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OPINION: When it comes to college and career support, the counselor shortage is only part of the problem

'Quality college and career advising not only unlocks student potential, but also that of state and national economies'

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“What’s the FAFSA deadline?!”

“I want to become a welder!”

These questions and exclamations are just a tiny slice of the experience of an educator whose responsibility — often one of many — is to shepherd students to success after high school graduation. That educator may be the school counselor, adviser, English teacher or coach, among others. In my case, I served as the adviser at a national charter school network.

“What is a welder?”

A lesson learned in my role: Preparing students for successful transitions after high school is hard work. And the information needed to do so is not only plentiful and complicated but changes daily. At least that’s how it feels in the trenches.

Because most of my students were the first in their families to apply to college, they were often 100 percent reliant on me for information to get there. So when the questions came flooding in, Google became my best friend, and hours spent validating the accuracy of information was the norm. If I was lucky that year, I had a chance to attend an annual conference for updates, but sometimes the information was already out of date as I boarded the plane to leave.

Our students deserve more.

Related: What does ‘career readiness’ look like in middle school?

Texas, like the rest of the nation, is dealing with a counseling crisis, with one school counselor serving 434 students on average. The national student-to-counselor ratio is 450 to 1. The recommended ratio is one counselor for every 250 students.

Over the years, research has shown that interactions with a school counselor are paramount to a student’s postsecondary success. In fact, a 2016 study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling revealed that students who receive one-on-one guidance from a school counselor are 3.2 times more likely to attend college and 6.8 times more likely to apply for financial aid than their peers who don’t receive such guidance.

Still, only a third of the nation’s schools have a counselor dedicated to preparing students for college and careers. Even in those schools, it’s nearly impossible for that staff member to spend meaningful time with all students, as the critical ninth- and 10th-grade years are often overlooked for shorter-term planning and crisis management with students in 11th and 12th grades.

It’s clear that our students need more school staff supporting them, and they need more now. Yet, while increasing the raw numbers of school counselors is an important goal, it will not solve all gaps in college and career preparation.

Professional support for college and career advising is severely lacking. Most graduate programs for school counseling include minimal or no training in preparing students for the college and career process. Not surprisingly, school counselors report feeling ill-equipped for this responsibility. Moreover, once counselors are employed, the professional development they receive is often lacking in timeliness and relevance, and it can quickly become dated.

Related: OPINION: ‘The poor kids need what the rich kids have’

Here in Texas, the state dedicated funds to ensuring all school counselors and educational professionals who advise students on college, career and military decisions have the information and resources they need to support students on any postsecondary decision. The initiative, called Texas OnCourse, gives back time to counselors by streamlining the resource-gathering process with practical, on-demand professional learning. With reliable and timely information, counselors can effectively and efficiently serve more students. And because its resources are free and accessible to all Texas educators, Texas OnCourse ensures that teachers, coaches, librarians, principals and other campus and district staff are also equipped to support students in their postsecondary decisions.

Through Texas OnCourse and other efforts, we have pursued and are testing innovative and cost-efficient strategies to close college and career counseling gaps. Here’s what we know:

Counselors need a way to use their time more efficiently. College and career information, like so much online material, is diffuse, overwhelming in quantity and not always trustworthy. Counselors we work with have reported spending upwards of 3-4 hours to track down the correct information for a single question from a student. Given the multiple roles that many counselors play, they need quick and efficient ways to access up-to-date, comprehensive and trustworthy information.

There are cost-effective ways for districts to invest in professional development that directly meets counselors’ practical needs. Counselor professional development opportunities vary widely and are highly dependent on a school’s geographic location and district budget. Here in Texas, where 38 percent of our public-school districts are rural, there are many school counselors who are unable to travel to their local education agency for professional development. The most fortunate counselors are able to attend a conference once a year to receive updated information to advance their skills.

However, the information that students need to navigate the college and career process changes on a regular basis. In fact, the College Board recently announced a significant change to the data they send to colleges and universities with the addition of a new scoring mechanism. The risk here is that counselors share inaccurate information with their students. Technologies exist that enable us to deliver meaningful, up-to-date and timely professional learning to counselors on demand, and this is the direction we ought to be moving.

Counselors are not the only ones answering students’ questions. Conversations about college and career are not limited to the counselor’s office, so why should the information be? Imagine a school district in which all adults are well-informed, or at a minimum have access to quality information to answer questions about college and career pathways. English teachers are able to support their students on college applications and admissions tests. Coaches are able to answer questions about NCAA eligibility. Economics teachers can help students complete their federal financial aid forms and understand college costs. Science and math teachers can inspire their students with STEM career opportunities and the pathways they can follow to get there.

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These educators have the potential to transform the lives of so many students, but they’ve received virtually no training. If we open up this college and career information to all and create on-demand access, we can unleash educator potential and build the village around a student that is so clearly needed.

Quality college and career advising not only unlocks student potential, but also that of state and national economies. The first step isn’t just hiring more counselors — it’s increasing the effectiveness and efficiencies of those on the front lines through the power of information.

This story about college and career counseling was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Laura Chrisco Brennan is director of Texas OnCourse.

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Laura Chrisco Brennan

Laura Chrisco Brennan is the director of Texas OnCourse. See Archive

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