Too Few Guidance Counselors, Too Little Information: Why Community College Might Be the Best Path for High School Graduates — But They’ll Never Know It

Natalie Hamilton, left, Northwood High School counselor, gives college advice to senior students Bianca Schteiden, 18, at Northwood High School in Irvine. The University of California is starting waiting lists for its freshman application process. Hamilton feels the students don’t need any more anxiety that the lists will produce. (Photo by Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Sometimes a community college is right for students, for financial or academic or career reasons, but they aren’t getting enough info about community colleges in high school. Here’s my article on the topic:

Despite a stellar high school record with great grades, Advanced Placement classes and leadership positions on the debate team and in marching band, Jennifer Hernandez was completely unprepared during her senior year to choose a college or even comprehend the jargon that surrounds the application process.

“I did not know where to start,” she said. As a first-generation student living in the Chicago suburb of Rolling Meadows, Illinois, she didn’t have family who could decipher the terminology or take her to visit college campuses. Nor did she get that help from an adviser. Like many high schools around the country, hers did not have enough guidance counselors, she said. And the counselors the school did have were too busy to support students who needed extra help, like her.

With no one to guide her, Hernandez applied to a number of four-year colleges — some local, some chosen at random — not realizing until she received her acceptance letters that she could not afford them. She then scrambled, on her own, to apply to a community college later in the spring of her senior year. Her school counselors, she said, again didn’t help with her application, or provide much-needed information about how she could eventually transfer to a four-year school. With the stigma associated with community college, Hernandez said, she felt demoralized. “It was pretty rough,” she said.

More here.

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13 thoughts on “Too Few Guidance Counselors, Too Little Information: Why Community College Might Be the Best Path for High School Graduates — But They’ll Never Know It

  1. My first thought was to wonder why Hernandez should go to a community college, which with the “stellar grades” description seems to be an undermatch. But the, I questioned myself, I am prone to undervaluing community colleges. They did provide an on ramp and they still could for students with a variety of different needs (lack of money, lack of confidence, a need to stay near home, . . . ). Beverley Cleary’s educational journey (detailed in On My Own Two Feet and fictionally in The Luckiest Girl) is fascinating as is Joan Didion’s (rejected from Stanford, went to junior college and found her way to finish at Berkeley).

    We seem to be pushing all children and families into the same path, and in doing so, treating any other path as being permanently kicked off the island.

    I want to invest more resources in making these other paths work for people, in both the short and long run, rather than investing in forcing everyone onto the same track. And, I feel we have to find a way, even while recognizing that academics is what has rapidly advanced my family into economic success.

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  2. On the other hand, there are plenty of states where high schoolers routinely take community college classes. (See, for example, WA’s Running Start.)

    In fact, I know for a fact that our fancy suburban public school district has a program where community college teachers come out to the suburban public school campus and teach classes there.

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  3. I have to say, though, that one of my community college teacher relatives is really down on Running Start. She feels that the kids are not well enough prepared for community college coursework and often don’t take it seriously enough.

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  4. Thanks for highlighting this. I teach at a community college in Missouri, and among certain high schools in our service area, a CC is seen as a second- or third-chance choice. You are right that high school counselors have staggering workloads, and in more upscale high schools, I think some end up spending more time servicing the parents of Ivy-bound kids (the few who go from our HS in an upscale St Louis suburb) than they do the kids who need more help, simply because the parents are more persistent. They know what they need to do, which many non-college-educated parents do not.

    I remember some years ago when my hairdresser asked “how do you go to college?” on behalf of her daughters (in same HS as our daughter)–neither she nor her husband went because they are both gifted tradespeople–I took her with me to an area college fair with lots of those seminars on choosing a college, navigating admissions and financial aid, and the like–one daughter ended up at our CC for awhile and then transferred to a for-profit culinary program, which worked out for her. The other daughter went through University of Missouri with pell grants and other financial aid and graduated.

