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Counselors and the Road to College

A White House report emphasizes the critical role of effective counseling and calls for enhanced training and support
White House

Educators and policymakers increasingly realize that the road to college and career leads directly through the offices of school counselors. But according to a new White House report, today’s counselors are too few in number and receive vastly insufficient training in building and sustaining innovative, effective college and career readiness programs at their schools.

The report, titled Counseling and College Completion: The Road Ahead summarizes the ideas and solutions that arose at a national convening event called “College Opportunity Agenda: Strengthening School Counseling and College Advising,” held at the Harvard Graduate School of Education on July 28, 2014.

A partnership between HGSE and the White House’s College Opportunity Agenda, the event drew 140 counseling leaders and advocates from across the country and from all sectors. HGSE Senior Lecturer Mandy Savitz-Romer, a national expert in college access and school counseling, helped lead the convening with Eric Waldo, Ed.M’03, executive director of First Lady Michelle Obama's Reach Higher initiative.

In a day of panel discussions and breakout sessions, attendees explored questions of how to implement and improve graduate training (pre-service) and professional development (in-service) opportunities for school counselors; how scalable, data-driven innovations can enhance the skills and impact of school counselors; and how counseling tools can expand the reach of school counselors so they can serve all students. Broad themes emerged from each area of discussion.

The Road Ahead: Actions to Strengthen School Counseling

Collaborate and communicate to overcome the “silo effect”

  • Collaboration is needed at all levels: between teachers and counselors, K–12 and higher education, researchers and practitioners, schools and nonprofit/community organizations, educators and business leaders, etc.
  • Collaboration can support training, research, and development of tools for college counseling and the intersections between the three — for example, aligning graduate school curriculum for counselors with college and career competencies.
  • Collaboration can help organizations achieve impact at a larger scale while still allowing for local control.
  • Communication is a crucial component of collaboration and is necessary to expand this work beyond those “already in the room.”

Recognize counselors’ value and expand training in specific competencies

  • Consider ways to professionalize college counseling by creating additional credentials and/or advanced graduate programs.
  • Examine how counselors are structurally organized in schools and districts and what messages this sends about the place of college and career advising.
  • Recognize counselors’ desire for more targeted and relevant training and address barriers to such training opportunities.
  • Develop training that embraces counselors’ strengths while also cultivating concrete skills, including:
  1. Technical skills – i.e. how to fill out forms such as the FAFSA.
  2. Content skills – i.e. knowing about a wide range of postsecondary schools, academic requirements, what options a student might have.
  3. Communication skills – i.e. having difficult conversations with students and families, communicating evidence-based outcomes to school and district leaders.
  4. Cultural/social skills – i.e. working with the individual child, families, and within schools to generate a college-going culture.
  5. Advocacy and leadership skills – i.e. being able to interpret data, write grants, broker and manage collaborations.

Use data to drive decision-making, program focus, and policy

  • Data must drive college counseling and advising — not only because it is best practice and necessary for accountability, but it also lends credibility to the work and gives counselors and institutions leverage in larger conversations about equity in counseling initiatives.
  • Counselors should be trained in data, research, and grant-writing to overcome the common fear of accountability and to empower them as practitioner-researchers.
  • Data should be used to monitor student progress and the meeting of specific benchmarks, as well as to demonstrate clear responsibility for specific milestones
  • Organizations need to communicate about research/data and develop structures that can facilitate sharing empirically based knowledge, such as a repository for research, best practices, counseling tools, etc.

Capitalize on leadership and near-peers

  • Current school and district leaders set the example (and the institutional structures) for prioritizing college counseling, appreciating the value-added of counselors, and broadening the responsibility for students’ college and career outcomes.
  • In addition to existing leaders, we need to envision and empower counselors as leaders in advocating for college and career preparation.
  • Near-peer relationships are an important kind of leadership for both students and adults: with students, it can take the form of near-peer mentoring for college and career aspirations, while for adults it can take the form of training-the-trainer models to build internal capacity and competence and overcome the stigma of professional development.

Approach technology thoughtfully

  • Technology holds enormous opportunities of which counselors can take advantage for their own professional development as well as student support, but it should work in service of existing training and counseling programs, not for its own sake.
  • Benefits of technological training and college access tools include convenience, flexibility, cost effectiveness, access and reach, appeal to young people, and capacity for aggregating and disaggregating data.
  • Technology for college access and advising should be empirically founded and evaluated, and the data collected should be funneled directly to those working with students.
  • Promising technological tools include: counselor “dashboards” of data, college application portals, apps for student tracking and communication, and web platforms to support scholarships, college match, transcript services, and predictive algorithms using ACT/SAT data.

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