Dan Mitchell has worked as a college advisor serving two small high schools in rural northern Michigan for just over a year, but that’s long enough for him to have learned how important his job is.
“We see a lot of students who are completely lost,” Mitchell said. “They don’t know what they don’t know.”
Mitchell was one of a host of speakers at The Center for Michigan’s career navigation summit in Livonia Monday who displayed various levels of frustration and different solutions, but who agreed on one basic point: Michigan high school students need better college and career guidance.
More than 125 community and education leaders, policymakers and parents gathered at Schoolcraft College to discuss how to improve the state’s college and career navigation system.
Monday’s event was the first of three conferences this fall building on The Center for Michigan’s community engagement project this year, “Getting to Work,” in which the Center collected and analyzed public sentiment across the state on issues important to Michigan residents: college and career guidance, college affordability, and career advancement (The Center for Michigan is the parent organization of Bridge Magazine).
In “Getting to Work,” which captured the views of more than 5,000 Michigan residents, a strong majority of residents rated college and career guidance that students receive in Michigan high schools as “lousy” or “terrible” and would like to see dedicated college and career advisors in every high school.
That’s not a surprise, considering that Michigan ranks among the bottom five states in the nation in the ratio of students to counselors, with roughly 700 students for every counselor overall and more than 500 students per counselor in the state’s high schools.
“Our school counselors are overwhelmed,” Lisa Baragar Katz, executive director of the Workforce Intelligence Network for Southeast Michigan, told the gathering.
Counselors in most high schools don’t have the time to offer anything beyond cursory college and career guidance, and most do not have the training to do it, anyway. In Michigan, college and career guidance training is not required for high school counselors.
Things aren’t much better in Ohio or Indiana. “If I had closed my eyes and listened to what was being said here, I would have thought you were talking about Ohio,” said Carolyn George, director of Career Connections for the Ohio Department of Education.
Matt Fleck helped conduct a review of school counseling services in Indiana for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce in 2014, and the problems that report highlighted were identical to the concerns highlighted in a similar report 20 years earlier.
Jim Danielski, director of Career Planning Specialists in Plymouth, brought a tape recorder to the conference and played a radio ad from 20 years ago that complained about the same issues discussed Monday. “It’s not a new problem,” Danielski said.
While the issue isn’t new, there is momentum to address it. Gov. Rick Snyder has made career navigation a priority for his administration because of its potential impact on the economy.
Michigan is below the national average in the percent of adults holding college degrees. Efforts to get more high school graduates onto college campuses are hobbled by the lack of high-quality college and career navigation in high schools. Speakers Monday offered numerous recommendations to address the issue.
Patrick O’Connor, associate dean of counseling at Cranbrook Schools, is pushing a requirement that high school counselors be required by the state to receive training in college and career navigation.
House Bill 4552 would do just that – requiring 25 hours of professional development in college prep and selection, and 25 hours in career counseling. The bill is awaiting a hearing in the House committee on workforce and talent development.
Rep. Amanda Price, R-Holland, chair of the House Education Committee, said Monday she would support the bill. Rep. Adam Zemke, D-Ann Arbor, said the bill hasn’t received much attention yet because legislators are focused for the moment on two large education bills this fall ‒ one addressing the standards by which K-12 teachers should be evaluated and another dealing with third-grade literacy requirements.
Brandy Johnson, executive director of Michigan College Access Network, http://www.micollegeaccess.org/ described two programs that are operated or partially funded by her organization that place new college graduates in low-income high schools for two-year stints, to help students apply to college and fill out financial aid forms.
This year, the programs have placed 83 advisors in 100 high schools. “We’re excited about some of the successes we are seeing,” Johnson said.
She said she’d like to see MCAN’s college advising programs eventually expand to about 350 Michigan high schools.
Helping students figure out what they want, and how to get it, is a big part of the battle, said Rachel Osmer, a college advisor at Ypsilanti High School. “I probably have 10 percent of my students come in and say, ‘I know where I want to go and here are my scores.’” But, she said, the “other 90 percent have no idea.”
Karen McPhee, senior education advisor to the governor and former superintendent of Ottawa Area Intermediate School District, cautioned against believing there was one magic bullet that will solve the problem.
“We need to make sure we don’t try to solve a complex problem with simple solutions,” McPhee said. “We have a tendency in education to swing the pendulum all the way to one side and when it doesn’t work, we swing it all the way to the other side.”
While admitting counselors are overworked, “I don’t think career counseling can be put just in the hands of counselors any more than the man in the moon,” McPhee said. “You need a systemic policy that involves everyone” in improving college and career counseling, not just high school counselors.
That everyone includes parents.
“Parent involvement would help a lot,” said Mitchell, the college advisor from northern Michigan. “That’s one of the biggest challenges we have.”
Increasing the number of school counselors “is awesome, but it doesn’t solve the whole problem,” said Jay Miller, legislative chair of the Michigan School Counselor Association. “We need to get into the classroom and (emphasize) education development plans. I see that as a huge way to make progress here.”
Education development plans, in which students are supposed to develop career goals, are required already, but in many schools, they are not emphasized by teachers, counselors or students, said Workforce Intelligence Network’s Katz.
The Center for Michigan is holding two more summits in the next month: Challenges to Upward Mobility, 8:45 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 20 at Eberhard Center in Grand Rapids, and College Value and Affordability, 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday, Nov. 2, at the Radisson Hotel in downtown Lansing. To register for either of those public events, visit The Center for Michigan website.