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Meet the modern guidance counselor

Counselor Ashley Gallant meets with 10th grader India Griffin at Woodlawn High School near Baltimore, Md.

When Tyler Lattimore was applying to college, he had to wait days to meet with the one counselor assigned to his high school in Gainesville, Fla. When he finally did, she didn’t seem to know much about the elite, out-of-state schools he was interested in.

Lattimore, now a sophomore at Emory University in Atlanta, is a first-generation college student.

“I was actually fortunate to have a teacher who sat down with me after class and talked to me about my options," he says. "But the guidance counselor – I could not even imagine getting a hold of her long enough to do these kinds of things,” he says.

Meet the modern guidance counselor. Average caseload: 471 students. Today’s counselors juggle course advising, behavior problems – even coordinate standardized tests. When they do grab a few minutes to talk to students about college, they don’t have much training to fall back on.

The issue is on the forefront of the minds of educators, dozens of whom met with President and First Lady Obama today in Washington for a day-long summit. The focus is to help more low-income students get into – and finish – college. 

After Michelle Obama launched her campaign to encourage more low-income students to get degrees, counselor Patrick O’Connor wrote her an open letter, published by the Washington Post.

“It’s clear that the No. 1 need of school counselors, to help realize the goals Mrs. Obama was talking about, was to get better training in college admission counseling, college advising,” O’Connor says.

O’Connor works at a private school in Michigan, where he’s responsible for just 46 students. He also teaches counselors. In most states school counselors need a master’s degree, but O’Connor says only a handful of programs even offer a course on college advising.

“So by and large, most counselors are leaving their master's degree programs with no formal training at any level of depth about how to help students,” he says.

That means they’re often unprepared to advise students on things like financial aid, or finding the right fit.

Alexandria Walton Radford interviewed high school valedictorians for the book “Top Student, Top School?” She looked at why so few valedictorians from low-income backgrounds ended up in the most selective colleges.

“What they encountered were counselors who often gave college information to students en masse,” she says.

The counselors tended to focus on schools they knew about – schools where middle-of-the road students were likely to get in.

“For those high achieving high school students, those colleges did not tend to match their academic accomplishments,” Radford says.

That’s known as under-matching, and it can hurt low-income and first-generation college students, who tend to do better at more selective schools. Radford says those are the students who need the most guidance.

“What I found was that college counseling was pretty poor across the board, even in more affluent communities,” she says. “But the difference was, in those affluent families, the families could make up for the lack of guidance being received through the schools.”

That’s because the parents went to college themselves, or could afford to pay for private counseling.

Public school counselors are aware of the bad reviews they get. A few years ago the nonprofit research group Public Agenda surveyed hundreds of high school graduates. Most of them gave their counselors fair to poor marks.

“It made me angry, because here I'm working my tail off,” says Jeremy Goldman, a counselor at Pikesville High School outside Baltimore, Md.

Goldman has tried to learn on the job – sneaking in visits to college campuses on his vacation time.

At nearby Woodlawn High School, Ashley Gallant tries to meet with each of her 10th graders at least a few times a year to start the college conversation. In one of these meetings in her office, she asks 15-year-old India Griffin what she plans to do after high school.

“I want to go to a performing arts school to become a singer and a musician,” Griffin says.

Together, they search a software program on Gallant’s computer for colleges that might appeal to Griffin.

These one-on-one meetings are getting harder to fit in. Gallant used to be one of five counselors at the school. They’re down to four this year due to budget cuts, so she does more group meetings.

“We definitely have to be a little bit more creative and resourceful with our time,” Gallant says. “We’re having to do more with less, but that is pretty much how it is with most schools now.”

Without a big boost in funding, it’s not likely to get much better. The American School Counselor Association says there should be one counselor for every 250 students. Try selling that in cash-strapped districts like Philadelphia and in communities across California, where many counselors have more than 1,000 students on their to-do lists.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

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