Why High School Counselors Don't Know Much About College

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.”

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 who aren’t.

I wrote a story for CBSMoneyWatch about this college counseling crisis that was published over Christmas, which focused more on what families can do if their counselor isn’t knowledgeable. What I’ve posted here was mostly cut from that story.

Stay tuned. I’m going to write more tomorrow on what high school counselors don’t know about college.

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

Further Reading:

What High School Counselors Don’t Understand About Financial Aid

Six Ways to Pick an Independent College Counselor

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16 Responses to Why High School Counselors Don't Know Much About College

  1. Nina June 12, 2013 at 4:01 am #

    High school counselors don’t care much about senior students at all, they don’t like to spend time with students in college planning, scholarships, and assistance. In fact, HS counselors needs to be fired from school districts. For example 2008, I have the same problem with them but 2010 the college counselor are much care about students with their major and have them in right track.

  2. Janet September 20, 2010 at 12:47 pm #

    It is unfortunate that you have to bad mouth School Counselors as a whole in order to support your profession – it is not necessary. I have been a counselor for 18 years and I consider myself an expert in my field. Unfortunately, I have an Independant Counselor in my area who really is doing my students a disservice. She doesn’t meet with college admissions counselors, she doesn’t visit colleges or take college tours, doesn’t go to financial aid meetings SAT or ACT meetings or yearly, update meetings on our state universities and colleges. She recommends the same colleges from year to year instead of finding the right fit. I know my students well after four years and finding that right fit is a challenge that I love. I certainly don’t judge all Independant Counselors based on my experience with one person in your field. If parents want to spend $50 to $100 and up, an hour for the same information that I can give for free that is certainly their choice.

  3. Lynn August 9, 2010 at 5:45 pm #

    Hi Kerrie,

    I understand your feelings since you are a high school counselor. I am sorry that high school counselors often feel threatened by what I say. I think the main culprit are schools of education that develop the master’s degree programs that public school counselors must take. These program usually don’t include even one college planning course. I find that a national scandal.

    This is a sensitive subject, but when I talk privately with admission staff at colleges they agree with me. They are shocked at the low level of knowledge of high school counselors.

    Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  4. Kerrie August 8, 2010 at 7:00 pm #

    This is the problem with generalizing. Ms. O’Shaughessy feels as though she is accurate in stating that school counselors do not know enough about college. She feels because she took a little college counseling program though UCLA that she has the answers. Well, to tell the truth, I did both. I am a licensed school counselor and took most of the UCLA classes. I did not finish the UCLA classes because they were taught beneath my educational level. I already knew the information from my experience as a school counselor, and many times I was actually the person teaching the class with my knowledge. Non-professionals are taking this certificate program and then attempt to call themselves “College Counseling Consultant.” Ms. O’Shaughessy, you should be ashamed of generalizing just to make a profit and a name for yourself. Parents-please do your own research and ask the school counselors about their background and do not go by such ignorant assumptions. Beside school counselors have the knowledge and techniques to do actual counseling. Consultants do not have the technical training, but try to impress clients with perceived knowledge. Be very aware of wolves in sheep’s clothing.

  5. Mara February 2, 2010 at 8:52 am #

    Karen, the article highlights many real issues that we as counselors face today. A couple of points that hit home for me:

    Education: While many of us are currently enrolled in Masters Programs or even finished our programs, certain necessities should be incorporated into the curriculum to contribute to the experience factor. I think it should be mandatory to join a national organization (i.e. NACAC, ACA, or any other organization in that person’s territory. That way they can learn about current counseling issues/trends and even network with other counselors in the industry. I learn so much from others and how other school districts work through the College Process. If they could not join an association there is plenty of local colleges that offer speakers that are open to the public possibly for a fee but could be another avenue to learn and become involved in all aspects of college counseling. There are websites that are great as well with articles only referencing college related issues/topics.

