Listen to mainstream education advocates, and you’ll come away thinking that not enough people are going to college. But if you listen to higher education reformers, particularly political conservatives, you’ll hear that too many are going to college.
Meanwhile, business owners and managers say they can’t find workers with the skills they need, particularly in the skilled manual and technical fields. Statistics show high college dropout rates, massive underemployment of college graduates, and huge student debt burdens from those who attend college, whether or not they get degrees. Many students change majors several times and take six or more years to graduate.
Why so much confusion and incoherence? One likely place to look is the advice students receive — or fail to receive — from high school guidance counselors.
A 2014 report from the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights found that nationally, one of five high schools has no guidance counselor. The American School Counselor Association finds that many schools with counselors don’t have enough. The advocacy group recommends a counselor-to-student ratio of 1:250, while the national number is almost double that, at 1:478. Only three small states and the U.S. Virgin Islands come close to the recommended figure.
A single counselor can provide effective individual guidance to only so many students. Rather than achieving the ideal of a mentor who gets to know students and guides them into good decisions about their present and future, overburdened counselors may be able to offer little more than one-size-fits-all advice or simply process paperwork for college applications.
Furthermore, many counselors may not have the proper knowledge to do the job well. High school counselors have a lot of training: More than 80 percent have master’s degrees, and most must pass a test and get licensed. But according to higher education analyst and author Lynn O’Shaughnessy, they might be earning a credential while getting the wrong kind of training.
According to the American School Counselor Association, counselors generally are required to take advanced degree courses in theory, human and growth development, social and cultural foundations, testing/appraisal, research and program evaluation, professional orientation, career development, and individual and group counseling. They also usually participate in a supervised internship and other supervised practical instruction.
Despite all that education, in 2012 more than half of counselors reported that they felt only moderately trained, and more than 25 percent reported that their training did not prepare them at all.
According to O’Shaughnessy, graduate counseling programs rarely offer a class in planning for college.
Should counselors have more expertise in labor markets and more knowledge of the full range of options for graduates after high school? Might many young people be better off exploring apprenticeships and other on-the-job training, immediate employment, technical training, certificate and licensing programs, the military, or other options?
One way several states have addressed guidance shortcomings is embracing the concept of “Career Coaches” — advisers employed by the community college system to counsel high school students. The coaches are employed by community colleges, but they work at a high school.
Central Carolina Community College in Sanford has employed career coaches for a year, implemented as part of its Central Carolina Works (CCWorks) program. The program embeds nine counselors at high schools in the three counties surrounding the college. But while most counselors might be inclined to encourage students to attend four-year colleges, CCWorks places special emphasis on career and technical education. CCWorks is being considered as a model for the rest of the state; a bill in the state Senate would expand the Career Coaches program statewide under an initiative called NCWorks. The legislature is expected to set aside $1.5 million for the cost of paying the coaches.
Other states have implemented similar programs, including Alabama, Arkansas, and Virginia, which has had a Career Coach program since 2005. Virginia’s program began with 11 coaches in 13 high schools and has now expanded to 130 coaches in 180 high schools. Virginia’s program is funded by a combination of the state community college system and local schools.
In the 2009-10 academic year, 71 percent of students who previously had no postsecondary plans did so after meeting with a coach. Virginia also reported that 28 percent of students who had planned to go to community college decided instead to plan for a four-year degree. Additionally, both students and principals expressed initial satisfaction with the coaches and became more satisfied as time progressed.
The Career Coaches model is growing in popularity and could signal a potential solution to a guidance gap.
Harry Painter is a writer for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.