Lousy College Counseling for Bright Kids From Poor Homes

04/30/2015 04:30 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2015

In a week that was dominated by stories of civil unrest, perhaps one of the most important discussions related to social justice went unnoticed: The U.S. House Subcommittee on Higher Education held a hearing on "Improving College Access and Completion for Low-Income and First-Generation Students." It explored existing institutional efforts to better serve disadvantaged students and discuss possible policy changes to strengthen federal programs with the goal of increasing college access and completion.

If we truly care about things like the economic inequality or class mobility, putting more degrees in the hands of academically talented young people from poor areas is certainly a way to make a significant difference. And it turns out that one of the best and simplest ways to do that is by redefining the roles of guidance counselors, an immensely valuable but forgotten resource in public schools.

When people think of guidance counselors, most think of counseling on behavioral issues, teaching study skills, assisting in career planning, and facilitating class scheduling. These are all accurate assumptions, but missing among them is what should be one of the most important duties of a guidance counselor -- providing college advisement.

It's a classic case of perception becoming reality. According to a recent study by the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC), a majority of guidance counselors report their department spends less than 20 percent of their time on college readiness, selection, and applications. From a student's viewpoint, college counseling may not seem to be a priority, so they often don't seek the help of a guidance counselor when they are thinking about their options after high school. Not surprisingly, the study also found that only three percent of students chose a high school counselor as most important in shaping their educational vision.

The consequences are extremely troubling, especially for high achieving, low-income students. An analysis of data from the Department of Education's Educational Longitudinal Study of 2002 found that one in five high school graduates who scored in the top academic quartile in 10th grade and who simultaneously comes from a family in the bottom economic quartile does not even enroll in college. In addition, more than half of these academically talented but economically challenged students do not apply for financial aid, and nearly a quarter do not take the SAT or ACT.

If they do manage to apply, more often than not they choose a school that is less rigorous than their high abilities would permit. They are "undermatched" because they don't understand that more selective institutions may well be more affordable than the second- or third-tier institutions they are attending.

The reason for the bad advisement may not lie entirely with the counselor's lack of training or inability; the average public school counselor in the U.S. has a caseload of 476 students. That's not individualized college counseling; that's crowd control. In short, lower-income students would be more likely to rely on guidance from school counselors, but the burdens many counselors face prohibit meaningful college advising.

Local school systems need to provide a pathway to success for students, whether through a school-based approach or through a partnership with a college access network. Pathways do not need to be traditional; they can look to use high-tech approaches including by providing online or mobile resources.

Local school systems should also advocate for high-performing, low-income students by identifying students to colleges so they can be recruited. Coordinating with postsecondary schools so as to offer "high school to college transition programs" will help prepare students for success in college. And once a student has graduated, they should be tracked; the NACAC reports that only 58 percent of schools track what their former students do after high school.

States could do their part by providing local schools with high-quality information to share with students about applying for financial aid and scholarships, about the benefits of applying to highly competitive colleges, and about college application fee waivers, standardized testing fee waivers, and the like.
These tasks would best be carried out by a dedicated college counselor with proper training. Unfortunately, less than two-fifths of counselors the NACAC surveyed said their school had a counselor whose primary responsibility was college applications and/or selection.

Researchers Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner of Stanford University and the University of Virginia, respectively, have demonstrated a successful approach through their "Expanding College Opportunities" program, which provided application guidance, information about net college costs, and fee waivers to high-achieving, low-income students (identified after taking the ACT or SAT) at a minimal cost of $6 per student. The results were stunning: they increased students' applications to selective colleges by 56 percent and ultimately those who received support were 46 percent more likely to enroll in a "matched institution" (one whose student credentials matched the applying student's). If academic researchers can provide this kind of program effectively, imagine the value of entire state agencies stepping in.

Emphasis on basic achievement and increasing high school graduation rates, worthy topics to be sure, have had the unintended consequence of causing many schools to neglect excellence. We need low-income students who are at the top of the class, who often come from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, to meet their full potential; if history is any guide, they are likely to be the next generation of innovators, business people and scholars.

We also need to level the playing field. While high-income students can hire expensive private college counselors to ensure they are accepted to Ivy League schools, high-achieving, low-income students are lucky to have a ten-minute discussion with their counselor about one of life's more important decisions, college. Schools need to start making these students and their college futures a priority.

So the real story this week--the one most important for the long term--wasn't on the streets. It was on Capitol Hill, in college admissions offices, and in high school guidance departments across the country. That story needs to be told more often.