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UB Study Examines Role of Counselors in Preparing Students for College

Release Date: November 14, 2012

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A study by Corrie Stone-Johnson has found that high school counselors face complex issues in their efforts to help prepare students for college.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- With SAT and college application deadlines around the corner, high school seniors have enough on their plates to be stressed about until the holidays. But college admissions season is providing high school counselors with their fair share of headaches as well.

The issues advisors face in preparing high school students for the future were recently examined by Corrie Stone-Johnson, assistant professor of leadership and policy in the University at Buffalo's Graduate School of Education.

In her study, "College Readiness at the Crossroads: The Contemporary Challenges of Post-Secondary Preparation," Stone-Johnson surveyed and interviewed students, parents, teachers, principals and superintendents in the Cheektowaga-Maryvale Union Free School District over the course of a year. Surprisingly, she found that many people misunderstood the responsibilities of counselors, and had expectations for them that did not match up with their actual job duties.

Her research, which is funded by a Civic Engagement Research Fellowship through the UB 2020 Civic Engagement and Public Policy strategic initiative (CEPP), also revealed that more than half of the students had not met with their advisors to discuss future educational or vocational plans, and felt they did not receive an adequate amount of advisement for college preparation.

The obvious solution is to have counselors spend more time with students; however, it is easier said than done. Maryvale High School has more than 700 students serviced by only three advisors, one of which is part-time, the study points out.

High schools across the country are facing the same problem. School counselors, social workers and psychologists are being cut nationwide. Because schools are pressured to raise student achievement, "when the district has to make a choice on who they will keep, it is usually an academic person," says Stone-Johnson.

"School counselors have been seen as separate from the academic mission of the school. But now with the pressure to make sure all students are achieving, everybody in the school is being called upon. Schools are struggling to find ways to integrate counselors into the change process."

And as the number of students opting to attend college continues to rise, advisors are struggling to keep up. Many of these students are first-generation college students as well. For parents who have never gone through a college admissions process, drudging through applications and filling out the FAFSA can be a daunting task. Counselors are often turned to for assistance with applications, sometimes having to walk families through the entire process, Stone-Johnson says.

Other research, such as "Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses" by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, suggests that students aren't prepared for higher education once they arrive. Those who reach college are struggling because they lack study skills and academic preparation, and are unsure of what career they want to pursue, says Stone-Johnson.

A school counselor's other duties also take time away from college and career advisement for students. Career planning is only a small part of what advisors do; they're also responsible for providing social services, curriculum and course planning, helping students work toward their Regents diplomas and assisting teachers and other staff.

Rising poverty levels throughout the nation only add fuel to the fire. More students are classified now as "in crisis" and need social services to help them overcome issues outside of the classroom, such as a parent losing a job or bullying, says Stone-Johnson. More time spent covering these issues means less time discussing SAT scores and scholarships.

Maryvale High School counselors are aware of these pressures and have already begun to work on solutions. Stone-Johnson is working with the school's advisors to develop a new curriculum, philosophy and mission that will be implemented in the high school over the next two years.

The curriculum focuses closely on raising college and career readiness for students by exposing a greater number of them to college experiences, such as campus visits earlier in their high school career.

"I think those that are really college-oriented are probably getting the help that they need," says Stone-Johnson. "But for those who are on the edge or don't have the family support that might get them there, this extra time with the counselors could make a big difference."