First Lady Michelle Obama visited the Bell Multicultural High School in Washington D.C. last week and told its students that it was up to them to get in to college. They couldn't count on teachers, counselors, or even her husband, to do it for them. "No matter what the President does, no matter what your teachers and principals do or whatever is going on in your home or in your neighborhood, the person with the biggest impact on your education is you. It's that simple. It is you, the student," she said.
The first lady had her own tough trek to college. She enrolled in an accelerated high school across town from her home. Just getting there required an hour on a city bus. Her dream was to go to Princeton University. A teacher "flat out" told her she was setting her sights too high. The guidance counselors had too many students to help her figure out her applications. She had to figure it out herself.
Michelle Obama did figure it out. She got in to Princeton, which she says was one of the proudest days of her life. The question then becomes how to replicate her experience for other students, perhaps even those who aren't as driven as she is.
Guidance counselors in high schools are hopelessly overbooked. The recommended caseload is roughly 250 students per counselor, but as schools look to cut budgets, some counselors might find themselves with twice or three times as many cases. "How in depth are you going to know those kids," says Dan Fuller, vice president of legislative relations at Communities in Schools, a nonprofit that provides "site coordinators" for schools who give more extensive services to the most troubled students.
Counselors also can have muddled roles. Are they supposed to be experts in financial aid applications or in bullying prevention? Is it their job to get high school seniors into college or help the freshmen transition from middle school? In a perfect world, Fuller says schools should have more than one kind of counselor—traditional guidance counselors who oversee the academic health of the entire student body and special counselors, like CIS's site coordinators, who focus on the harder cases. Disadvantaged kids may need intervention in areas outside of the school's realm. That's why someone other than a guidance counselor should be charged with that role, he says.
From the student's perspective, counselors aren't likely to make a huge difference in their lives one way or the other. Many counselors aren't trained to be experts in college searches, and they aren't likely to spend enough time with one student to give him or her any advice that they wouldn't already hear from a teacher. Some counselors are shared between schools, stretching their knowledge of particular cases even thinner. Some counselors are charged with arranging class scheduling for all the students. No matter what, their job is probably too diffuse to impact any one student.
Is that how it should be? Are students who need in-depth consultation asking too much of school counselors? How can a school accommodate those students? Can "site coordinators" who focus on the disadvantaged kids ease the burden of school counselors generally? How many counselors—special or not—does a school need? Should schools employ experts who focus solely on college options? What is the responsibility of the students in determining next steps? Is Michelle Obama right that it's really on them?