02/25/2011 03:20 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Administration's Higher Education Goals Unattainable Without K-16 Bridge

The dearth of college counseling in the nation's public schools derails many students as they transition between high school and college. Compared to their more privileged peers with similar academic qualifications, low-income, minority, first-generation, and other vulnerable students are less likely to attend college. When these vulnerable students pursue higher education, they are more likely to attend vocational schools, community colleges, for-profit universities, and less selective four-year colleges. This phenomenon highlights a sorting process in the act of choosing among higher education options that further perpetuates socio-economic inequality and limits the nation's global competitiveness.

Existing methods of addressing higher education disparities among vulnerable students, although helpful, merely preserve the status quo because they fail to adequately address structural inequality. Generally, policymakers employ two approaches to promote college access for vulnerable students: focusing on K-12 academic preparation to close achievement gaps, and preserving college discretion for diversity admissions as well as providing financial aid to needy students. These approaches, however, fail to provide an adequate bridge between high school and college because their effectiveness depends on the happening of a single act -- the submission of an application for college admission -- which should not be taken for granted.

Vulnerable students overwhelmingly lack access to social networks that provide valuable information to navigate the complex college admissions and financial aid processes. And the nation's public schools exacerbate this problem by failing to extend adequate college counseling support to their most needy students, particularly academically successful students who demonstrate college potential. Nationwide there are approximately 460 students for every high school counselor. In larger school districts, this ratio can rise to more than 700 students per counselor. Furthermore, the quality of college counseling students receive varies significantly across and within school districts. Private, independent, and more affluent public schools are more likely to have organized college counseling services. Meanwhile, public schools -- especially urban, rural, and those with predominately low-income and minority students -- have inadequate college counseling resources. These alarming trends threaten to undermine the Obama administration's goal to lead the world in college graduates by 2020 because reaching this ambitious target depends on increasing the college-going rates of vulnerable students. Yet policymakers continue to overlook the importance of effective college counseling for promoting college access and limiting higher education stratification. This oversight is surprising especially taking into account the relative ease of addressing college counseling issues compared to other intractable education issues.

The nation's public schools have the potential to function as social networking stations where students receive valuable information enabling them to convert their academic preparation into college admission. A wealth of social science and education research illustrates how structured college counseling and support could have a significant impact on college access and completion outcomes for low-income, rural, urban, first generation students, and students of color. College counseling must become an integrated self-standing function in public high schools nationwide and particularly in the neediest school districts; it should be a core service public schools provide to students and families alongside academic instruction. In order to be effective, college counseling departments should have the following components: staffs of competent, experienced, and well-trained professionals, who are exclusively focused on college related activities; visibility, standing, continuity, and ample resources to assist students and parents effectively; and the engagement of teachers and administrators in the overall college counseling process. Most importantly, the permanence of a college counseling department contributes to the creation of a college-going culture among teachers, administrators, and the student body as a whole.

College access and completion are among a number of extremely important educational metrics that reflect how well the nation's schools perform. From a societal standpoint, higher education outcomes better reflect the return on investment in K-12 education than more narrow and snap-shot-like testing metrics. For example, existing academic reform proposals targeting college and career readiness, as reflected in curriculum enhancements and test scores, will only have a modest impact if significant numbers of vulnerable students either fail to attend college or select higher education settings that do not match their academic potential. Moving beyond the status quo requires more thoughtful steps than simply leading vulnerable students into a dense forest and leaving them to fend for themselves. Therefore, building a K-16 bridge with effective college counseling should occupy a greater part of the education reform discussion at the federal, state, and local levels.