Why High School Counselors Don't Know Much About College

I spent yesterday afternoon giving a workshop for some families about how they can increase their chances of finding wonderful schools for their teenagers while shrinking their costs at the same time.

The parents, whose teenagers attend both private and public suburban schools in San Diego, were shocked that they hadn’t heard about any of the tools or advice that I shared with them from their high schools counselors.  Frankly, I get this reaction all the time from parents who assume that the counselors at their teenagers’ high schools are college experts.

Since this is the time of year when counselors are in high demand by families, I decided to rerun one of my college blog posts that explores why many high school counselors know shockingly little  about the college process. Here it is:

Why Don’t High School Counselors Know More?

Is your teenager’s high school counselor an expert on college?

Probably not.

In fact, the odds are high that your counselor’s knowledge about college admission strategies, standardized testing and scholarships is limited.  Ironically during this period of skyrocketing college costs, financial aid is often the subject that high school counselors know the least about.

Many high school counselors are unfortunately overwhelmed with work, but it’s not just the crazy schedules that explain why the college IQ of many counselors is stunted.

Why Counselors Don’t Know Enough

As I discovered in talking to experts about this issue, here’s the chief reason:

Before counselors can begin working in a public high school, they must earn a master’s degree in counseling. Graduate school programs, however, rarely offer even one class in college planning. So through no fault of their own, the majority of counselors arrive at high schools ignorant about critical college issues even though for many families a bachelor’s degree represents the second biggest expense they will ever face. In my opinion, this is truly scandalous.

This lack of training on the graduate level is “pretty scary,” suggests Bob Bardwell, a public high school counselor in Massachusetts and a vice president at the American School Counselor Association. A few years ago, Bardwell was a member of a NACAC task force, which experienced limited success in encouraging graduate schools to add even a single college planning class to their curriculum. While there are hundreds of these graduate programs across the country, Bardwell estimates that only two dozen or so offer a college counseling class.

Mental Health Preparation

College admission issues are simply not on the radar of graduate schools, which are more focused on mental health issues. A lot of people in the program are mental health professionals, who are territorial about what they will include in their curriculum, Bardwell says.

Without formal training, new counselors rely on colleagues at their schools to show them the ropes.  Carl “Sandy” Behrend, a former NACAC president and an educational consultant in Buffalo, NY, told me that it usually takes four or five years of these informal apprenticeships before counselors feel comfortable.

While this lack of training is common knowledge in the higher-ed world, I know that parents would be shocked to learn that most high school counselors are not college authorities. Many parents believe that high school counselors would be able to answer all their questions if they could only get some precious face time with them.

Why the Knowledge Gap is Unacceptable

This college knowledge gap in high schools is unacceptable, says Steven Antonoff, an independent college counselor in Colorado and the author of College Match:  A Blueprint for Choosing the Best School for You.

“The stakes are higher and there hasn’t been an increase by and large in public schools and even in private school funding for college counseling,” Antonoff told me. “It’s a very difficult situation that has created a gap between the needs of a student looking at schools today and the level of expertise available to them.”

Are Counselors at Private High Schools Better Prepared?

As a general rule, experts suggest that counselors are better prepared at private high schools because they are often able to spend a majority of their time focused on getting their students into college. Public school counselors, who can devote their time exclusively to college admissions, are a rare luxury. Many private schools use their college counseling services as a lure for attracting students, but there is definitely no guarantee that these counselors are experts either.

I have run into plenty of counselors at private schools who know next to nothing about how evaluate colleges financially. Many, for instance, have no clue about whether schools will give teens merit money if they are affluent or need-based financial aid if they are not.

To learn more, I wrote a story for CBSMoneyWatch about this college counseling crisis, which focused more on what families can do if their counselor isn’t knowledgeable.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes a college blog for CBSMoneyWatch.

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