Thursday, June 30, 2011

Why College Access is Still Not Diverse

By Patrick O'Connor

In their well-researched book, No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal:  Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life, Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford pay considerable attention to the academic achievement gap between races and social classes.  While the authors recognize it will take significant resources and ample time to succeed in closing this gap, an immediate, affordable opportunity exists to improve the quality of academic preparation and postsecondary planning for all students, especially poor students and many students of color.

The need for improved college admission counseling is widely known and well documented. Data to support these concerns was presented in a recent study by Public Agenda, where a majority of young adults felt their school counselor was of little or no help in providing information about good college choices or applying to college.

What is not known is that a vast majority of school counselors, especially public school counselors, do not receive any meaningful training in working with students and families in college admission counseling.  The American School Counseling Association identifies 466 college-based programs that offer graduate training in school counseling, but the National Association for College Admission Counseling lists only 42 degree granting programs that offer a course in college admission counseling—and only one of them is known to require the course of all graduates.

The results of this policy decision are clear, and the policy clearly disadvantages large groups of underserved students.  Affluent private schools often hire former admissions officers from well-known colleges to serve as their college admission counselors, giving students and families insights into the preparation, process, and strategies needed to make strong college choices based on the student’s needs and interests.

Similarly, public schools in communities where college attendance is an expectation—most often in the suburbs-- devote substantial funds to providing training in college admission counseling for their school counselors.  Through professional workshops, conferences and visits to college campuses, these counselors develop an understanding of the need to tailor college choice to student’s interests, abilities and needs, and become familiar with a wide array of colleges—skills all counselors should have learned in graduate school.

At the same time, counselors in urban public schools typically have larger numbers of students to work with and smaller budgets to spend.  The same can be said of counselors in rural schools, who have the added limitation of being miles away from most colleges and the location of most conferences.  This not only gives these counselors fewer funds to spend on professional development, but it offers them less opportunity, since principals are unwilling to let their lone counselor leave the building.

Combined, these factors raise the likelihood that students in rural and urban areas—the students who play a vital role in making college campuses diverse-- will be less supported in college choice and unsuccessful in college.  These factors increase the chances the underserved student will drop out of college, with only lowered self-esteem, insufficient job skills, and untenable student loans as memories of the experience.

The absence of college admissions training and its subsequent consequences have been raised with a number of stakeholders, and all express sympathy for the problem, but none wish to correct it.  College professors who run counselor training programs often deride college admission counseling as “not real counseling”, but something akin to academic advising, a simplistic conclusion that is counter to the experiences of the counselors they educate.

The irony is that counselors want this training.  A poll of new counselors in Michiganindicated 95 percent of new counselors polled thought a course in college admission counseling should be offered in graduate school, and 61 percent thought it should be mandatory.  Since many colleges offering the course are willing to share the course syllabus and other materials at no charge, replacing an elective course in graduate school programs with this needed class could be done swiftly and economically.

All school counselors care deeply about their students, but without proper, in-depth graduate school training in the college admission process for school counselors at all grade levels, well meaning counselors can only do so much—and they are the first to admit more is needed.  The long standing paucity of college admission training will continue to contribute to the equally well-established academic achievement gap between rich and poor, and white and black and Hispanic. That one contributes to the other is intuitively and empirically supported; why those who could easily alter this arrangement, but instead choose to prolong it, is a mystery, a disservice, and a shame

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