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There’s room for more than one counseling solution.
First, some numbers:
1-to-464 — the average school counselor-to-student ratio in the United States.
20 percent — the percentage of their time at work that more than half of high-school counseling departments report spending on college-related counseling.
1-to-1,000 — the typical adviser-to-student ratio at community colleges in the United States.
These numbers, on their own, are shocking and upsetting. Disaggregating them reveals both race and class disparities in access to college guidance that make them even more troubling. They help to explain the sobering reality that while 58 percent of students from the highest income quartile earn a degree by age 24, only 11 percent of those who do so are in the lowest income quartile.
What if instead of seeing the huge number of first-generation college students at the nation’s high-poverty schools as a problem at the heart of the guidance gap, we recognize that these young people are a critical part of a potential solution?
As the numbers make clear, one thing that all high schools and colleges have in abundance is teenagers and young adults. In over 12 years of developing and running peer-to-peer access and success programming, we have come to see this abundance as a resource.
Related: COLUMN: Two new documentaries showcase a long and winding road to college
Anyone who works closely with teenagers and young adults knows that they are hungry for meaningful roles. Able to quickly absorb information that is of interest, they long to put this knowledge to practical use in work and career exploration. Importantly, they hold considerable influence over others in their age group and those just behind them.
That’s why working as peer access and success counselors offers a great opportunity to young people. As the numbers demonstrate, the need for a counseling solution is overwhelming. Training the young people who are themselves the first in their families to attend college to work in their own communities in this arena is a policy strategy whose time has come.
Peer-to-peer work is a frequently used U.S. model to achieve a range of outcomes, from transitioning into high school and academic support in colleges to health education. In New York City, where we live and work, many organizations are currently training — and paying — college students to work May-August to combat “summer melt.”
The organization that we founded and run — College Access: Research & Action (CARA) — trains both high school and college students to help with all aspects of the application process: making lists, completing applications, applying for financial aid and choosing where to matriculate. (The Hechinger Report has been partnering with the makers of “Personal Statement,” a documentary film about three CARA-trained youth leaders supporting their peers through the college application process while applying to college themselves.)
On campuses of the City University of New York, peer counselors support first-year students as they navigate access to critical resources, find ways to connect to their campuses and re-file their FAFSAs. They are able to do so because they receive 70 hours of training over the course of the year — more direct training than many adult counselors doing these jobs receive.
Related: How first-generation students are helping each other through college
At the schools where these peer leaders work, they are adding desperately needed guidance capacity. But they are also doing something else: They are bringing critical supports and tools for first-generation students that adults cannot provide. This is because they serve as credible messengers, rooted in multiple ways in the communities they are serving.
First, peer leaders speak the languages of their communities, whether Spanish, Mandarin, Bengali or another language. They also speak the language of young people, in the spaces and at the times where young people hang out: in the cafeteria, around the corner after school and on Instagram or Snapchat late at night.
Second, they have walked a mile — or 100 — in their peers’ shoes, and the stories they have to share go well beyond information. They speak to the fears and worries of young people at this momentous time of transition in their lives: fears about belonging or academic preparedness, worries about finances or career pathways. As one peer leader explained it, “I am a living testimony.”
Third, their knowledge is up-to-date, up-to-the-minute in ways that the knowledge of adults — who might have graduated three years ago, or 13, or 30 — cannot be. One peer leader explained that adults “might not have the freshest memories.”
“We keep it real,” another told us.
Fourth, they are frequently more sympathetic and approachable to a range of young people, but they also authentically demand more of the students they work with.
And peer leaders get results. Peer-to-peer approaches have been proven effective in a range of contexts and, our data show, increased postsecondary matriculation and success at schools and universities that use peer leaders to support their students.
The math is not just about increasing matriculation percentages. Through the specific college knowledge and self-advocacy skills they are gaining in their training and work, peer leaders are themselves succeeding in college at higher rates and being positioned for multiple career pathways.
We are seeing a trickle — growing now to a stream — of peer leaders pursuing master’s degrees in counseling and returning to New York City public schools and community-based organizations, changing the face of the counseling field to look more like those it is serving.
All of this costs a fraction of what a comparable number of adult counselors would cost. That is not to say that many more adult counselors are not needed — they are. Young people cannot do this work alone, but they are a powerful and critical part of the solution, in partnership with adult counselors.
In the policy world, there are few programs that don’t involve some kind of cost-benefit analysis. Peer leadership for college access and success is the rare win-win: In the same arena, it benefits the recipients of the services as well as those providing them. It creates positive short-term effects while simultaneously building toward long-term ones.
The dollars spent benefit low-income communities twice: by providing valuable services to move students to and through college in the future, and by providing money and career development to young people in those communities now.
Now those are some numbers that make sense.
This story about peer counselors was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Janice Bloom is co-director and co-founder of College Access: Research & Action.
Lori Chajet is co-director and co-founder of College Access: Research & Action.
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