Deciding whether to go to college, choosing the right school and finding the resources to pay for it—these are pivotal decisions in any young person’s life. Many parents try to help their children make good choices and help them find the financial wherewithal to continue their education. But even well-educated, well-informed parents often find themselves turning to high school guidance counselors for advice on college options, information about loans and scholarships and help with the college application process. For young people whose parents have themselves not had the benefit of higher education, talking with an attentive, well-informed guidance counselor is even more essential.
Unfortunately, recent studies of the guidance system as it operates in public schools today indicate that counselors are often overworked and underprepared when it comes to helping students make the best decisions about their lives after high school. A new survey of young adults aged 22 through 30 conducted by Public Agenda for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation offers disturbing confirmation that, at least in the eyes of students themselves, the system is failing. Even students who later successfully complete college are surprisingly critical of high school guidance as it operates today.
Most young adults who go on to college believe that the advice of their high school guidance counselors was inadequate and often impersonal and perfunctory. Asked about their experiences with their counselors in high school, about half say that they felt like “just another face in the crowd.”
Most troubling, and potentially significant for policymakers, is that young people who characterized their interactions with guidance counselors as anonymous and unhelpful were less likely to go directly from high school into a post-secondary program—a decision that is known to reduce their chances of successfully completing a degree or certificate. These young people were also less likely to say that they had chosen their college or university based on explicit criteria such as its academic reputation, the availability of financial aid, or the likelihood that it would help them get a good job after graduation.
A Counseling System Under Stress
Responses from the more than 600 young adults surveyed by Public Agenda, all of whom had begun some form of higher education, suggest that the existing high school guidance system is a perilously weak part of the nation’s efforts to increase college attendance and ramp up degree completion. As the survey demonstrates, the judgments young people make about their high school counselors are often harsh, considerably harsher than the judgments they make about their high school teachers or their advisers at the post-secondary level. But before discussing the details of the survey, it is useful—and only fair to those who work as high school guidance counselors—to present some context about the challenges facing the counseling system nationwide.
Although professional groups such as the American School Counselor Association say that a student-counselor ratio of 250 to 1 is optimal, this is far from the typical state of affairs in most public schools. In California, the ratio is closer to 1,000 students for every counselor available. In Arizona, Minnesota, Utah, and the District of Columbia, the ratio is typically more than 700 to 1. Nationwide, the average is 460 to 1.
It is also important to remember that advising students on higher education choices is just one of many things that guidance counselors do. Studies of how counselors spend their time show that much of their effort is devoted to discipline issues and sorting out scheduling and other administrative mix-ups within the high school. In some districts, counselors supervise standardized testing programs. They also sometimes fill in as substitute teachers or assist with other staffing shortages.
Dramatically increasing the number of counselors and giving them more time to confer with students would seem to be imperative, but according to some recent analyses of the profession, doing so may not be enough. Many degree programs for guidance counselors do not offer coursework on helping students make the best postsecondary choices or on aiding them and their families to navigate the complicated world of financial aid and college loans. Although teachers—and principals and superintendents—are required to stay abreast of new trends and information in their fields, most states and districts do not require professional development for guidance counselors.
Today’s high school counselors operate in an educational and economic landscape that has changed immensely and continues to do so. A few decades ago, a high school diploma was an adequate gateway to a good job in manufacturing or in respected fields like firefighting and police work. Only a subset of academically oriented students went on to college. Today, however, most good jobs require a college degree or certification of some kind, and the vast majority of families want their children to continue their education beyond high school.
What’s more, the higher education system now offers a potentially bewildering array of choices of schools and programs. A student completing high school in New York City who wants to go to college within 25 miles of home has over 200 institutions to choose from—two- and four-year schools, public and private, and institutions ranging from Columbia and City University of New York to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and the Swedish Institute, A College of Health Sciences. But even students in smaller cities have available to them an array of higher education options. Students from Jackson, Mississippi, Falmouth, Maine or Albuquerque, New Mexico, all have more than a dozen institutions of higher education to choose from in their local areas. And none of this is to mention the more than 3,000 possibilities nationwide. The recent increase of for-profit colleges, which began in the 1990s, adds to the prospective student's mix of choices.
Just as postsecondary education is more necessary than it was in the past, so too is it likely to be more costly. The college and university system, especially its financial side, can seem opaque and convoluted to many students and their parents, especially those from lower-income and less well-educated backgrounds. And unfortunately it is at this moment when many people need more help plotting a course through this world that the professionals charged with assisting them feel most besieged and overwhelmed. It’s hardly surprising that they are often not able to keep up with demands and expectations placed upon them.
 U .S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, IPEDS 2006–2007, Graduation Rate File.
 American School Counselor Association. "2007-2008 Student to School Counselor Ratios." Retrieved from: http://www.schoolcounselor.org/files/Ratios2007-2008.pdf.
 McDonough, P. "Counseling and College Counseling in America's High Schools," National Association for College Admission Counseling, 2005.
 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. "The Condition of Education," Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004.
 McDonough, P. "Counseling Matters: Knowledge, Assistance, and Organizational Commitment in College Preparation," 2004.
 Clinedinst, M. & Hawkins, D. "State of College Admission," Alexandria, VA: National Association for College Admission Counseling, 2009.
 More than 6 in 10 parents say that a college education is necessary to succeed, and similar numbers say it is very likely that their child will attend college (another quarter say it is somewhat likely). Public Agenda, "Squeeze Play: How Parents and The Public Look at Higher Education Today," New York: Author, 2007
 Public Agenda, "Squeeze Play: How Parents and The Public Look at Higher Education Today." New York: Author, 2007.
 The College Board. "Trends in College Pricing 2009." Retrieved from http://www.trends-collegeboard.com/college-pricing/pdf/2009_Trends_College_Pricing.pdf