A Reach Higher Update Brings New Opportunities
by Dr. Patrick O'Connor
Spring is undoubtedly the best season in the life of a college counselor. It’s hard to beat the joy of a student who comes into your office with the news that they’ve been accepted by the college of their dreams. It’s also hard to surpass the awe that comes from listening to a student talk through their college choices when their dream school said no, but they still have offers to consider from other colleges that will serve them well. The bounty of joy, wisdom, and growth that comes after many months of hard work in the college application process is something I’ll never take for granted.
It was sobering, then, to be reminded that this wealth of college opportunity continues to be out of reach for far too many students, despite recent efforts to increase college access for all students. “The State of School Counseling: Revisiting the Path Forward” is a report that comes from The National Consortium for School Counseling and Postsecondary Success. It provides a strong overview of the many steps taken by a wide array of policy makers and policy shapers since 2011 to increase college opportunities for students from all backgrounds, including the unprecedented support of President and Mrs. Obama with their ReachHigher initiative. This detailed overview comes to an abrupt conclusion that could best be described as candid, but disappointing:
We must acknowledge that despite the hard work of many well-intentioned professionals working in the college advising space across institutions, we have failed to accelerate the degree attainment process, particularly with underserved populations across the nation who are in greatest need of assistance.
The report goes on to use this failure as a springboard for future planning. Two literature reviews, a survey of school counselors and counselor educators, and a series of focus groups are used to urge the field of college counseling to coalesce around a strategy of leadership, alignment, collaboration, and accountability. The report reemphasizes the importance of having schools and communities embrace a new vision of helping students make postsecondary plans, a vision that is less about the role of individuals, and more about the work of a community of support.
In laying out a plan of action, the report makes two observations that are noteworthy. The report has a heavy emphasis on the need for more research to determine effective practices in college advising. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since the NCSCPS leadership is dominated by some of the most respected counselor educators and researchers in the country.
At the same time, this need for a broader foundation of data seems to be working against the report’s recommendations that the quality of college advising needs to improve quickly. In summarizing the results of a survey that measured the effectiveness of counselor training in college access, the report states:
(T)he survey discovered a strong discrepancy between school counselors and school counselor educators on the content covered in counselor education programs, with counselor educators reporting much more effective coverage of topics than practitioners. This gap in perceptions suggests that counselor educators may need to pay closer attention to the demands of those in the field as well as emerging responsibilities such as a greater need to support career and college readiness.
This conclusion reflects what practicing school counselors have long known, and often expressed to policy makers: the training they receive to be school counselors doesn’t prepare them to be effective school counselors. Absurdly high caseloads would challenge even the best trained school counselor, but the yawning gap between what counselors are taught, and what they really need to do, creates more hurdles for them to leap before they can effectively service their students.
With refreshing candor, the NCSCPS report accurately reflects the chicken-and-egg challenge school counselors have been caught in for years. The kind of research the report requires would easily take an army of researchers 15-20 years to complete and replicate, and the number of researchers exploring these topics is more like a squadron than an army. At the same time, how can counselor education programs effectively improve without the meaningful data needed to serve as an anchor for better training?
As research continues in best practices for college advising, school and community leaders would do well to heed the advice of the report, and end the silo approach to college advising that exists in too many communities. Preparing a student for college isn’t just the job of a counselor, a community-based organization, or the teachers of college preparatory classes. More voices need to be heard from, especially from the community at large, if the gap between the idea of college for all and the reality of what is needed to achieve that goal can be effectively bridged.