Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

Are School Counselors Impacting Underrepresented Students' Thinking about Postsecondary Education? A Nationally Representative Study

Academic journal article Professional School Counseling

Are School Counselors Impacting Underrepresented Students' Thinking about Postsecondary Education? A Nationally Representative Study

Article excerpt

From President Obama's challenge that every American pursue at least one year of vocational or college training by 2020 to the more recent Reach Higher initiative (The White House, 2014), there has been a national push to enhance the college and career readiness of high school students.

This momentum, spurred on by the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) and the Education Trust, puts school counselors at the forefront of this conversation (ASCA, 2012a, 2012b; Hines, Lemons, & Crews, 2011). Moreover, as highlighted in research, school counselors play a critical role in assisting students with college and career readiness and postsecondary planning (Bryan, Holcomb-McCoy, Moore-Thomas, & Day-Vines, 2009; Bryan, Moore-Thomas, Day-Vines, & Holcomb-McCoy, 2011; Engberg & Gilbert, 2014; McDonough, 2005).

Some groups of students are still underrepresented in college enrollment, including first-generation, low-income, African American, and Hispanic students (Kena et al., 2015; McKillip, Rawls, & Barry, 2012; Pham & Keenan, 2011; Weinstein & Savitz-Romer, 2009). As of 2013, students from high-income families enrolled in college at a 31% higher rate than students from low-income families (Kena et al., 2015). Moreover, while 62% of undergraduates enrolled in public four-year institutions in 2013 were White, only 12% and 15% were African American and Hispanic, respectively (Kena et al., 2015). According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), first-generation students are more likely to be African American or Hispanic and come from low-income families (Chen, 2005). These gaps may aid the perpetuation of societal inequalities, as those with at least a bachelor's degree are slated to earn 66% more income in their lifetime compared to those with only a high school degree (Baum, Ma, & Payea, 2010).

Scholars often use social capital theory (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1977; Coleman, 1988; Lin, 2001) to contextualize disparities in educational attainment among underrepresented groups. In a broad sense, Coleman (1988) described a facet of social capital as an informational channel, or "the potential for information that inheres in social relations" (p. 104). Therefore, students belonging to groups that are underrepresented in higher education may have differential access to the social capital related to the pursuit of postsecondary education within their social networks. Fortunately, an understanding of social capital theory also contextualizes ways in which school counselors can advocate for underrepresented students and work to close this college access gap (Bryan et al., 2011; Engberg & Gilbert, 2014; McDonough, 2005; McKillip et al., 2012).


Within the context of higher education, social capital refers to a student's access to knowledge and resources about postsecondary education relayed through relationships that comprise a student's social network (Coleman, 1988; Lin, 2001). The network, through which students learn about college and subsequently make decisions about postsecondary education, can consist of various influential people in a student's life (e.g., family members, school counselors, teachers, friends, etc.). Each individual possesses varying amounts of college information to transmit to students (Bryan et al., 2011; Hill, Bregman & Andrade, 2015; McDonough, 2005; Weinstein & Savitz-Romer, 2009).

Family background (e.g., race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, educational attainment, etc.) may impact the amount of postsecondary social capital available to students in their sphere of influence (Bryan et al, 2011; Hill et al., 2015). Thus, students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds and/or whose parents have obtained a college education may have more social capital given their increased access to information about college and the admissions process. In comparison, although their parents may have postsecondary expectations for their child, students of lower socioeconomic backgrounds and/or who would be the first in their family to attend college may not have as much access to information about accessing and/or navigating the postsecondary educational system (Choy, Horn, Nunez & Chen, 2000; Pham & Keenan, 2011). …

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