Improving College Access: A Review of Research on the Role of High School Counselors

By McKillip, Mary E. M.; Rawls, Anita et al. | Professional School Counseling, October 2012 | Go to article overview

Improving College Access: A Review of Research on the Role of High School Counselors


McKillip, Mary E. M., Rawls, Anita, Barry, Carol, Professional School Counseling


High school counselors potentially hold a key position to help increase the number of U.S. students receiving post-secondary degrees, particularly to address inequalities that prevent certain students from successfully transitioning to college. Using the model of student success (Perna & Thomas, 2008), this study reviewed the literature to understand how various contexts (social, school, family, student) shape high school counselor interactions with students as they work to improve post-secondary outcomes of college access and enrollment.

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Many educational policy makers are calling for an increase in the number of United States students receiving postsecondary education and earning college degrees (Matthews, 2010; Obama, 2009). More jobs than ever before require education beyond high school and estimates suggest that if changes are not made, the U.S. in 2018 will have more available jobs requiring a college degree than qualified people to fill them (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2010). As the need for college-educated workers grows, the connection between higher education and high wages remains strong (Aud et al., 2010; Danziger & Ratners, 2010). Current economic concerns put the wage gap and need for highly educated workers in stark relief (Clinedinst & Hawkins, 2009).

Regrettably, many high school students do not move successfully from college aspirations, to access, to persistence in college, and, finally, to a degree (Aud et al., 2010). The issue is not a lack of desire on the part of young adults. Most high school students seek postsecondary education; 92% of U.S. high school seniors in 2004 planned to continue their education after high school (Chen, Wu, & Tasoff, 2010). However, in 2009, just 31% of 25- to 29-year-olds had completed a bachelor's degree or higher (Aud et al., 2010).

There is a particular need to find ways to support traditionally underrepresented students in their preparation for and pursuit of post-secondary degrees (Bowen, Chingos, & McPherson, 2009). This includes low-income students, first generation college-bound students, and students from Black, Latino/a, and American Indian backgrounds. The lower likelihood of college degrees for these groups is particularly pressing among the current U.S. student population that is increasing in racial and ethnic diversity each year (Aud et al., 2010).

The emphasis on increasing the educational attainment of U.S. students has heightened the need for research on factors that contribute to both college admission and college completion. High school counselors can contribute substantially to reaching the goal of increased college enrollment and persistence. Counselors are school-based representatives who work to deliver programs and services to support all students via "individual planning" in the school (ASCA, n.d.). They are also in a position to address inequalities that prevent certain students from successfully transitioning through high school and into college (Holcomb-McCoy, 2007). A surprising finding was that researchers studying the transition from high school to college often overlook the role of school counselors (Adelman, 1999, 2006) even when school counselors are their targeted audience (Trusty, 2004).

For this literature review, the authors provide a summary of the current research on college preparation in high school and the role of school counselors. Further developing past reviews (McDonough, 2005), the article begins with a conceptual model based on the work of Perna and Thomas (2008) to establish the need for a contextual understanding of the work of high school counselors. The conceptual framework is situated within these contexts: (a) broad social, (b) school, (c) familial, and (d) student internal. The four sections of this research review are organized around these contexts, with a focus on the school counselor-student interactions in high school to improve post-secondary outcomes of college preparation and enrollment. …

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