Effective counselors boost graduation, college attendance

COURTESY OF: Shawna De La Rosa Education Drive

Dive Brief:

  • High school counselors make a positive difference in graduation rates and enrollment in college, especially for low-achieving and low-income students, according to research presented in Education Next.

  • The article, written by Harvard University doctoral candidate Christine Mulhern, says the most effective high school counselors boost students’ likelihood of graduating high school by 2 percentage points, attending a college by 1.5 percentage points and graduating college by 1.3 percentage points.

  • Minority students’ likelihood of graduating high school rose by 3.2 percentage points and to attend college 2.2 percentage points. Low-achieving students were 3.4 percentage points more likely to graduate high school and 2.5 percentage points more likely to attend any type of college.

Dive Insight:

In her research, Mulhern also found counselors focusing onimproving non-cognitive skills like attendance and behavior did not seem to translate into better education or boost attendance at selective colleges, which indicates highly effective counselors focus on different areas of achievement.

Her research also shows same-race counselors bump upstudents’ likelihood of graduating high school, attending college and graduating from college by 2 percentage points compared to peers who had a different-race counselor. For non-white students, the difference is even more pronounced. They are 3.8 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school and go to college if matched with a same-race counselor.

Mulhern believes the quality of the counselor is more important than the quantity of students of which the counselor oversees, and that increasing diversity and providing professional development may be more useful than adding counselors to the staff. Because high school counselors may have a big impact on students, she wrote, improving the level of counseling can also have social and economic benefits.

Too many students per counselor, however, may cause problems. Kathy Pelzer, counselor at Capistrano Unified School District, had a caseload of 2,300 students in 2014, and her job was to react to problems — rather than provide guidance to prevent them. Pelzer, a past School Counselor of the Year for California, said additional counselors have made all the difference. The district hired a team of college and career readiness counselors, so she could use her time to be part of a program that delivered small-group lessons.

While other states, like Colorado, have also recognized the impact counselors can have on reducing dropout rates, improving graduation rates and college attendance rates, and narrowing the achievement gap, these positions are also typically among the first staff cuts when economic crises strike. Looming cuts resulting from a recession exacerbated by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic will test states' recent investments in these roles.

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