Report: Despite Public's Desire, Training in College Counseling Lags

Every year, the Center for Michigan conducts Community Conversations throughout the state to determine what's on the minds of Michigan citizens, and this year, the number one topic was college and career readiness. In startling fashion, the Center's report shows that two out of every three conversation participants rated Michigan's college and career counseling as "lousy" or "terrible", and 54 percent of the K-12 educators participating in the poll gave the same ratings. Recognizing that high counselor caseloads were part of the problem, the report still recommends all school counselors become certified in college and career counseling.

Those in charge of some counselor training programs point to new state standards passed two years ago they claim made career and college counseling a more visible part of counselor preparation. But a closer look at the content of the training programs shows very little has changed. Of the counseling programs offered in the state, only about half offer a course in college and career counseling, and of those, none offers a class focused solely on college access. This lack of focus on college opportunity is evident on the state counselor certification test, where a recent prototype showed no more than four questions measured a candidate's understanding of college advising.

Counselor educators have long insisted that the sole cause of poor college advising is the high caseload most Michigan school counselors must endure. At over 700 students per counselor, Michigan holds the fifth highest ratio in the nation. Combined with being assigned excessive non-counseling duties, counselor educators argue that counselors can only do so much with the time they are given, and much of that time is dealing with crisis management.

High counseling ratios certainly contribute to the college challenge Michigan faces, but it is hardly the only reason for low quality college counseling. Over the past five years, hundreds of school counselors have received focused training in college counseling as part of their continuing professional development--the kind of course that would be required in a bill now before the Michigan House. Nearly all of these counselors returned to the same high caseloads and non-counseling demands they had before taking the course, but many of those polled indicated the information they learned in the focused course helped them make more of the time they had with students. Since the course provided them with the resources and information students need to make good college decisions, counselors were able to offer more college assistance, and more detailed assistance, to more students.

Combined with the results of studies such as a forthcoming report on offering counselors focused training on financial aid, these surveys indicate that, even if nothing else changes in Michigan's current school counseling climate, focused training in college counseling can make Michigan school counselors more productive, despite the large caseloads they face today.

To be sure, providing relief to school counselors in other areas is important as well. This is why the Michigan College Access Network, the Michigan Association for Secondary School Principals, and the Michigan Association for College Admission Counseling (MACAC) are presenting a principal-counselor summit on college readiness next week, where teams of principals and counselors will discuss how to improve the college-going climate in their schools. This is also why MACAC has been discussing a proposal with House staff that would increase the number of school counselors in Michigan while decreasing the number of school dropouts--and these new counseling positions would be self-funded by schools.

These important changes need to be made to support school counselors, but the first common-sense step is to make sure the training they receive in college advising is as strong as it needs to be. School counseling graduate programs offer myriad focused courses on mental health counseling, then reinforce those concepts throughout the rest of the program. As the Center for Michigan's work indicates, Michigan residents feel college counseling requires the same degree of professional readiness, all in the interest of serving our students, and our state.