Counseling as a Reform Agent

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

This past Monday, the American Council on Education, in partnership with a number of other organizations, hosted a summit titled “Advancing College Readiness: Higher Education’s Role in Improving America’s High Schools.”

According to the InsideHigherEd article reference in this week’s news below, the summit ‘outlined the role higher education leaders should plan in ensuring that high school graduates learn the right skills and graduate ready for college in the workforce.’

Obviously, higher ed has an important role in “reforming” K-12 education, since it prepares the instructional staff and administrators of all public and private schools in this country. But even Mike Kirst, the former Stanford professor, found it interesting that this summit on improving college readiness focused almost exclusively on higher education without the involvement of the K-12 sector. Kind of funny, but not at all surprising.

There are many things that need to be done to remedy the woes of public education in the US, let alone Canada and other countries, and the Marc Tucker report I wrote about a few weeks (December 15) back is an important step toward making progress. But a second report issued this week by TERI (The Education Resource Institute), a Boston-based non-profit loan agency, reported that, despite interventions by TERI and other organizations, Boston-area students were ill-prepared to access and succeed in higher education. TERI’s VP and a friend of EPI, Dr. Ann Coles, noted that any progress must involve the full cooperation of K-12 and higher education, which is significant given Kirst’s comments at the ACE summit.

The TERI report offered a series of recommendations for progress, including “aligning standards,” and “expanding opportunities” for exposure to college, and even offering financial literacy guidance. But I still think most of these things miss the point of why students don’t progress to college: they don’t know why they should go.

When I conduct seminars on the issue of student access and retention, I almost always ask participants to think back when they were undergraduates, let alone high school students. I ask them to think about how they felt at that time. Were they intimidated by their new surroundings? Did they know what they wanted to do and how they were going to do it? I find that most people can use their own history and the histories of their friends and fellow students to provide a better understanding of the barriers to education for today’s students. The issues have changed, but not as much as most of us would like to think they have.

A big part of this comes down to middle and high school counseling. We do a really poor job of counseling students in their formative years about the world after high school. I firmly believe that most students come out of high school, if they are lucky to get that far, without a grasp of what they want to do “when they grow up.” I often refer to Paula Poundstone’s joke: “Do you know why old men are always asking children what they want to do when they grow up? They’re looking for ideas.” There’s some truth in Poundstone’s statement. Many of the students go to college because they’re supposed to. For many, their parents went, or their older brothers or sisters went. So, there existed a pathway and expectation to follow. Still, many of these students don’t know why they are going. For first-generation students, it gets more complex, because they don’t even have the legacy to follow.

So, perhaps the most important thing we could do in secondary education—aside obviously than “imparting knowledge” on our children, is helping them find out who they are and what they want to do on this earth. This is a significant concept that we pay little attention to in the education field.

A short two years ago we conducted a study for the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority, better known as MOHELA (Click here for the study, also referenced in the side bar). Quentin Wilson, the former commissioner for higher education for the state and now associate director at MOHELA, hired us to study counseling and conduct focus groups of counselors around the state. Our findings are in the publication.

Missouri counselors were quick to note that they spend a lot of time on “non-counseling” activities, such as addressing student tardies and dealing with other social issues. While these activities are important, they don’t get at one of the most vital aspects of counseling: academic planning and career development. How can we expect students to process the importance of higher education if we haven’t conducted significant career counseling and exploration with them? The TERI report outlines some recommendations, and the ACE summit focused on some real issues for improving academic preparedness and college access, but if we don’t get our hands around the counseling issue, we won’t see significant improvements of college access AND success.

Just as there is a push now for financial literacy training, which gets my solid vote, we need to establish a priority for career exploration. This requires the destruction of two main barriers: first, we need to provide lower the ratio of counselors to students. Currently, there is approximately 1 counselor for every 488 students in public schools in 2003-04, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In the District of Columbia, the ratio is 1:1301 and in Wyoming it is 1:222. The American Student Counselors Association recommends that an appropriate ratio is 1:250. The first step is getting more and more qualified counselors into our schools.

The second step is to revise the curricula and school day such that these counselors can have an effect. Numbers mean little if they don’t have access to the students. There needs to exist a process where students go through a rigorous exploration process.

Third is to provide the tools for counselors and students to undertake this study. A couple of years ago I had dinner with two gentlemen who were designing an electronic career assessment system for people of all ages. Today it is called Career DNA, and I urge you to take a look. Career DNA, and other systems like it, can serve as a great resource for counselors, and at least let us force students to undertake a minimum review of their skills, aptitudes, and hopes for the future.

Counseling isn’t the end all, silver bullet answer to the access question. But I don’t seriously know how we get any further without pushing the counseling envelope further over the next few years. I’m a strong advocate of counseling. Back at Vincent Massey Collegiate in Winnipeg (think of the days of large hair), I spent much of my free time in the counselor’s office. To this day, I remain in touch with two of them, Kirk Kuppers and Kathy Lautens (A “HI” to both of them in the tundra).

Kudos to ACE and TERI and the other agencies forcing this agenda. But let’s remember the role of counseling on this trek.

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