    I’ve taught CC courses in a high school when I worked as a CC adjunct–it can be an effective program, but states tend to start the kids earlier than they should–Washington state was an early one to let HS sophomores into college classes, which is too soon–we let juniors and seniors in, and have had some success. State K-12 lobby sometimes opposes this because it reduces demand for AP/honors classes that they like to teach–in Missouri, we have to have HS-certified teachers only doing dual credit classes in the HS. If the same students come to our campus, we can teach them.

    One of the things not discussed is what we call “reverse transfers”–the folks who went off to a four-year school and drank their way or otherwise dropped out–over 20% of our students fall into this category–they do not count against graduation rates because those, stupidly, only count first-time, full-time students–the federal data collection system does not depict students in a comprehensive way.

    I think community colleges should be the first choice for most college-bound students, if only to ease into college life. We really do have smaller classes and teachers whose main focus is on teaching, and we have to meet state standards for college faculty (minimum masters with 18 credit hours or more in the subject–a third of my colleagues have terminal degrees). No M.Eds, for example, outside of our education programs.
    I hope your article makes folks think about CC as a good place to start and to transfer to a four-year school.

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  5. Ugh – not sure if my comments disappeared in the void or if it’s pending – apologies if I post this twice!

    The lack of counselors also correlates with the fact that upper middle class and wealthy families are out sourcing guidance counseling to private options. People pay thousands of dollars to get private help with the process, thereby giving their kids another leg up. IMO, that’s a big reason why more many parents aren’t asking for schools to invest in more counselors – if all kids had equal access to the kind of help these kids are getting, then it would make it more difficult for their kids to get in.

    I see it in our community. We have too few guidance counselors, so a woman I know started a business doing college application consulting. She had no special expertise in the area – she just started it as a side hustle. Now, it’s her full time work, and business is booming. Personally, we’re struggling with what to do as our oldest enters into the college admissions process. On the one hand, my husband and I are college professors, so we should be able to manage this on our own. On the other hand, we can afford the services our friend is offering, and everyone else is doing it – would our kid be disadvantaged against everyone else who is getting helping writing and editing their essays? Plus, I am not looking forward to managing the application deadlines and such with a disorganized teenaged boy – would be nice to outsource that. Not sure what we are going to do, but I guess we have to decide soon as the sign up for her program for juniors in high school starts in a month and fills very quickly.

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  6. In my opinion, in general high schools don’t have enough guidance counselors specializing in college & trade school placement. I’ve looked into this at times. It seems that the “counseling” part of the job has swallowed the college placement part of the job. And I can’t find any indications online that curricula for people who want to become guidance counselors includes knowledge of the college placement process.

    At a minimum, I would say such a curriculum should include a knowledge of student loans, student debt consequences, and resources to minimize such debt. I can’t find anything indicating that any such things happen. This plays into my idea from last year, that many of the people looking for answers in the “self-help” section of a bookstore should really be looking in the “personal finance” section.

    I’ll break this up into multiple comments. Apologies.

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  7. Ok, for a dark sort of fun, look at https://www.schoolcounselor.org/press. There is a link on that page to current state-level counselor to student ratios. The organization recommends a 250 to 1 ratio. New Hampshire, Vermont, Wyoming, and the US Virgin Islands are in good shape. No joke.

    Everyone else is over the recommended ratio. Arizona has a 903 to 1 ratio! Illinois 678 to 1! And as this is state-level, not district or school-level, it’s undoubtedly unevenly distributed. So look at your high school, count the number of counselors listed as staff, then compare that number to the number of students enrolled in the high school. Not the number of Juniors and Seniors, as guidance counselors are counseling all students. (oh, and some of the counselors may be part-time, not full time.)

    I have sat in college information sessions in which the presenters have told students at public high schools to make sure the guidance counselors know their names.

    There is a lot of information available online. Some of it is very good, although I’m not sure a high school student would have the maturity to keep things in perspective.

    A lot of it is very bad, in that it is marketing designed to manipulate students and families.

