School counselors have long been understood as a key ingredient in college access, but the impact of counselors on student achievement has largely gone unmeasured. A recent paper from researcher Christine Mulhern, a Ph.D. student and PIER fellow at the Center on Education Policy Research at Harvard University, fills that gap, making clear just how valuable a counselor’s role can be. Indeed, Mulhern found that while teachers and counselors make an impact on students via different avenues, the effect of counselors is similar to that of teachers when it comes to educational attainment.
The findings offer more evidence of the value of the counselor role and suggest that a greater investment in school counselors may be as effective and more cost-effective than rolling out new college-going interventions that operate outside of schools, like online platforms or external mentoring opportunities. But the study also found that investing in counselors doesn't nececssarily mean hiring new counselors; it means investigating and sharing the practices of effective counselors so that more students can have access to the caliber of support they provide.
Using methods similar to those used in teacher valued-added studies, Mulhern looked at a sample of quasi-randomly assigned high school students and their corresponding counselors from 131 schools in the state of Massachusetts. Her findings indicate that:
Counselors absolutely influence post-secondary achievement
Mulhern's paper finds that improving access to the type of support provided by the best school counselors may be a promising way to increase educational attainment and close socioeconomic gaps. By making the impact of school counselors explicit, the study provides an impetus for further investigation. Though her data did not provide detail on what practices effective counselors use, Mulhern thinks that her findings indicate that there are other avenues and levers that education leaders can consider, beyond classroom teachers, for driving opportunity.
Supporting effective counselor practices has value even when caseloads are high
There may be large benefits, like mental health outcomes, to drastic reductions in caseloads (like going from 500 students to 200), but for schools in which caseloads will remain high, focusing on developing effective counselor practices may be more cost-effective and influential. Working with a sample of counselors who had roughly an average of 285 students, Mulhern found that reducing caseloads from 285 to 220 students (which is the expected reduction from hiring one more counselor in the average Massachusetts high school) had only a marginal positive impact on educational attainment. But the paper suggests that the potential for leveraging effective practices among a school's existing counselors is significant.
Counselors can help students access information and opportunities
Mulhern shows that counselor practices, and the information they provide, can be vital in helping students access opportunities and apply to college, independent of classroom performance. “There’s this whole other area of things outside that traditional domain that students need assistance accessing, and counselors are particularly important for helping with that,” Mulhern says.
We should leverage the potential of all educators in a school
A large body of research suggests that classroom teachers are instrumental in student achievement, but Mulhern's study suggests the value of exploring how a school’s entire professional network — social workers, paraprofessionals, counselors — supports student achievement. “One thing I want to look at next," Mulhern says, "is the interaction between counselor and teacher effects — so, how are they working together, how are students navigating the different types of educators to whom they have access to figure out what they’re doing. Are they complementing each other?”
Counselors are a vital lever for advancing equity and educational attainment. But tapping the potential counselors offer doesn't necessarily mean that all schools need more of them. Rather, what's needed is a deeper understanding of the role counselors play, the practices that enable effective impact, and how to best match students with counselors. “Understanding that [counselors] can have important effects, but also knowing how to improve students’ access to effective counselors, is in line with a lot of policy and education goals,” Mulhern says.