Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Effective College Counseling is More Than a List

By Patrick O'Connor, Ph.D

The end of the school year brings many wonderful rites of passage and traditions that make being a counselor so worthwhile.  These customs create an opportunity for us to take a step back and reflect on the growth of our students.  All of these activities have special meaning, from honors awards assemblies to graduation to prom…

…to the principal calling us into the office and saying “So, how’d we do?”

Every high school counselor knows the code.  Administration cares about all of the counseling services offered in the building, but once the lilacs are in bloom and the seniors are painting “Class of 12 Rules” on their cars, the only service everyone wants to know about is college selection—specifically, the list of who got in where.

At first blush, this seems to make sense.  Community support is a key component of any effective college counseling curriculum, and a wise counselor builds a strong communication plan to keep that support vibrant.  When it comes to raising strong college-bound students, the village and the advocate must have a clear, common vision.

At the same time, too much emphasis on The List can perpetuate the belief that our students (and our college counseling program) are only as good as the name recognition of the colleges they attend—and that is simply wrong-headed. To be sure, the college counseling curriculum is successful when helping a happy senior get admitted to a college with an admission rate that is lower than the odds of being struck by lightning.  At the same time, the counseling program is just as successful when supporting a jubilant student with Ivy-worthy credentials who matriculates to a college close to home to keep an eye on an ailing parent—or just because Local U has the right mix of challenge, support, and opportunity.

In both cases, students have individual needs and goals that are discerned by the counselor and supported by the counselor’s actions, empathy, and skills.  Since both outcomes support those individual needs, who can say the first student is more of a counseling success than the other—especially since the counselor probably had to work more with the second student, and prepare them to deal with the community’s amazement when the town hears the student is heading to Local U?

The List certainly can be part of the evaluation of a college counseling program—if a high school sends a dozen worthy applicants to a selective college every year and all are annually rejected, the counselor is more that wise to consider how the school can better support these candidates.  Still, overreliance on The List can discourage students from exploring little-known niche colleges that would be great for them; cause them to lose focus on their individual needs in order to follow what they believe to be a path that will make the school and town more proud of them, or prevent them from coming to the proper conclusion (for them) that if they think school is stupid, it might be better to retool next year herding sheep in Ireland than spend the year feeling like another brick in the wall.

School administrators are keenly interested in how counselors help students grow, and rightly so.  Given the individualized nature of the college counseling curriculum, school counselors would be wise to use the roster of college acceptances as only part of the answer to the question “How did we do?”, and see the asking of the question as an opportunity to give a fuller, more legitimate view of the construct of student success in the college counseling curriculum. 

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