be influenced by a child’s race or income. “Our role is to close the achievement gap with information and opportunity,” she says.

Her own experience in urban settings led her to believe in models of equity and access. When she first started working at the Ribault High School in Jacksonville, Fla., only 15 percent of the students were applying to college. Last year, 65 percent applied.

“It’s about raising aspirations and showing them the opportunities. It’s not just about work, military, community colleges, but also four-year colleges for their economic future,” she says.

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