The College Search Begins: What Every Student Deserves

by Mark Sklarow, Executive Director, IECA
As students head back to school, attention will quickly turn to the college application process as seniors prepare for standardized tests, gathering recommendations, preparing activities lists, and tackling their essay. Those loved and hated rankings come out any day. Not surprisingly, media attention to the college search and application process peaks this time of year as well.

Let’s acknowledge together that not every student will have access to an independent educational consultant, either due to geography, financial constraints, or lack of need. So, allow me to speak for a moments about all the others: what does every student deserve, and frankly what do school-based college counselors deserve in their own right.

National counseling organizations recommend a student:counselor ratio of about 350:1. In many parts of the country the number is two or three times this. This excess unfairly burdens students, and despite the economic stress many school systems are under, they must adequately provide this basic student support. We expect students to make good decisions, work through conflicts, and choose the right course load. But high schoolers are, let’s remember, teenagers, not 30 years old. They deserve support to be able to make good decisions. A “zero tolerance policy” is cruel when the school system has abdicated its advising role.

This advising role takes many forms, from crisis intervention to course selection. For too many school counselors, college advising is a tiny piece of the workload. A 2010 survey by NACAC found that in public schools, counselors are spending just 22% of their time on college advising, with the rest occupied by personal counseling, academic advising, course selection, teaching, and administrative tasks like lunchroom or bus duty. Imagine a student, burdened with emotional or academic concerns, or possessing great athletic or artistic talents, or a first generation student needing extra time and guidance, frustrated by the lack of dedicated effort or expertise that highly trained, dedicated college advisers could provide.

School counselors deserve time for professional development. No one can adequately advise students on 2012 admission if they have not been able to attend conferences, join associations, read the latest research, connect with colleagues, and visit campuses. Unfortunately, few schools systems, faced with the biggest deficits in history, are able to provide counselors with the tools they need (and the opportunities they crave) to continually seek professional growth.

In the end, at its most basic level, every student deserves great advising, whether in a school, or from an independent educational consultant. While many will benefit from the partnership with an independent educational consultant, IECA believes so strongly in the principle that our IECA Foundation has worked to bring great advice to under-served families for more than 15 years. Our hope would be that school counselors get the support they deserve—and we hope political and community pressure will force school districts to meet this critical need.