3 Questions for College Counseling’s Future

Alice Anne Bailey has talked with low-income students about applying to college. Often they tell her they don’t know how to do it. “They think it’s some magical process,” she said. “Someone comes and knocks on your door, and you just pack your bags and go to college.”

Ms. Bailey, director of the Go Alliance at the Southern Regional Education Board, made those remarks on Monday during a conference at Harvard University. Convened by the White House and Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, the event brought national experts to discuss how to improve college counseling.

Although I was unable to attend the gathering, I watched it online. The consensus: Unless the nation develops better strategies for helping students, especially low-income and first-generation students, get to college, it will fall short of President Obama’s ambitious education goals.

Speakers shared many insights about a range of strategies, but here I’ll note just three key questions that emerged from the meeting. The answers will have major implications for colleges.

What does good college-counseling training look like?

People often talk about the staggering student-to-counselor caseloads in many public schools, but that’s just one problem. Another: Many counselors receive insufficient preparation.

“This work requires training,” said Mandy Savitz-Romer, a senior lecturer at Harvard’s education school. “Not just any training, but high-quality training.”

Ms. Savitz-Romer, a former counselor herself, identified three facets of what she called the “preparation gap.” One: Some training and degree programs don’t emphasize skills today’s counselors need, such as leadership and proficiency with data. Another: Too many counselors don’t get continuing professional development once they start their jobs.

Finally, the complexity of a rapidly diversifying nation requires more of those who help students reach college. Counselors, Ms. Savitz-Romer said, need more help dealing with sensitive issues, like how to advise undocumented students. That’s even more complicated than technical tasks such as filling out the Fafsa, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

How can technology play a meaningful role?

A smartphone won’t get anyone to college, but it can help students navigate the admissions path.

Keith W. Frome, headmaster of the King Center Charter School, in Buffalo, N.Y., described how adults help steer students through the application process with constant “nurture and nagging.” The problem is that many teenagers lack someone—a counselor or a parent—to play that role.

Technology can help fill the void. Mr. Frome, a founder of College Summit, described the College App Map, which guides students through each step of the college-planning and college-application process, from ninth grade on. Each step directs students to an app (most are free) that helps them achieve a particular task, such as choosing a college, finding scholarships, and meeting deadlines for financial-aid forms.

There’s an emerging tension between two views of technology as a counseling tool, Mr. Frome said. One is “program tethering,” or linking technology to on-the-ground programs. The other he described as “the viral dream”—the idea that apps alone can drive student behavior.

And in the era of Big Data, several speakers said, college-counseling offices must embrace numbers-driven strategies like never before. You might think something works well. But how do you measure it?

Sylvia Lopez, director of counseling services for the Dallas Independent School District, described how counselors she oversees now use an “80/20 log,” a computerized way of accounting for their time, four-fifths of which is supposed to be spent in direct service to students. Now counselors have a way to track that.

Who’s going to collaborate?

The image of a college counselor sitting alone in his or her office, shepherding students along one by one, is outdated. In many communities, the modern college-counseling model involves many people outside of school walls—admissions officers, community-based organizations, business leaders, and pastors, to name just some.

“There’s a seat at the table for everybody,” said Patricia J. Martin, a former assistant vice president of the College Board’s National Office for School Counselor Advocacy.

One seat, Ms. Martin said, must be set aside for elementary schools. “Aspirations don’t start in high school, academic readiness does not start in high school,” she said. “It starts long before.”

Judy Petersen, director of college and career readiness at the Granite School District, in Utah, described how bringing more hands on deck can help personalize the process for students—and provide them with more guidance than they might get otherwise. Her district, she said, had teamed up with the University of Utah to provide high schools with “college-access counselors,” just one of several strategies for creating a college-going culture.

Collaboration’s not magic, but in an era with too few high-school counselors to go around, it’s now a necessity.

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