Paving the Road to College

Michelle Obama and Eric Waldo

Photo: Cheriss May, NurPhoto/Getty Images

Michelle Obama with Eric Waldo, Ed.M.'03, at the 2017 Counselor of the Year Reach Higher event at the White House

The call came to Mandy Savitz-Romer early in the summer of 2014 — from the White House, asking if the Harvard Graduate School of Education would host a July convening on college opportunity. This would be a key next step for First Lady Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative and a follow-up from a January 2014 summit at which Savitz-Romer presented to White House officials. Savitz-Romer enthusiastically accepted, and HGSE’s role in advancing college opportunity was set to expand dramatically.

When the White House called, HGSE answered — and fueled a national push to advance college opportunity for all.

On July 28, 2014, HGSE convened 130 counselors, policymakers, funders, educators, and other key stakeholders to strengthen school counseling and to create the conditions for all students to access post-secondary opportunities. Partnering with Reach Higher’s executive director Eric Waldo, Ed.M.’03 — and in collaboration with the National Association for College Admission Counseling, the American Counselor Association, and the National College Access Network — the convening focused on innovative and scalable practices and attracted leading speakers from across the country.

Inspired by an opening video greeting from Mrs. Obama, the convening attendees envisioned a more equitable future for all students, highlighted promising practices, and considered ways to leverage school counseling to serve more students. Areas of improvement were also identified, including the need for greater collaboration and communication; the value of professional development and training; the importance of using data to drive decision-making; and the strategic opportunities of technology.

“Quality school counseling cannot just be a luxury afforded to certain school systems,” wrote Obama in the convening’s follow-up report, Counseling and College Completion: The Road Ahead

The convening at HGSE was, according to the 2017 Reach Higher Progress Report, the catalyst for two more national convenings, in San Diego and Florida. It was “absolutely one of the most important days in school counseling,” said Cheryl Holcomb McCoy, then vice provost of faculty affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. 

“The impact of the convening has been lasting,” says Savitz-Romer, the author of Fulfilling the Promise: Reimagining School Counseling to Advance Student Success. To this day, she notes, state teams from Reach Higher continue to meet and plan, spurred on by these early convenings. “[It] reflected the school’s commitment to school counselors and our convening ability to engage researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and funders,” Savtiz-Romer says. “The Reach Higher Initiative has continued, in conjunction with the Common Application, and has ensured a continued national focus on school counseling. Our own work at HGSE — and the platform of the convening — was pivotal for the field. It reflected a shift away from seeing school counseling as part of the problem to viewing it as central to the solution.” – Keith Collar

Learn More and Connect

Read about the 2014 event and watch Michelle Obama's introduction.

Read Usable Knowledge's takeaways from Counseling and College Completion: The Road Ahead.

Register for Post-Secondary Success: In Schools, Communities, and Families, a professional education offering directed by Mandy Savitz-Romer that bridges work across preK–12 and higher education.

Listen to a Harvard EdCast with Savitz-Romer on how the role of school counselors can be reimagined.