Guest Blog: Dr. Laura Owen on School Counselors

Picture_Laura We are delighted to have Dr. Laura Owen from American University guest blog for us on the important role of school counselors, the barriers they face, and how strategic collaborations can help streamline the college-going process. She lends her expertise in the below questions.

  • Many students don’t know where or how to begin the college-going process. How can school counselors help?

College and career readiness really begins at birth, with elementary school counselors jumping into the picture in kindergarten. Elementary school counselors start off this work by providing students with activities that promote early awareness and exposure to college and careers, engaging parents in the educational process, and by collaborating with higher education, business, and community partners to expose students and families to the multiple opportunities around them. Middle school counselors continue this work by encouraging students to take rigorous classes (especially in math, science, and English), helping them explore the world of work to career, sharing high school and college requirements with parents and students and by brokering external partnerships that provide additional student supports.  High school counselors help students prepare for a wide array of postsecondary options by encouraging them to take rigorous courses, explaining high school and college admissions requirements, teaching them how to navigate the financial aid and college enrollment processes, preparing students for college assessments (ACT, SAT), arranging for college recruiters to visit campus, visiting college campuses, assisting with questions regarding financial aid and college applications, and explaining how to navigate all the steps required to graduate high school and get to college.   If students don’t know what to do or where to begin, they should reach out to their counselor (at any level) and ask for help.

  • What barriers do school counselors face in being a resource to kids during the college-going process?

Researchers have spent decades exploring the role school counselors play in college access. Some authors have focused on deficits, while others have looked at initiatives and interventions that support strong college counseling practices that result in significant student outcomes. Barriers such as high student to school counselor ratios, assignment of “non-counseling” duties, fiscal constraints, lack of access to quality professional development, and inadequate expertise in college admissions inhibit school counselors from fulfilling the college-counseling role. Research has also clearly documented that low income, first generation, and students of color have the greatest need for access to a school counselor, yet they are often the least likely to meet with a school counselor for college admissions or financial aid support because their counselors tend to be heavily focused on crisis related matters, social emotional concerns, and other counseling and/or administrative issues. These findings coupled with the fact that school counselors rarely report that their program’s primary goal is to help students plan and prepare for postsecondary education might lead some to believe that this important task should be relegated to other parties.

That would, however, be a mistake… research has also clearly documented that when school counselors are available and able to provide assistance to students and families navigating the college admissions process, financial aid awards surge, college enrollment rates increase and opportunity gaps close.

We need to fix the system that in addition to contributing to the barriers listed above, allows 1.6 million students to attend schools with a police officer but no school counselor (Civil Rights Data, 2016). The National Consortium for School Counseling and Postsecondary Success (NCSCPS) recently released The State of School Counseling: Revisiting the Path Forward, a report that contains recommendations addressing the systemic changes needed to strengthen school counseling and college advising.

  • Is there a “magic bullet” that can lighten the load and help school counselors be more successful?

This is a great question. I am not sure if it is a magic bullet, but exposure and access to high-quality and accurate information via technology has helped to close information gaps, dispel myths, connect students with needed resources, and mitigate some of the effects of high student to school counselor ratios. Personalized text messages and virtual advising strategies are increasing in number to reach and support more students as they navigate the financial aid and college admissions process. A new study, conducted by Lindsay Page and Hunter Gehlbach, looked at the impact of an artificial intelligence (AI) system on college enrollment at Georgia State University (GSU) and found significant increases in enrollment for students who received messages based on data GSU had on each student compared to students who received regular communications outreach. Students who received the AI inspired messages were more likely to complete college loan counseling, attend freshman orientation, submit their final high school transcript, and less likely to have a FAFSA verification hold placed on their financial aid. By providing accurate, tailored information to students, these strategies not only help to bridge the information gap, they also relieve an overburdened and under-resourced support system, opening more space for school counselors and college advisors to meet one on one with students and families needing additional support.

  • How can business, higher ed, communities, nonprofits, and others work with school counselors to make the college-going process more seamless for young people?

Individual school counselor, school, and district circumstances vary greatly, revealing a complicated maze of interpersonal, situational, sociopolitical, and financial barriers that must to be addressed if we are going put in place systemic recommendations to move the college completion agenda forward. School counselors are naturally positioned to lead this work – they serve all students. However, preparing students for postsecondary opportunities requires the combined efforts of multiple partners working in collaboration with K-12 institutions.  If school counselors work in silos disconnected from business, community, and higher education partners, the opportunity gaps will persist and continue to grow – this is just unacceptable. As a former high school counselor, I believed that my students’ success was partially dependent on my ability to broker strong relationships with families, school staff (principals, teachers, administrative, security, cafeteria, and transportation), community organizations, local businesses, college and university staff, to put in place a coordinated system of partners dedicated and committed to helping students recognize and reach their highest potential.

Student needs are varied and substantial, necessitating a wide array of supports along the way. There is not only enough room for all of us in the sandbox, increasing equitable pathways to postsecondary opportunity hinges on our ability to form these strong collaborative partnerships.

Dr. Laura Owen, a research professor at American University, focuses on evaluating the impact of interventions designed to address the persistent equity and access issues that many students across the country face. Laura has worked collaboratively with leaders from across the country to address systems issues impacting student postsecondary outcomes. She co-led the San Diego White House Convening which mobilized state teams from across the country to find collaborative approaches to improve equitable access to postsecondary opportunities. She believes that all children, regardless of gender, race, socioeconomic status, or disability, have the right to receive the highest quality education available.