What’s Wrong With High School Counselors Part II

I want to thank everybody who commented yesterday on my post:

What’s Wrong with High School Counselors?

And a shout out to those who shared their thoughts about the post on the Facebook page for The College Solution. (If you haven’t checked it out and “liked” my new Facebook page, please do!)
The thoughtful comments that I received prompted me to respond to some of the issues that people raised.

Is The Counselor Knowledge Gap Really a Problem?

Jonathan,  who is a senior at the University of Chicago, wondered if the woeful lack of training that counselors receive in their graduate counseling programs “necessarily leads to a knowledge gap.” He mentioned that at his high school, admission reps from colleges visited, which led him to believe that these reps can provide high school counselors with lots of information.
Here’s my reaction to that practice:  High school counselors aren’t necessarily sitting in on college reps’ presentations. The counselors may not be interested or they may not have the time. But even if counselors did visit with the college reps, this can be of limited help.

The College Pitch

College reps are only going to present the best spin for their institutions. Colleges, after all, are businesses and their goal is to make the sale just as a car salesmen would. Admission reps, for instance, aren’t going to tell teenagers or counselors that the financial aid at their schools is lousy. They aren’t going to say that the typical financial aid package is primarily stuffed with loans. They won’t share if their students are  graduating with onerous levels of student loans.
The typical admission rep’s spiel to prospective students will go something like this: We have lots of scholarships and even some full-rides.  If you like our school, just apply and don’t worry about the price.
That kind of pitch is just that – a pitch. What teens need to know is how generous a school is. What percentage of financial need does the college typically meet? How accurate is the school’s net price calculator? There are lots of questions that educated consumers should be asking.
It’s hard to become an informed consumer, however, if the counselor can’t tell teens and their parents what questions to ask. And they usually don’t because they don’t know themselves.

 What Counselors at Affluent High Schools Know

Denise suggested that the knowledge gap is probably less of a problem for upper-middle-class and wealthy families. I would agree that these families enjoy an advantage because they know that their children will attend college. These families, however, have plenty of opportunities to mess up too.
And it would be a huge mistake to assume that counselors at affluent public high schools or even private high schools know more. I’ve heard from many parents whose children attend these schools who bitterly complain about the caliber of the advising.

Are You Kidding Me???

I was frankly stunned when I went to a recent conference of the Western Association for College Admission Counseling in Los Angeles and heard a veteran counselor, who for many years had headed the college counseling program at a prestigious private high school in Southern California, answer a question about merit scholarships.
Someone in the audience asked how counselors could find out about merit scholarship opportunities from individual schools and she said something to this effect:  She asked parent volunteers to look for merit scholarship info in the marketing material that colleges mailed to the high school.
When I heard that I almost fell off my chair! This highly respected counselor apparently didn’t know how to obtain this easily accessible information. There are lots of ways to identify merit awards that individual schools offer from such resources as the federal College Navigator, Common Data Sets, the College Board, COLLEGEdata, MeritAid.com and others. And yet this counselor’s trusty method was to have volunteer moms look through the snail mail they got!!
As I said, the high school counseling system is broken.
What Do You Think?
If you have any thoughts about the dreadful state of college counseling at high schools or how the system can be fixed, I’d love to hear from you. Just comment in the box below.
Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and she also writes college blogs for CBSMoneyWatch and US News & World Report. Follow her on Twitter.

Read More on The College Solution:

The Dangers of Perfect Parenting
8 Ways to Boost Your ACT and SAT Scores
Are We in a Higher Ed Bubble?
The Best Colleges You’ve Never Heard Of

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  1. Lynn,
    I came across your website in doing some research. Thanks for nothing. I’m a high school counselor who had to make a DFACS report today because a mom picked up her child from school while stoned and wasted and pushing a baby carriage with an infant in tow. The carriage was pushed into a few door jambs while she was trying to move about the office. That occupied a fair amount of my time.
    I would like to offer a new article titled, “What’s wrong with Lynn O’Shaughnessy??” I would then proceed to tear apart the journalism profession. Do I need actual experience in this field to tear journalists apart? Absolutely not! I’ll just come up with a website and publish a lot of personal opinions.
    Seriously though, as a mental health professional, your entires read as though you obviously had terrible college/ career advising as an adolescent. Maybe you should talk with someone about that.
    Again, thanks for helping school counselors to fight the good fight by lifting us up. It must be pretty easy to sit back and not worry about the kids on your caseload of 500+ students who won’t eat, are battling addiction, etc. Your entries really help us work with parents, too. Glad to know parents will then prejudge the counselor before they even walk through the door. Cool, Lynn.

  2. The counselor at my high school was also the school football coach. Not once did he talk about colleges, filling out the fafsa, encouraging the students in my rust belt high school to go to college or how to exactly get there. I remember making an appt to meet with him, and went to his office. Despite my appt time, he was too busy to talk to me. He told me to come back later. I never did. I am pretty sure the majority of us did not go or went military.
    I went military where I was encouraged to go to college. I eventually did 15 years out of high school and at the age of 40, finally going to get my Masters. I wish I had this information as a high schooler. My guidance counselor dropped the ball.
    When I started working as a school nurse in a high school in Chicago, the guidance counselor had Fafsa nights for the parents, she would have seminars on preparing for college,etc. I was a school nurse in a predominately African American high school, and the guidance counselor was determined that all the students have a chance to go to college. I was impressed by her dedication. in the early 1990’s I never knew exactly what my guidance counselor’s job was. I was shocked to see many years later, what my guidance counselor should have been doing.

