There’s plenty wrong with the college admissions process in the United States, but what troubles me most is the lack of support for high school students about their next steps. The shortage of college and guidance counselors serving students, and the often outrageously high student-to-counselor ratios, are well documented. First Lady Michelle Obama has even addressed the crisis, yet nothing seems to have changed—other than awareness that it really may be a crisis.
Guidance and college counselors are a critical part of the college-going culture, and those I know do a great job with students, parents and colleges. It’s just that there are not enough of them. According to the American School Counselor Association, the average public school counselor manages a load of 471 students.
As a college admissions professional, I am troubled about this shortage because we rely on partnerships with guidance and college counselors who understand what we offer and who know their students.
As an individual who benefited from stretching well beyond my comfort zone when choosing a college, because someone with trusted credentials advised my family and me “to look beyond the usual suspects,” I fear that future students may miss out on the kind of experience my generation had as undergraduates.
As a parent, I am terrified, because I am not at all confident my children will pay any attention to my recommendations, even though I actually know something about this process!
Others have written far more eloquently on this issue and there was an excellent segment on NPR recently, but I might be able to offer some practical ideas for students and families who don’t have access to expert college admission advising.
As in any situation where there is a shortage of service providers, agencies and industries emerge which can provide the needed service. In this circumstance, we’ve witnessed an explosion of independent counselors.
I respect independent counselors and the role they play. Critics will focus on the price these counselors charge, and describe their services as accessible exclusively to the elite, but almost every independent counselor I know does some pro bono work to help students in need. I think the greater challenge is that independent counselors are less likely to be located in areas where the need may be the greatest; this is especially true in rural and other communities where first-generation college-bound students are most prevalent. To find an independent counselor you might visit the website for the Independent Educational Consultants Association.
Other groups that have emerged to fill this void include Community-Based Organizations (CBOs). In most major cities a family can find CBOs that work with students throughout the college search and selection process. These organizations fill an important need in communities and typically rely on a large number of volunteers who give their time and talents to work with students who might not receive expert counseling otherwise. Like independent counselors, CBOs can fulfill an important role, but their capacity is not limitless. While at Augustana College I’ve had the good fortune of working with some exemplary CBOs, like the Evanston Scholars, HighSight and Chicago Scholars programs, and I’ve seen the results of the guidance and support they provide students.
But where can a student or family turn if they have limited school-based sources for college advice, independent counselors are too far away or too expensive, and there are no CBOs in the community? You may not have to look too far.
Here are a couple of ideas on getting expert advice about the college search and selection process.
Admissions offices—Admissions professionals across the country are an excellent source for advice on the college search. Although we are paid to recruit students to the institution at which we are employed, we are expert counselors about navigating the process in general. In fact, senior admissions officers frequently are asked by high schools to provide general programming for students and parents entering the college search. The admissions officers I know pride themselves on working with students to find the right college. Some admissions offices “adopt” high schools to provide college counseling. If your college advising is in short supply, reach out to an admissions officer—I bet they’ll provide you with good advice and proper direction. The office I work in has a proud tradition of providing a number of public service counseling resources.
Online resources—Online college-search resources range from websites that are repositories for information, to sites that enable students to develop a profile they can share with colleges and universities, to message boards that solicit all sorts of college information. These sites can be useful in providing general advice about the college search, too. Some of these sources have accurate, up-to-date information, yet I urge you to be cautious about those that rely on opinions, ratings and message boards; it’s rare that you will get the full story. I recommend Peterson’s, College Data, and the College Board’s Big Future for their straightforward approach and accurate information about colleges and universities across the country.
Virtual college counseling—This is another area emerging from the dearth of in-house college counseling. One particular service, AdmitHub, caught my interest and might prove valuable to students and families that seek answers to specific questions about the college search process. AdmitHub is free for students and parents and it has a network of current admissions and college counseling contributors. (In full disclosure, I admit I am an expert contributor.)
What is interesting to me about AdmitHub is that colleges and universities support the site financially and provide counseling openly to make sure students and parents get the most accurate information possible. There are other free virtual counselors, like College Confidential, Kahn Academy and Chegg, but AdmitHub is the only one that is resourced exclusively by current practitioners in college counseling and college admissions.
Until public policy makers and all communities make college counseling a priority, the recommendations above can help students get some good answers and support. But, let’s not rest until our communities invest in the guidance our students deserve.