Media Highlights

The Potential Power of Professional School Counselors

by Mark Edwards   •  

In discussions about how to help more U.S. students find meaningful career and educational pathways after high school, a key ingredient is often overlooked: the role of professional school guidance counselors.

More than ever before, young people need a caring and knowledgeable adult making sure they take the right courses needed for a 21st century education and are preparing for their futures, while also providing them with any extra help they may need in middle and high school. This support often means the difference between a student making it to graduation day or dropping out.

In many cases, this caring adult is a parent, a mentor or a classroom teacher. Professional school counselors are another critical resource that can provide students essential support as they transition from high school to college and careers. Recent studies suggest that there are not enough guidance counselors in high-need schools and that many of them require additional training and resources to help students find their best individual career path.

It is critical that professional school counselors help students explore a variety of options after high school  – including trade schools, certificate programs, apprenticeships and community colleges, as well as four-year institutions. Well-informed guidance linked to local workforce needs and financial aid is an important ingredient in developing the skilled workforce we need to keep our economy competitive and our communities thriving.

By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs in the United States will require some form of post-secondary education, according to a new study by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. Unfortunately, the report estimates that the U.S. will fall short by five million skilled workers.

2009 report by Public Agenda about guidance counseling written for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, found that many districts simply don’t have enough guidance counselors to provide the in-depth attention that some students need. The need is particularly acute for low-income students whose parents did not attend post-secondary institutions and who are in greatest need of guidance and support.

Can I Get A Little Advice Here? describes “a counseling system under stress.” The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-counselor ratio of 250:1. In California, however, the ratio is closer to 1,000 students per one counselor. Nationally, the average is 460:1.

And an alarming number of the 600 young people surveyed in the Public Agenda report – 48 percent – felt their guidance counselors saw them as “just another face in the crowd.”

These statistics have real consequences. Opportunity Leader Chace Baptista recently described the situation at his urban high school in Providence, Rhode Island, which served large numbers of low-income students. “We didn’t have enough guidance counselors period,” he said. “Forget about quality.”

Most of his friends didn’t come from homes with college-educated parents and they never thought of themselves as college material, Chace says. Most did not pursue post-secondary education.  In this way, Chace’s friends are like the majority of U.S. students. Nearly 6 in 10 public school students today come from families in which neither parent has graduated from college.

Knowledgeable and trained guidance counselors could have made a world of difference in the lives of Chace’s friends. Seventy-two percent of the students surveyed for the Public Agenda report said they believed that “the opportunity to talk with advisers who know all about the different college and job-training programs so you can make a good choice” would have helped them “a lot.”

And even for schools that have enough counselors, two other obstacles can impede their ability to reach the students who need them the most – a lack of time and a lack of training.

The guidance field was described as “beleaguered and overworked” in an ASCD article in 2010:  Why Guidance Counseling Needs To Change.

Many guidance counselors spend their day “devoted to administrative tasks, discipline issues, and untangling scheduling snafus …” among other duties, according to a U.S. Dept. of Education study. And few guidance counselor training programs require expert knowledge in “multiple pathways” beyond a four-year college degree.

That’s why Opportunity Nation is pleased to see increasing attention paid to this important issue. Representative Jim Langevin (D-RI) has introduced a bill that would require districts to hire more professional school counselors and offer them better training to help students find the right pathway after high school, including technical, vocational and community college options.

Rep. Langevin’s Counseling for Career Choice Act, cosponsored by Rep. Susan Bonamici (D-OR), Rep. Corrine Brown (D-FL), Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) and Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ), is designed to ensure that all students have access to effective guidance and post-secondary planning, especially those who are not considering a four-year degree.

“Today’s students need to be aware of the full spectrum of career opportunities,” said Congressman Langevin. “While a four-year university might be the best fit for some high school students, others might find a two-year degree or a professional certification to be the most promising path to well-paying, rewarding careers.”

Congressman Langevin said that employers in Rhode Island frequently tell him that they are unable to find skilled workers for open positions.

“This skills gap can be closed,” he said, “but it will take concentrated effort to make sure that students are given the necessary training and that workers have the right skills for employers who are hiring.”

As Congress gears up to reauthorize the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act it is important to remember the significant role comprehensive career counseling plays as schools determine the best way to assist students in identifying and preparing for a career path.

Opportunity Nation recognizes that not everyone wants or needs to get a four-year degree. Our Shared Plan promotes multiple pathways for our young people. In today’s global economy, more Americans than ever before need technical skills and specialized job training in order to get family-sustaining jobs, which means more Americans than ever before will need some form of post-secondary education.

It’s in all of our interest to make sure that young people receive sound, helpful advice while they are still in high school so they can prepare for their futures and access their American Dream.

Mark Edwards

Mark Edwards is the founder and co-chair of Opportunity Nation. Read Mark's bio.

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