In recent decades, graduate programs for school counselors have focused primarily on student mental health and wellness, leaving many counselors ill-equipped to help students prepare academically for college, submit applications, and apply for financial aid. This gap is “hurting low-income students the most,” The Hechinger Report writes—and it has spurred some states and school districts to require additional training in college and career counseling.
Pendulum swinging back toward college planning
Despite the outsized role counselors can play in encouraging first-generation students and those from low-income families to pursue college and helping them navigate the financial aid process, their roles have increasingly shifted toward administrative tasks and activities needed to address students’ basic needs and mental health. Graduate programs in counseling tend to reinforce that imbalance, offering faculty with backgrounds in clinical counseling and few courses on college admissions.
Graduate program leaders, meanwhile, point out that counselors gain most of their college-readiness training via internships, and many states require school counselors to have a certain number of hours of field experience.
Taking steps to require more training
Hoping to effect change on a national level, The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs, the main accreditor for such programs, has added college and career readiness standards, with compliance required by 2023. And looking to make even more rapid progress in college and career counseling, some states, counties, and school districts are establishing their own professional development opportunities and training requirements.
California, for instance, has updated its standards for school counseling programs, outlining performance criteria for college and career readiness and requiring prospective school counselors to spend at least one-eighth of their fieldwork hours on those skills.
California’s Riverside County Office of Education’s New School Counselor Academy is another effort to help to fill the college counseling gap. The program trains school counselors in college counseling and career planning, and is credited with helping to boost Riverside County’s graduation rate from one of California’s lowest to the second highest among the state’s 10 largest counties. The academy “totally opened up my entire world because in my graduate school it was more about mental health,” Felicida Barajas, a school counselor at California’s Jurupa Valley High School, told The Hechinger Report.
Writing in EdSource, Stacey Caillier and Ben Daley—the director and the president, respectively, of the Center for Research on Equity & Innovation at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education—emphasize California school counselors’ crucial role in actively encouraging disadvantaged students and families to complete the FAFSA and California Dream Act applications.
The Hechinger Report also highlights Michigan and Texas as two states taking steps to increase training in college and career readiness, in part through licensing requirements and new virtual learning opportunities.
Could mandatory FAFSA help?
Catharine B. Hill, managing director of Ithaka S+R and president emerita of Vassar College, meanwhile, suggests that state should require all students to fill out the FAFSA, which would further focus high school counselors on FAFSA completion—and improve low-income students’ chance of going on to college.
“Many lower-income students don’t even apply for financial aid,” she wrote for Inside Higher Ed. “A requirement would make it more likely that high schools take on the responsibility of helping all students get this form completed. They help with other forms related to applying to college, so why not this significant one?”