Wednesday, October 24, 2018

College Counseling is a Dying Art. We Are to Blame.

By Patrick O'Connor  Ph.D

I’m on a planning committee for an annual college update program for school counselors in the Metro Detroit area.  As I was waiting to check participants in the day of the event, I looked at a page from the registration list, just to see if I knew anyone who was going to be there.  The list included the names of 25 registrants, along with their job titles. 

4 were school counselors. 21 were not.

Knowing schools hire counselors but often call them something else, I scanned the list for possible overlaps. Instead, I saw titles suggesting those holding the job are counselors, when they really aren’t. College Adviser.  College Success Coach.  Manager of Postsecondary Planning.  Well-meaning professionals, yes, all engaged in some kind of college advising.  But not school counselors, engaged in college counseling.

I caught up with one of my colleagues at the conference, who said the same thing is happening in her district.  “My district knows we don’t have time with our other duties to help kids with college during the day, so they’re training the afterschool managers to help kids apply to college. They could have hired parapros to do scheduling and testing so we could do the college advising, but they didn’t go that route.”

I’m trying to figure out just when it was decided to concede college counseling as someone else’s job. I’m not talking about college advising, where young college graduates assist students with the nuts and bolts of the application process.  I think that’s a great idea, and badly needed.  But looking at a student’s high school experience to help them choose the right atmosphere where they’ll keep learning and growing?  When was it decided that wasn’t our thing anymore?

Before you get out the usual torches and pitchforks of large caseloads and inappropriate duties, you may want to start a little closer to home.  There isn’t a lot of research on how much training school counselors get in college counseling, but what’s out there suggests the answer is not much.  A new summary of the state of counselor readiness to be effective college counselors sums up the findings nicely: “(S)chool counselors rarely receive training in college readiness counseling during their master’s program in school counseling.”

This shouldn’t surprise anyone, least of all school counselors.  Look at the titles of the 15 or so classes required to earn most school counseling degrees, and you’ll see myriad courses focused on mental health counseling and developmental psychology, but typically none that include the word “college” in them.  Some programs offer a course in career counseling that includes a unit—one class period—on college counseling, while many counselor educators insist college counseling is taught “throughout the curriculum”, scattered in here and there as an afterthought, like poppy seeds in a muffin recipe.

It’s certainly true students are bringing serious issues to school requiring the full weight of well-trained mental health professionals.  It’s also true more than a few school counseling programs would benefit from a building administrator who sees school counselors as more than just a spare pair of hands.  But somewhere in our desire to become something other than “guidance counselors”, it seems we ourselves have decided helping young people consider life after high school is too pedestrian a task to be worthy of genuine study.

That decision is killing us.  Two-thirds of respondents labeled the quality of career and college counseling in Michigan schools as “lousy” or “terrible.”  That’s us, and that’s what the public expects us to do.

When did we decide as a profession that didn’t matter?


  1. The only reason why I was prepared to counsel high school students on the college application process is that I worked in the undergraduate admissions office as a student worker. I helped the admissions counselors process the applications, and worked with prospective students and families.
    If a graduate program does offer a one credit hour class on this, I hope that they require time spent working in the admissions office. This was the best way that I learned.

  2. While I agree that a counseling program should include more course work in college advising, I also think it could include a course in the class scheduling process as well. I don't think counselors made the decision that college and career counseling has no merit. We are put in a situation where there is no time do do it efficiently. I have had the MCAN training as well as a very comprehensive training in 2004. None of this training has given me additional time in my day to provide the advising for my kids. The structure of our positions is what controls the ability to provide this critical information to our students.

  3. I consider myself a very good college counselor, however, the powers that be have us do so many other things in the arena of mental health to CYA, I should be called a mental health counselor. I worked for years to get proficient and stay up to date on college admissions and such, but we definitely don't have the time it takes to really sit with students and explore opportunties/careers etc....its a shame

  4. The article gives the unfortunate truth about the state of college counseling not only in our high schools but also in the Masters in School Counseling programs offered. There are some farsighted colleges who have incorporated college and career counseling into their Masters programs from the first year. Assumption College in Massachusetts comes to mind. There are those of us who have taken up the slack and we are called IECs (Independent Educational Consultants). Most of us charge modest fees, help students find educational programs (college, boarding school, therapeutic placement, etc.) that represent a good fit and match for the student. Yet, many of the people who have access to the students whom we want to help won't work with us on behalf of these students. We are not the enemy. We fill a gap that families need to have filled for their kids. We do it with professionalism, warmth, and we spend a lot of time visiting programs, reading professional materials, making our voices heard at NACAC, and other educational venues. Our professional organizations IECA, HECA, NCAG, etc. are our touchstones for contact. Get to know us. Your kids will thank you.