I was in over my head. I was a new school counselor for a high school’s inaugural senior class. From my first day, I was inundated with questions from my seniors.
“This school is asking for my non-custodial parent info, but my mom and I haven’t spoken to my dad since we came to the US years ago — does this mean I can’t apply?”
“My favorite school won’t accept the fee waiver you told me about — why not?”
“My parents want me to start at the community college, but I really want to start at U of I — what should I do?”
And most often, something to the tune of, “My parents didn’t go to college — how do I do all this?!”
We made it through that first year, but not without a lot of questions and mistakes along the way. That crash course in college counseling was something I will never forget, but it didn’t have to be so difficult.
To those outside of the school counseling profession, it may be surprising to know that a majority of school counseling programs do not require, or even offer, a course related to college counseling. In 2016, it was reported that only 42 of the 270 school counseling master’s programs accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Programs (CACREP) offered coursework on college readiness or admission counseling. Of those, many provided the college counseling content as part of an already existing course, like career counseling. This is better than nothing, but a topic that is so crucial to a school counselor’s everyday job deserves at least a course of its own.
Most school counselors learn through on-the-job experiences or professional development opportunities after they begin work as a school counselor. However, not all schools have the resources to support further training, and perhaps more importantly, school counselors sometimes don’t know what they are missing—making it imperative that school counseling master’s programs include college counseling training.
To be sure, there is a lot that school counselors-in-training need to learn. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) designates three domains that guide the work of school counselors: academic, career, and social/emotional development. ASCA also has 35 college- and career-readiness standards. But this list describes standards for students, not for how school counselors might promote these standards. In addition, there is a wide array of ways school counselors aim to meet these standards, which makes it difficult to know how to train school counselors in this area. However, I believe a course in college counseling could include aspects of all three domains:
- Academic: Teach school counselors-in-training about academic qualifications for different types of colleges and how to promote appropriately challenging coursework to students to help them meet their future goals.
- Career: Learn about a variety of careers, why students might be interested in them, and how jobs align with college majors and career outlooks.
- Social/Emotional Development: Explore college student development theories, family counseling theories, and mental health trends, which can all be applied to the college counseling process.
By 2023, school counseling programs must include 60 semester credit hours of graduate coursework under new CACREP accreditation standards. These new standards offer an opportunity for programs to develop a college counseling course, as programs will need supplementary classes to fill the additional course hours.
If college counseling is viewed holistically, rather than just a list of information to know, it can also fit into multiple courses. For example, in a family counseling course, students might explore a scenario related to a family going through the college search and application process with their child. In a multicultural counseling course, students can learn best practices to promote access and inclusion in educational settings, while incorporating advocacy and social justice issues relevant to college counseling.
Students need qualified school counselors to support them in their postsecondary planning process and college counseling is a significant part of that work. Students also need passionate, educated advocates to help empower them to pursue their goals. To some extent, this means school counselors need important, practical skills. They need to know what colleges are looking for in their students, what types of colleges are out there, how to fill out financial aid forms, and how to write letters of recommendation. We also need to teach our future school counselors how to identify and reduce biases in their schools, advocate for more equitable processes, build a college-going culture, and help students approach the postsecondary planning process from a developmental standpoint. To achieve this, school counseling master’s programs need to make college counseling training a priority.
NACAC member Beth Gilfillan is an assistant professor of counseling at Bowling Green State University (OH) who previously worked for 10 years as a school counselor in Illinois. Gilfillan helped write two chapters in NACAC’s Fundamentals of College Admission Counseling textbook, “Advising the Transnational Applicant” and “Building Culturally Relevant School-Family-Community Partnerships that Promote College Readiness and Access.”
Helping school counselors assist students in the college admission process is a critical component of NACAC’s mission. The association’s Fundamentals of College Admission Counseling textbook is the definitive classroom resource for graduate education programs in secondary school counseling. It is also a must-read for practicing counselors, particularly those new to the profession. Learn more about the book’s fifth edition, published in 2019.