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  8. The best book I found in my experiences with my kids was this: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B004LROUTK/ref=kinw_myk_ro_title. _College Admission: From Application to Acceptance, Step by Step_, by Robin Mamlet.

    If anyone wants more book recommendations, I can supply them. They won’t be this year’s books. Ok, for the humorous side: _Crazy U_, by Andrew Ferguson, and _The Neurotic Parent’s Guide to College Admissions: Strategies for Helicopering, Hot-housing & Micromanaging_, by J.D. Rothman.

    On the issue of private counselors, I would be very cautious. There are good counselors. A cousin used one to basically do the things she would have done, if she didn’t have a full-time job (go over the list of colleges to apply to, keep the kid on schedule to produce an application before the deadline, proofread essays. note: NOT write essays!!) The added value was giving insight into how to distinguish between different colleges that sounded just the same on paper.

    But then…well, we sent our kids to private schools that had great college placement advising. We did not use outside counselors. However, we had the strong impression at one school that many of the parents did use outside counselors. College admissions people do not talk to private counselors; they talk to the school’s counselors.

    (The most useful talent in a private school college counselor? The ability to calm down neurotic parents.)

    We have received cold call letters from private college counselors that really tried to amp up parent worries about the whole process. I was offended; the process is nerve wracking enough, without making parents more anxious. I feel that many of these services brag about their “great placement record” are actually parasites on the good work done by the real college counselors at places like Spence, Dalton or Deerfield.

    The more stories come out about services like the one in Operation Varsity Blues, or the most recent one where parents give up custody of their children, the more I wonder how many unethical and nutty things are going on in that field.

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  9. Our new private school college counselor is an eager beaver who is continually blasting emails at us that stress me and my oldest (a rising senior) out.

    We are pretty sure we know what we are doing (aim for oldest to go to moderately selective Hometown U where husband teaches and we will wind up paying only about $5k a year in fees and books if she lives at home), but the guidance counselor is all YOU MUST DO TWO COLLEGE VISITS ASIDE FROM HOMETOWN U!

    SO many links in her emails of stuff-you-need-to-do!

    I appreciate the fact that she’s doing her job, but she’s stressing me out.

    It does seem like a much more complex process than when I was in school, though. We have three different sets of applications (Hometown U., scholarship weekend, honors program) to deal with, just for this one school.

    I realize that it’s kind of risky applying to just one school this fall, but the plan is to just apply to Hometown U. early decision and then if we find that she didn’t get in in December, make other arrangements. We need her to go to Hometown U., though, because as I tell the kids, we spent their college money on private K-12. Hometown U. is fine, though. I think our oldest has a roughly an 80-90% chance of getting in. We have a small amount of college savings for our oldest, but if she has to live in the dorm and if she doesn’t get a scholarship that we can use for it, it will consume nearly all of her college savings in the first year.

    Our local community college is widely respected and loved–but the commute would be kind of a pain compared to Hometown U, which the kids will be able to just walk from home to.

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  10. When I was in public school and my younger sister was in school in WA back in the late 80s/early 90s, our guidance counselor was chill to the point of being comatose.

    Sis says that her best friend says the counselor lost/misplaced some of her college paperwork, but I don’t know how accurate that is. I expect that the counselor did need some watching.

    I recall that something like 4 kids from my class of 60-something graduating seniors in the early 90s went directly to 4-year college.

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  11. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the federal TRIO programs, which help students with disabilities and those who are low income and /or 1st generation college students. Talent Search and Upward Bound provide guidance and support to pre-college students ( middle school and high school) navigating the path to college and Student Support Services helps them succeed once they’re in college. I worked for an SSS program for many years and saw the tremendous difference these programs make. TRIO programs are hugely beneficial and deserve more attention and support – only a tiny fraction of eligible students get a chance to join because of limited funding. The program I used to direct at a rural community college saw a graduation rate of almost twice the state and national average for community college students. More students deserve that help.

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