    The economic and socio-economic class is also a major factor. Personally, I am experiencing a travel ban in my district. This prohibits me from attending college tours for counselors alone, information sessions and financial aid sessions etc. This really hinders my social factor as well as my education factor. That is a huge hindrance to my personal success as a counselor. The best part of these trips is first hand knowledge and actually seeing the campuses in full swing, sitting in on a class and talking with current students etc. This economy has trickled down for all of us involved. I cant even attend day trips either as I am not aloud out of the building. This has been challenging. Also, schools with more money have ability to do more outreach.

    Overall, Karen counselors are expected to do a lot. Administrators’ and parents don’t have an idea of how much we need to learn and know. There are over 4000 schools out there offering many different programs, aid, scholarships, etc. Plus, many other responsibilities’. I do agree that over time you learn more. Plus, each school has its own process and parents are very involved most of the time (helicopter parents). Each school counselor I have come in contact with has a caseload well over its average number. Counselors should be given thanks.

  6. Michael Frye January 26, 2010 at 8:26 pm #

    Lynn,

    Thank you for your article. Fortunately for me I received training in college admissions counseling, financial aid and college admissions assesments, working for college preparatory programs as a under graduate. These experiences have helped me tremendously and I have been able to help in various ways (Admissions and Financial Aid workshops, one on one counseing with parents and students etc..)

    I was also fortunate to run a college and career center prior to working as a counselor.

    What I have found is that all though my experience is vast, it often goes ignored on campus by my colleagues. I have often invited counselors on campus to attend workshops with me that are either free or low cost and are great training opportunities. And most of them have turned these opportunities down.I feel that most if not all of them (my colleagues)are intimidated or have very little knowledge of the admissions process.

    Intimidation and lack of experience should never be the deciding factors that prevent any counselor from giving sound and thorough advice. And the training available may be more prevelant in different areas of the country. But any opportunity is invaluable.

    The College Board, Princeton Review and many state financial aid offices provide great training opportunities that are free or low cost. Both 2 and 4 year colleges provide counselor workshops as well. And NACAC puts on a great college fair offered nationwide. Volunteer opportunities on college campuses are also useful. I volunteered at a community college in both the transfer center and the financial aid office during the summer. Here in California, UCLA offers a college counseling certificate through university outreach, for working professionals.

    Let’s not let the opportunity to educate ourselves pass by. Let’s not be intimidated. Let’s get educated. The ignorance of a poorly prepared counselor can cost even the most properly prepared student dearly, if given the wrong guidance. I wish you well and I really enjoyed your insightful article.

    • Lynn January 28, 2010 at 12:29 pm #

      Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments about high school counselors’ lack of knowledge regarding college issues. While I applaud the counselors who do receive additional education through such sources as NACAC and its regional affiliate organizations, as well as the UCLA college counseling program, too few are taking the time to become educated.

      I think it is very sad indeed that your efforts to educate counselors has fallen flat as counselors would apparently rather not take the time to become knowledgeable.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  7. Bob Kennedy January 20, 2010 at 2:57 pm #

    While I understand the premise of your article, I have to question the strength of your argument/position. That grad programs do not cover the college planning piece is unfortunate. I have argued for years that colleges need to incorporate such courses into their curriculum. On that fact, we agree. However, to paint with such broad strokes that “high school counselors don’t know much about college” can be very misleading and anti productive in the business of doing “what’s best for kids and families”.

    Perhaps your private business has been saturated with clients dissatisfied with the work at your local school district’s counseling programs. However, I would argue that the reverse of what you claim could be said about private educational consultants as well. For every disgruntled parent/student of a school counselor, I could give equal examples of disgruntled parents/students of private consultants. And… because you brought it up, I wish I had a dime (dollar in this economy) for every private consultant who asked their client to go to back to their school counselor and ask them to process an application, write a letter of rec, help them with a scholarship application, set up a visit with a college rep, register them for an ACT or SAT, etc…a cooperative effort that, in my opinion should remain cooperative.

