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How can students get ready for college if their counselors aren’t college ready?

This fall’s crop of education articles brings us a bumper crop of stories about college. In addition to the usual bounty of college rankings, this harvest is rich with stories about the value of college, predictions of the stress of applying to college, and answers to the perennial question, is college for everyone?

These articles have their merit, but none addresses a question that is central to the well-being of our students and our state: Are Michigan’s school counselors prepared to issue quality college advice?

Families assume counselors are trained to help students make postsecondary plans based on individual goals, skills, interests and needs, but when it comes to college, that’s rarely the case. The American School Counselor Association lists 466 colleges and universities that offer counselor education programs, but the National Association for College Admission Counseling lists only 31 colleges that offer a comprehensive course in college advising. Combined with the large caseloads school counselors face in Michigan (our ratio of 660 students for every school counselor was sixth highest in the country in 2010), and the challenge is clear. School counselors aren’t trained well enough to give college advice, and they don’t have time to learn that vital skill on the job.

This void hasn’t escaped the students served by school counselors. A recent Public Agenda survey of young adults found that two thirds gave their school counselor a grade of “fair” or “poor” in giving college advice. This need has been made even clearer by two years of data from College Board that shows counselors themselves find their training in college advising insufficient.

If the students know they need more help, and the counselors wish they could give more help, an easy solution is at hand— include a comprehensive college advising course in the training counselors receive. By replacing an elective course in the current curriculum with this mandatory class, counselors would be better prepared to help students explore college options. Specifically, counselors would be able to help students find better ways to prepare for college, choose the right college, pay for college, complete college, and consider alternatives to college.

This solution may seem logical, but logic isn’t always the gateway to swift policy change. Of Michigan’s ten school counselor training programs, only one offers a required course in postsecondary counseling. Coordinators of some counselor training programs are loathe to recognize the impact the lack of training has on students and families, and some have been so bold as to claim that college counseling has nothing to do with personal development, so it isn’t “real” counseling. This, despite the findings of a NACAC survey showing high school counselors spend an average of 20% of their time on college advising activities.

Regardless of this resistance, some positive change is afoot. Thanks to a project spearheaded by the Michigan College Access Network and the Michigan Association for College Admission Counseling, two additional counseling programs in Michigan will offer this class in the next two years. This same project will offer a basic introduction in postsecondary planning to 100 practicing school counselors this fall through Michigan Virtual University. Combined with the postsecondary course offered at Eastern Michigan University, and the 45 hour college advising course available through the continuing education divisions of Oakland Community College and Schoolcraft College, it’s fair to say all school counselors could be college ready in less than five years.

That change will only occur if the public demands it. Approach your local school board, and insist they make this vital class available to their current school counselors. Once that’s done, ask them to require every new counselor they hire to take the class within a year of taking the job.

Once your local district is taken care of, reach out to Lansing. Ask your legislators to require all new counselors to be ready to help Michigan’s students and build Michigan’s future by completing this class as a condition of getting a school counseling license or certificate. Our state would be the first to make this commitment to our students, powerful proof that when it comes to reinventing college readiness, Michigan is more than ready to turn over a new leaf.

A past president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, Patrick O’Connor is assistant dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Kingswood School in Bloomfield Hills. He teaches a college counseling class, and is the author of College is Yours 2.0.

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