It's been almost a year since Michelle Obama raised the importance of college awareness and college opportunity, and almost a year since I asked Mrs. Obama to make sure this discussion included awareness of the need for better training in college advising for the school counselors. One year isn't long in the policy-making world, but it still seems like a good time to ask: How's it going?
In a nutshell, things are moving along nicely:
• In January, President Obama hosted a White House event for colleges that pledged to increase college access and opportunity for low-income students.
• This summer, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called on state school leaders to make sure school counselors received needed training in college readiness and college advising.
• That same week, Mrs. Obama presented at the annual conference of the American School Counselor Association, where she reiterated the importance of school counselors, and the need for more counselors and more training in college advising.
• These same points were the basis for a White House Summit held in July at Harvard, where participants discussed steps that could be taken to advance these important efforts.
These events have laid the ground for a second White House Summit that will meet next week in San Diego. About half of the states have developed action teams committed to advancing the goals The White House has outlined. The goal of next week's program is to share those plans and put details into them, so the groups can return to their states with a program, a vision, and a deadline.
Response to Mrs. Obama's initiative has generally been favorable, especially among school counselors, who have long felt their work is either misunderstood, taken for granted, or ignored. At the same time, some responses to this effort have been dubious, raising questions that need to be considered as the college access movement advances:
• To date, not a single state has responded to Secretary Duncan's call for an initiative positioning school counselors to be greater advocates of college access. Those attending next week's summit (and that includes me) will need to consider how to engage state school leaders in ways that lead to a proactive response -- and that usually involves some kind of financial incentive.
• A growing number of policy makers are confusing Mrs. Obama's initiative with a mandate that all students attend a four-year college. Effective counselors understand four years of college don't always fit into the right plan for some students -- but many low-income students don't realize they have the potential to succeed at college. Changing that dynamic lies at the heart of this effort; this needs to be clear to everyone.
• Some opponents are adamant that more training in college counseling isn't needed, if schools would just hire more counselors. Citing some states where there is only one school counselor for over 1000 students, critics question just how much counseling can be done with unreasonably large caseloads.
Some very successful efforts are underway to reduce high counselor caseloads (especially in Colorado), but veteran counselors and educators with caseloads ranging from 400-3000 report significant improvement in their college counseling programs, once they receive specific training in college advising. As one counselor put it, "You can drop my caseload to 250, but that isn't going to help much if I don't know what I'm talking about."
Policy makers know improved college training is only one part of the solution to the challenges counselors face, but it's an important part. The San Diego summit can bring this vital element to life -- and that needs to happen in less than a year.