LAST SPRING, PUBLIC AGENDA, A nonprofit research organization, released a report on behalf of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The report, entitled "Can I Get a Little Advice Here?" presented the results of a survey administered to 600 adults from 22 to 30 who had at least begun some form of higher education. The survey asked the respondents to reflect on the quality of their interactions with their high school counselors. When asked to evaluate their counselor's efficacy in helping find the right college, manage the application process, research scholarships and financial aid, and develop career awareness, most respondents gave their high school counselor a poor or fair rating. The most disappointing finding in the report was that nearly 50 percent of students said that, in relation to their experience with their school counselor, they felt like just another face in the crowd.
The vast majority of counselors that I have worked with are hardworking, caring and bright people who want to make a positive difference in the lives of their students. Most high school counselors work tirelessly to support students as they navigate the demands of high school and the challenges of adolescence. And so we must ask the million-dollar question: If counselors are working hard and caring about our students, then why are they getting such low marks from graduates?
First, we must look at caseloads. High student-to-counselor ratios preclude meaningful interactions and effective counseling. The American School Counselor Association recommends that student-to-counselor ratios do not exceed a ratio of 250:1, but the national average is 460:1, and in California, to give one example, the ratio can approach 1000:1. In addition, counselors are often assigned responsibilities that limit the amount of face-to-face time they have with students, and, in some schools, they essentially function more like support staff in the operations of the school. Counselors are often expected to complete application materials and process admissions forms, prepare and revise student schedules, manage student transcripts and graduation requirements, respond to attendance, grading and discipline concerns, and provide support for testing, registration and data collection. These are critical functions within the organization, but having counselors assume responsibility for them can certainly have an impact on how they are perceived by students. The survey by Public Agenda did not account for these counselor caseloads. If it had, I imagine that we would have seen a direct relationship between student perception of counseling and the student-to-counselor ratio.
Another critical issue is counselor training. As a graduate student, I studied personality theories, counseling and therapeutic techniques, group dynamics, psychopathology and educational research. But in practice, I have worked primarily as an academic case manager, a career and college counselor, a resource on educational policy and …