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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Tue, 10/01/2013 - 8:45am
I completely agree with this article, but do think Bridge or the author should disclose his relationship with the Michigan College Access Network (Board of Directors) and instructor of the college advising courses he is promoting here.
Tue, 10/01/2013 - 8:59am
Last week the Detroit Free Press ran a comic strip called Luann. In the strip, a high school student was assigned as an intern to the high school counselor. The student was giving all sorts of good advice to the students. The older counselor didn't have a clue as to what the advice being given even was. Had zero knowledge of how to use the internet to find after school jobs, how to use the smart phone to find rooms within the school, or how to choose a career. Now this was just a comic strip, but so reflective of real life. As I look back on my high school career, we had four counselors. Never could figure out what they really did. Choose a college, see my collection of college catalogs. What to do in life, well what do you want to do with no mention as to whether I'd be qualified. We need constant training for those in these positions so that they can keep up with the latest.
Tue, 10/01/2013 - 9:20am
I was a counselor for 35 years in a high school. With the numbers you had it was impossible to truly be a counselor. You were guidance person with the majority of your time with scheduling. I had many other responsibilities that gave me an opportunity to do other than that. Too mANY KIDS ARE BEING PUSHED TOWARDS COLLEGES and MANY ARE SIMPLY NOT READY. Until we reset our priorities plan on more of the same. Love to see anyone else respond.
Sun, 10/06/2013 - 2:41am
"I was a counselor for 35 years in a high school. With the numbers you had it was impossible to truly be a counselor. You were guidance person with the majority of your time with scheduling. I had many other responsibilities that gave me an opportunity to do other than that. Too mANY KIDS ARE BEING PUSHED TOWARDS COLLEGES and MANY ARE SIMPLY NOT READY. Until we reset our priorities plan on more of the same. Love to see anyone else respond." I'll rise to this bait, Sir. In HS, I graduated in the top 10% of my class of over 300. It was mandatory that we met with a "counselor" prior to the end of the semester. That report was supposed to be part of my "permanent record". That report and "record" was supposed to shape my adult life. Sadly, I only ever met the "counselor' one time for less than 10 minutes. And based on a single report from a music teacher, I was labeled as "incorrigible" and "not likely to succeed". My "counselor" told me that I would be lucky to get a job in a factory. Imagine my surprise that I went to college and obtained a degree, Even more surprising is that I am named on several patents. Even worse is that I lost my engineering job and returned to college for a Master's degree in an completely different field. My counselor never saw it coming.
Tue, 10/01/2013 - 10:25am
I tried to leave this comment earlier and noticed it was pulled down. Try #2 - I completely agree with this article, but think the author or Bridge should disclose his relationship with both MCAN (Board of Directors) and the college advising courses (instructor) he is promoting in this article.
Tue, 10/01/2013 - 11:06pm
Gee - with Michigan's 600 students to one counselor..... I can see how adding a new college advising course will fix the REAL problem here. This is going to do a lot of good....NOT! How about adding more counselors so that the students are adequately served? Hmmm there's a thought! Especially since the recommended counselor to student ratio is 1-250.
Wed, 10/02/2013 - 5:12pm
I appreciate your point. Both surveys included students and counselors where the ratio was far less than 600, and the results still indicate dissatisfaction with the quality of counselor training in college advising-- students have even complained about the quality of college advice they were getting when their counselor had less than 50 students. When it comes to training, it doesn't matter how small your ratio is, if the counselor hasn't been sufficiently trained to help students learn about college. The other point to consider is cost. Replacing a counseling elective with a college advising course adds no new costs to a degree or to the taxpayers, and it would give counselors the skills they need to counsel students individually or in large groups. Hiring enough counselors to reduce the ratio would have an annual cost of millions of dollars. Both are important, but the easier first step is to improve the training.
Wed, 10/02/2013 - 9:35am
Before ragging on counselors we should first have a common description of what the expectations for those roles are. Is it only about coaching each student into college and about what to expect in college or are there other issue that they are expect to address. The reality is that a counselor cannot get a student ready for college it takes their whole high school experience. We moved while or daughters were in high school from a school district in a major metropolitan area to a district in a town effectively surrounded by corn or soybean fields. Our daughters when off to major universities and succeeded, I asked them to describe the reason for their success the one put it rather succintly, "I went to high school with the kids that I when to college with.' It wasn't the counselor's guidence it was the whole high school experience. We found that neither the quality of the teachers or the counselors were not that different, it was the attitude of the kids that were the difference in preparing them for college. Counselors can help, but they need to have clear expectation layed out for them before we can hope to help them succeed.