    You mention that an educational consultant in Buffalo told you that “it usually takes four or five years of these informal apprenticeships before counselor feel comfortable.” I guess I am not sure what is meant by “informal apprenticeships”? I have not experienced a new counselor going through an “informal apprenticeship”. That sounds like an internship to me. I would agree that it does take time for a new counselor to get acclimated to the job. But by no means does it take the five years suggested. If it takes that long, they have hired the wrong counselor. Again, in my experience, a well trained counselor is up and running confidently within the first year, to year and a half. Maybe my district has been fortunate to attract candidates who are quick learners. Perhaps that’s the case.

    What you choose to write about in your opinion piece is your prerogative (as it should be). I appreciate that you opened it up to the public. You certainly are not “hiding” from your claims/beliefs. However, please be prepared to hear the other side on this one. Not every family can afford to turn a deaf ear to their guidance counselor because they heard from someone who knows someone that “their counselors don’t know much about college”… The odds are that they do (in my opinion) and if they don’t, they can walk the student five steps, to a more experienced counselor who does “know much about college”.

    Thanks for hearing the other side. I look forward to following your story and “tweets”. You have a bundle of resources for families; your work certainly does not go unnoticed nor under appreciated by the likes of me.

  8. Mary Fallon January 15, 2010 at 3:44 pm #

    Lynn, One topic beyond all else that high school counselors are not comfortable with is how to pay for college and aid eligibility. Yet in a survey of 610 high school counselors, college admissions officers, and college financial aid administrators, not knowing aid eligibility and net price were identified as the number one college-planning problem. (University of Texas David Childress 2007). Much of the university-access literature during the past 15 years identified this same deficit.

    Net price is emerging as essential to college planning with consumer services such as StudentAid.com’s College Cost & Planning Report that shows side-by-side aid eligibility and net price comparisons of 10 colleges at a time, and now the federal mandate that all colleges receiving federal funds post net price calculators on their Web sites by October 2011.

    At last net price calculators – particularly ones whose calculation algorithms encompass all merit and need-based federal, state, and college aid formulas, will give students and their families comparison-shopping power.

    Nonprofit USA Funds and StudentAid.com teamed up to provide FREE to all low-income students (household income less than $40,000) their personalized College Cost & Planning Report to address the very need high school counselors identified – that often students who want to go to college don’t apply because they don’t believe their our colleges that fit their budget.

    Here’s hoping that college cost transparency encourages students to apply to colleges that are both an academic and financial fit so they can avoid crushing debt.

  9. Susie Watts January 15, 2010 at 1:55 pm #

    I hope your article is a real eye opener to parents who assume that the high school counselor will take care of everything pertaining to college. As a educational consultant, I was shocked to read that the average amount of time that a high school counselor spends with a student on the college search and planning was 23 minutes. While educational consultants are members of professional organizations like NACAC and HECA and visit colleges on a regular basis, most public high schools do not have the budget to allow their counselors to do so. Therefore, they are dependent on college representatives, books, and the internet for their college information. I wish that more college-bound parents knew that educational consultants were available to help their students. We have the time and expertise and are a great resource for the college search and college admissions process. We are not trying to replace the high school counselor, but want to be an additional source of help to families who want more personalized attention.

  10. Daphne Denis January 10, 2010 at 9:40 am #

    I really like this article as well. I am currently enrolled in a Master’s program majoring in School Counseling. It is true that the program prepares us more for Mental Health experiences. I, however, am interested in becoming a College Counselor but do not know what outside courses I need to take. Are you able to provide me with any information concerning this?

  11. Karen A DeCoster January 8, 2010 at 3:08 pm #

    Great article. I wish you offered the option of sharing it on LinkedIn. I’d “share” it there! Kudos for writing about this. I know, Bob Bardwell, well; he knows his stuff.

    • Lynn January 9, 2010 at 2:57 pm #

      Hi Karen,

      Glad you liked my post, Why High School Counselors Don’t Know Much About College. I wish it wasn’t true!

      I’ll have to ask my web guy about being able to share posts on Linked In. I am on Linked In by the way.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

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