  3. Hi Lynn,
    I have to say…disappointed. I think your videos and your advice are fantastic. Eager to learn more, I logged on to College Solutions and followed the link from College Admissions to ‘High School Counselors’- excited you had some words of advice and information to share. Nope. A (two part no less) bash on high school counselors awaited me. We aren’t naive and we do realize grad programs have been lacking in ‘real world’ information for YEARS. We haven’t won that war yet. I suppose I had assumed we had a common goal. Not exactly.
    Because there is a dearth of good information, I will keep reading what you have to say, but my enthusiasm isn’t what it was even fifteen minutes ago.
    How about this idea…mutual support?

    1. Hi Jen,
      I am sorry you were disappointed with the post. Please note that this post is four years old. I decided that it would be much more productive helping counselors rather than writing about failings. I haven’t written derogatory posts about counselors since. I have heard over the years from countless counselors who are following my blog and have learned a tremendous amount.
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  4. Hello. I am a high school counselor. I came across this post while doing some research. I am personally offended by the title of this post “What is wrong with high school counselors?” Thank you are perpetuating the stereotype. Maybe you should have titled it, “What is wrong with school counselor training programs.” I just wrote a long explanation of what I do and what I thought was wrong with your article and realized it was not worth it. Are all school counselors great at their jobs? No. Are all horrible? No. Just like every single job. And just like every single other job school counselors learn the most valuable information through on the job training and professional development. End of story.
    And please can you tell me what training there is for a “college counselor?” Is there a program for that? How are these college consultants trained? Did they take “College planning” courses at school? Please tell me how they are better trained on college planning than school counselors. How many ppl hold a certificate in that?

    1. Hi Amanda,
      What I find discouraging is that many high school counselors don’t seem eager to learn enough to provide meaningful college advice. If counselors spend time on my site, and check out other online resources such as DIY College Rankings and learn to use the tools on such sites as the College Board, COLLEGEdata, College Abacus, College Measures, College Completion (a microsite of The Chronicle of Higher Education),the federal College Scorecard, the federal College Navigator aamong others, they can actually be of great help to their students. There are some great counselors, but I’d say that most of them are far from it.
      If you don’t have time during the school year, play around with it on weekends and during those summer months. There is really no reason why counselors can’t become helpful with a little motivation on their part. I can’t tell you how many parents have told me how disappointed they are with their counselors.
      I believe that too many counselors consider what they do a “job” and not a “profession.” I think part of the problem is the culture of too many public school systems.
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy
      I should also add that I give my c75-page ollege workbook to any high school counselor for free. Send me an email at Lynn@TheCollegeSolution.com and I will send you one.
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  5. Hi Lynn,
    The gravity of a high school’s counselor lack of knowledge in college counseling cannot be understated. It is critical, more than ever, that students and parents are provided with timely and useful tools and information as they begin their college search and application process. However, your word choice is quite scathing and I can see why you would receive angry emails from high school counselors who are overworked and underpaid.
    I think you could open up a conversation by recognizing that the training counselors received in their graduate program may not have been of their choosing. Also, many high school counselors present information to the masses at College Nights throughout the year and refer students to independent consultants, as needed. This does not diminish the need for college counseling as a necessary part of their training, but does recognize that they are doing their best given their circumstances. In the California public schools near my home, a typical caseload is over 700 students to one counselor.
    Ultimately, legislative efforts to reduce such caseloads combined with required college counseling training in masters programs may be the first step in ensuring high school students are receiving up-to-date and accurate information about the college admission process.

  6. Hello Lynn;
    As a retired guidance counselor and now private college counselor, I’ve seen things from both sides of the fence. I got my first guidance experiences in an affluent public high school where emphasis was placed on the college placement needs of our families. I then relocated to a state in the south to find the counselors “undersupported.”
    Every “great” counselor knows the importance of college visiting and staying up-to-date on the latest changes in the college selection and financial support landscape. The budget in this southern state was non-existant to support counselor college visitation programs and the counselors have not received a raise in four year down here. The case loads are topping out at 480 students per counselor, leaving very little room to develop the expertise needed to advise students on their college choices effectively.
    If counselors don’t wake up soon and carve a professional job description for themselves, they will (and are already) be replaced by individuals with much less expertise. I lay this problem at the feet of the guidance (school) counselor who has been just letting this happen. Time has come for counselors to stand up for the profession, but to also accept ALL of the responsibilities of their job.

  7. I actually got the best advice (apart from this blog) attending an adult/community education class at our local community college. The class is geared specifically towards affording college and understanding how the game is played. The instructor gave great advice such as looking for schools where your student’s grades and scores sat above the 75th percentile of accepted students, to increase chance of merit aid. Since his class was geared towards the financial aspect, it did not address a heavily finding the right school for your child and how to tease out institutional generosity. It really is sad that the high schools don’t talk about such things.

