Public Agenda
Commentary

Making the Connection on College Completion

Ruth Wooden

In a recent report by Public Agenda for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, six in 10 of young adults who went on to further education gave their high school counselors poor grades for their college advice, and nearly half said they felt like "just a face in the crowd." Ruth Wooden, president of Public Agenda, addressed the report's findings at the July 5, 2010, annual meeting of the American School Counselors Association in Boston. Her speech, speaking to the issues facing both high school students and their guidance counselors, is transcribed below.

Thank you for welcoming me so warmly to this meeting—and I don't say that lightly. Public opinion studies from Public Agenda often generate controversy and a fair bit of angst. Our recent study "Can I get a Little Advice Here?" did show that nearly half of young Americans who attended some college said that they "felt like a face in the crowd" when they met with their guidance counselor to talk about plans for life after high school. Moreover, the research showed that those young people who said they were poorly counseled were less likely to get financial aid and more likely to delay college, a decision that often makes it more difficult to complete a degree later on. And that's the crux of the mission I bring to your meeting today.

President Obama is only one of many leaders in government, business, education and the like who has stressed the need for the United States to increase the number of Americans with college degrees or certificates, and has urged a concerted effort to help students successfully complete their degrees. This is especially urgent at the nation's community colleges where only one in five students has earned a degree after three years. When Jacques Steinberg of the New York Times wrote about the Public Agenda research, he commented that it was "sure to provoke strong emotions among high school guidance counselors and students, to say nothing of high school graduates and their parents."

Steinberg was right on target. The research prompted extensive media coverage and robust discussion online. Not only was the response vibrant, it was also especially constructive. Rather than being defensive—an all too common response to troubling news—the American School Counselor Association and individual school counselors stepped forward right away to say the study had revealed an important problem to them as well. Patricia Nailor was quoted last week in USA Today, saying the "study serves as a wake-up call for sparking substantial, needed changes."

Since we released the report, I've learned a lot more about the counseling profession—way beyond my personal experience back in the 1960s as a student at Minnetonka High School in Excelsior, Minnesota. I know now that helping students make decisions on higher education is just one of many responsibilities that counselors take on, and that you typically work with hundreds of students. In California, I understand there are places where the ratio is 1000 to one, while the average is about 465 to one.

Individuals working in service organizations, mentoring programs and youth advocacy groups contacted Public Agenda to talk about how their work might help fill the college application information gap, especially the one facing first generation college students whose families are less familiar with their choices. That group is now the majority of our students. Six in ten students come from families where neither parent graduated from college, and the statistic that correlates the highest with college completion is if one of a student's parents graduated from college.

The response has been so intriguing that Public Agenda hopes to join with like-minded groups and individuals to convene a daylong conference in Washington, D.C., this fall or winter that would gather key stakeholders to discuss practical ways to push solutions forward. ASCA has actively pursued working with us on this conference and we thank you for your enthusiasm.

The meeting would provide several benefits: 1) it would take the conversation to the next level—beyond identifying a problem to identifying possible solutions—and help sustain the impetus for change; 2) it would offer a venue for counselors, educators, researchers, advocates, innovators and funding organizations to gather, compare notes, and make connections; and 3) it would spotlight solutions and model programs that might be replicated more widely across the country.

One such program, a pilot in twenty New York City high Schools called READY, was developed by a group called ReServe. ReServe matches older adults interested in continuing to work post retirement at work that combines purpose, passion and a modest paycheck—work now being called "encore careers." READY coaches are trained in the free application for federal student aid, essay writing and applications administration, and work ten to twelve hours a week under a counselor or principal to work specifically with kids the counselors have identified as needing additional support.

This morning, I met with two groups of your membership to get further input and suggestions about this issue. What a dynamic bunch of people: we could still be talking together, given all their ideas for strengthening this one aspect of your counseling work. I thank all of them for the time they gave me, and I was struck by the willingness to collaborate with others outside of the school building—for example, with employers, where your students' parents could be prompted to push parent involvement in ways that you can't. So could parent liaisons in the school.

Higher education institutions have been in a sellers' market for too long and should be at the table, making the college process more transparent and, frankly, less onerous. Coaching models such as the READY program could be expanded to include test-coordination responsibilities, which have expanded geometrically for too many of you, thus freeing your time for more post-secondary counseling. The advisory councils called for in the ASCA Comprehensive Model can engage all these groups much more intensely as well. And certainly, better understanding by principals, superintendents and school boards of the ASCA National Model would go a long way to standardizing the definition and appropriate roles for your profession.

But beyond the creative and thoughtful ideas I've heard today, the best inspiration of all is the enthusiasm and readiness to do whatever it might take to help put these young, deserving kids on the path to a fulfilling future. Let's stay that course—for their sake.



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