College Counseling: Can High Schools Do It Well?

College Counseling: Can High Schools Do It Well?

shoes with arrowsHigh school guidance counselors can significantly influence whether young people pursue higher education. But counseling offices are often understaffed and juggling large caseloads and competing demands, according to Northwestern University researchers.

In an article published in Phi Delta Kappan, a professional magazine for educators, Northwestern’s James Rosenbaum and Gorana Ilic outlined the successes and trade-offs they found in one urban high school counseling office.

An unusual level of commitment, coordination, and support from the principal, district, counselors, and college partners helped this school reach a college enrollment rate 20 percentage points higher than the district and 10 percentage points higher than the state.

At the same time, “the same powerful coordinated supports that are so effective at boosting college enrollment also raise concerns about how well the school serves other student needs,” they wrote. “Without additional resources and greater clarity about the role of counselors, we suspect that this balancing act will continue to be a challenge for schools.”

Rosenbaum, an education sociologist, is professor of human development and social policy at the School of Education and Social Policy. Ilic is a research coordinator at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research. They studied a public high school — serving almost 2,000 students, most of whom are low-income and minority — that built an extraordinarily strong advising program.  

The school’s principal made attending college a priority and worked to get everyone on board, which helped counselors steer students toward college.

“With our current principal, [the school climate is] one word: college,” one counselor explained. “So every class, from English to P.E., has a core of preparing students for college.” 

Strong district support – including hiring full-time college advisors, who focus solely on helping students at each stage of the college application process – also benefited the counseling process.

The school also developed strong relationships with colleges, repeatedly seeking out opportunities for their students. These personal connections with college representatives often helped to get marginal students admitted.

One counselor related that when she sees a student with potential who may not have exemplary test scores and grades, she tells the college representative that “if you take a chance [and] give them the support . . . the tutoring, the mentoring, the bridge programs, [I am certain the student will] graduate and come back and contribute to society.”

“Colleges tend to trust the counselors’ judgment because they know that the counselors value their relationship and would not risk losing it by guiding them wrong,” Rosenbaum and Ilic wrote.

The Cost of Effective High School Counseling

However, counselors also expressed misgivings about the trade-offs they have to make to focus so intently on moving students toward higher education.

Some said the school’s college climate is “very ambitious, very aggressive,” and they worried about college conversation “overkill.” As one counselor lamented, this one-size-fits-all approach — with teachers, counselors, and administrators all sending the message that going to college after high school is “the natural order of things” — may not be serving students who have other plans. 

“Counselors told us that they would like to spend more time helping students with social-emotional problems but are not able to do so because college guidance, the school’s priority, takes most of their time,” the researchers wrote.

Even when counselors and principals agree that college advising should be part of the counselor’s job, counselors do not always have specific training in this work. For instance, counselors knew very little about occupational programs and sub-baccalaureate degrees offered at community colleges. 

“The misalignment between counselors’ training and their actual job tasks is indicative of larger underlying issues that cannot be ignored,” they wrote.

Rosenbaum currently teaches higher education policy in the Masters in Higher Education Administration and Policy program and education policy at the undergraduate level. He is an expert on the college-for-all movement, college attendance and coaches, high-school-to-work transitions, and linkages among students, schools, and employers.

In 2019, he received the Elizabeth G. Cohen Distinguished Career in Applied Sociology of Education Award from the American Education Research Association.

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 11/5/19