    1. Patty — I’m glad to hear that you are motivated enough to get the information you need to figure out the college game. It’s just too bad that you can’t get it from your child’s high school! And thanks for visiting my college blog!
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  8. Most guidance counselor-delivered college-related presentations focus on financial aid, namely the FAFSA and a cursory mention of the CSS PROFILE. When the inevitable questions about “scholarships” arise, parents are told to beat the local bushes – clubs, activities, businesses, churches, etc – and to enter national competitions. Rarely, if ever, is there a mention of the BIGGEST source of scholarships: merit aid from the colleges themselves. Why? Because HS counselors don’t know which schools give them and how much they give.
    Just yesterday I had a parent email me to ask if she had to file FAFSA since she was pretty sure her daughter wouldn’t qualify for need-based aid. First I recommended she get an estimate of her EFC which she did. It was $99,999. Yup, not getting any need-based aid with that! When I pointed out that she would be writing a check for the full sticker price for 4 years at the Ivy League schools her daughter aspires to attend, she seemed resigned. Then I mentioned that there are lots of terrific schools that give 10 – 15K or more in merit $. She seemed shocked that her daughter could possibly save that much! So, I think that GC’s do kids a disservice by not being familiar with schools and their aid policies. Far too much emphasis is put on “name” schools when the better deals – and some would argue, the better outcomes – come from lesser known institutions.

    1. Paula,
      I couldn’t agree with you more! You summed up a couple of real problems with high school counseling including the infuriating practice of counselors directing students to hunt for private scholarships. Private scholarships represent the smallest source of college cash — just 4% of the awards available.
      The biggest source of college grants is the federal government, but many families won’t qualify for the Pell Grant. To get the full grant you typically need to make less than $30,000. Consequently, for many families the biggest source of cash is indeed from the colleges themselves.
      I also agree with you that financial aid presentations are typically focused on simply explaining what the FAFSA is and how you sign up for it. Counselors completely ignore how families are supposed to find generous schools, which is far more valuable.
      Thanks for sharing your experiences!
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  9. Lynne, I know that counseling varies from school to school, but we’re not all bad! Unfortunately, college counseling programs do not teach much about college counseling, so most of us are self-educated. I have visited over 100 college campuses in 9 years and attend numerous professional development programs. I am well aware of meritaid.com and other sites. We do parent presentations and meet with our students in groups and individually throughout high school to keep them on track.
    I think the solution is to have a college counseling component in the counselor training programs.
    Linda Bianco
    school counselor

    1. Hi Linda,
      Thanks so much for your comment. Of course there are great high school counselors working hard throughout the country. I just wish there were more of them. I applaud you for making the effort to visit so many colleges and attend professional development programs.
      I’m curious what you think of these professional programs. The financial aid/merit aid presentations that I’ve seen at some of these conferences are scarce and the sessions that I’ve attended have not been very helpful. What has been your experience?
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

      1. Here in NJ, HESAA does some very informative presentations on financial aid. Merit aid requires a lot more work on the part of the student and their families. The information is out there, it just takes a bit of work to find it.
        I have always advised students who are interested in merit aid to apply to colleges where they are in the top 25% of the applicants. That’s where the most money is.

        1. Hi Linda,
          You’re right that typically the top 25% or so of candidates get money, but at many schools nearly everyone gets something. As you know, the kids farther down on the pecking order usually don’t get as much.
          Maybe the New Jersey entity that you cite does a great job conveying info about financial aid, but the presentations I’ve seen out here in CA only focus on such basics as the need to file for financial aid, the forms to do it and the deadlines. That’s very limited in its helpfulness. Thanks so much for your comment!
          Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  10. Definitely found the advice from my two daughters well respected private school college counselor to be very biased. She was more interested in them attending prestigious colleges or schools the high school had relationships with. Also, there was little information or guidance on financial aid and scholarships.

    1. Hi Theresa,
      At many prestigious private high schools I think there is a bias towards the elite schools. Parents send their children to these high schools to increase their child’s chances of getting into colleges at the top of US News rankings. That’s what the high schools try to deliver.
      I agree that the counselors at these schools often don’t provide information about how to shrink the cost of these schools. I think the assumption is that these families are wealthy so they can afford any school, but that’s a big assumption. What’s more, families can make $150,000 to $200,000 and, in some cases, receive significant financial aid from expensive colleges.
      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  11. and so… how to pick a good college counselor? how much to pay? is the $8500 weekend ‘app bootcamp’ worth it? or should you spend $3000 for 4 years of advice?
    can a private counselor help your child get in?

    1. Hi Jane,
      I’d suggest that spending $8,500 for an application bootcamp would not be worth the money. I would think spending $3,000 for four years of advice would be a better deal.
      I don’t think families should look for a private counselors to get a child into a particular school. Rather I think the goal would be be find great academic fits for your child where he/she will be happy and to find schools that you could afford.
      Unfortunately, a lot of private counselors don’t understand the financial end of colleges so they recommend schools in a vacuum. I think that’s nuts!