Guest Blog: Well-Meaning College Advising Is Not Enough

Two pandemics—COVID-19 and racial injustice—have the U.S. in a state of reckoning. This summer’s spread of COVID-19 and murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rashard Brooks, and Ahmaud Arbery not only remind us of the grim realities of racial health disparities and over-policing in Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities but the longstanding racist, antiblack sentiments that persist in this country. The two pandemics have “struck a nerve” with many organizations and as a result, many, including ACT, have committed to equity and racial justice. While this is a well-meaning commitment, I argue that equity cannot be achieved without changing racist policies, practices and structures. For this reason, college advising “as usual” is not enough to achieve equity. We need an antiracist approach.

For hundreds of years, racism has manifested itself in U.S. institutions—the justice system, public education system, public health system, etc. In education, it is well-documented that Black and Brown students are systematically kept in an inferior position, similar to the research on policing and mass incarceration, through racist policies and practices. In the college access and advising sector of education, the racial disparities and injustices are also longstanding. Education policies perpetuate uneven, racialized results in college-readiness, college-going and college persistence. For instance, in 2018, a study conducted by Child Trends confirmed that Black students spend less time in the classroom because of rigid, biased discipline policies. Black students are more likely to be suspended or expelled from school, even in preschool which further hinders their access to a quality education and future college. And, Black students are punished more harshly for the same behavior as white students, often for nonviolent offenses. Here are other examples of how race and racism impact college-readiness and college advising:

  • While there has been an increase in Black college-going, most of this increase has been in lower-tiered institutions, with less resources.
  • School counselors who provide college advising in most public high schools are predominately White (61.9 percent).
  • Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that nearly a third of Black and Latinx students with high school grade-point averages of 3.5 or better end up at community colleges, compared to 22 percent of White students with the same grades.
  • Even when Black students do have access to honors or advanced placement courses, they are vastly underrepresented in these courses. (United Negro College Fund)
  • Black and Latinx students also have less access to gifted and talented education programs than white students. (United Negro College Fund)

So, what does an antiracist approach look like in college advising? In his bestselling book, How To Be An Antiracist, Dr. Ibram Kendi recommends that “it’s not good enough to be “non-racist, we must be antiracist.” Kendi describes an antiracist as one who actively fights against racism by changing policies and practices that have historically resulted in racist and racialized outcomes or disparities. Antiracist college advising, therefore, must include a deep analysis of data and policies that influence college readiness, college admissions, and college persistence rates.

For too long, the school counseling profession has focused on the rudimentary tasks associated with college advising—-writing recommendation letters, becoming knowledgeable of universities and admissions requirements (including testing requirements!), overseeing standardized test days, and disseminating college information. However, I propose that antiracist school counselors should also be highly trained and ready to advocate for policies that lead to equality rather than racialized outcomes. Essentially, antiracist college advising and school counseling shifts from traditional college-advising practice to correcting education policies that lead to racist outcomes. Antiracist college advisers might advocate for changes to these policies: student discipline (e.g., suspensions and expulsions), segregated classrooms (i.e., honors/college preparation course-taking), non-inclusive special education, and gifted and talented student identification. Antiracist school counselors and college advisors must dismantle these discriminatory policies and replace them with approaches that reflect a belief in the value of Black and Brown children’s dignity and promise.

Antiracist college advisors view their Black and Brown students as being worthy of going to college, including elite, selective universities. More important, antiracist college advisors carefully listen to their Black and Brown students’ feedback for meaning and understanding of their lived experiences, future goals and aspirations. They make Black and Brown students feel valued, loved and appreciated. Instead of only introducing the prospect of college to Black/Brown students who seek out advising, antiracist college advisors seek out Black and Brown students to introduce them to the possibilities of college, even when others view them as “non-college-material.” In other words, antiracist school counselors and college advisors must not only be well-meaning, but they must challenge the system and challenge their peers’ racist beliefs about who is a prospective college student. All in all, it’s time for school counselors and college advisors to acknowledge that our school systems and counseling/advising programs have been complicit in perpetuating systemic and antiblack racism.

Antiracist college advisors are committed to promoting the racial diversity of the profession. Why aren’t there more racially diverse college advisors and school counselors? Antiracist college advisors promote their profession within racially diverse communities and promote policies that promote the recruitment of racially diverse school counselors and college advisors. These policies include graduate program admissions and program accreditation standards that often dictate program requirements.

And last, antiracist college advisors read articles, books and attend professional development activities centered around Black and Brown pedagogy and practice (e.g., critical race theory). Understanding the historical oppression of Black and Brown people in this country informs the advising process and in the end, helps college advisors understand their students better as they make life-altering decisions.

Again, becoming actively antiracist is not easy but will contribute directly to correcting longstanding racial injustices in this country. One could argue that antiracist college advising could ultimately impact other societal injustices. I believe it can, if we change our approach.

Dr. Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy joined American University in 2016 as the dean of the School of Education. Previous to this role, Dr. Holcomb-McCoy served as the vice provost for faculty affairs (central administration) and vice dean of academic affairs (in the School of Education) at Johns Hopkins University. She has held appointments as professor and department chair at Johns Hopkins’ School of Education, associate professor of Counselor Education at the University of Maryland, College Park and assistant professor and director of the School Counseling Program at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. Professional colleagues have recognized her with many awards for outstanding multicultural/diversity research, excellence in teaching, and exemplar service. She served as a Faculty Lilly Fellow at the University of Maryland and in 2016, she was selected as an American Counseling Association (ACA) Fellow for her significant contributions in scientific achievement and teaching/training. Because of her expertise in college advising and counseling, Dr. Holcomb-McCoy was selected to participate as a consultant to the Obama Administration’s Reach Higher Initiative. In July 2014, she was one of the plenary speakers at the White House’s Summit on Higher Education held at Harvard University.