• August 16th, 2022
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We Must Close College Counseling’s Equity Gap

Laura Owen and Marina Koestler Ruben


Ask people of color if they are surprised by the alleged college admissions bribery case in the news, and they will likely laugh out loud.

For years, the refrain has been that rich white students can buy their ways into the college of their choice — and, given the recent scandal, it looks like the chorus was right.

Often unaware of the strategies employed by their more privileged counterparts and trusting those in positions of power, many parents mistakenly assume that their children are being provided the same level of support that other American students receive when navigating postsecondary paths.

“Buying your way into college” isn’t just a transaction that individuals employ. Rather, it’s a systematic, sweeping inequity that pervades our country’s education system and separates the “have” districts from the have-nots.

When you take a closer look at school advising, a number of concerning factors surface.

First, the typical school counselor-to-student ratio is 1 to 464, yet the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommends a counselor-to -student ratio of 1 to 250.

We need to modernize the college counseling system and give all children access to the postsecondary guidance they deserve. If we cannot, the joke’s on us — and, sadly, on the students whom we claim that we are striving to help.

Second, 1.7 million students across the United States attend schools with a police officer but no school counselor.

Third, one in five students in América has no access to a school counselor.

And, finally, students with the greatest need to meet with school counselors often have the least access.

Inadequate educational support is nothing new. Systemic inequity has been an American pastime. Prior to President Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, anyone who taught an enslaved person to read and write was considered a criminal.

Throughout history, we have seen how educational institutions show pervasive bias toward black and brown students. And let’s face it: Unless we confront white supremacy head on and address its unapologetic mission to hoard educational resources and opportunities for the white elite, we will never understand why our public education system is in shambles.

We are reading a number of articles detailing school and college admission counselors’ lack of surprise regarding the admissions scandal. While we applaud the acknowledgment that affluent families have many advantages over low-income students in the admissions process, we wonder where their voices were before. The ASCA School Counselor Professional Standards and Competencies require counselors to “use multicultural and social justice theories to promote equity and access for all students.”

Does this include calling out flagrant abuse and discriminatory practices? In 2017, while speaking at the National Association for College Admissions Counseling conference, University of Southern California’s Director of the Race and Equity Center Shaun Harper pointed out, “Your profession is 80 percent white. It’s even whiter when we get to those who are at the top levels. It sure would be nice if a mostly white professional association and its members more powerfully, more responsibly and more loudly advocated for racial justice on behalf of those who don’t have the resources that they deserve in high schools across our nation.”

American University’s School of Education is doing something to address the imbalance. Our new Center for Postsecondary Readiness and Success (CPRS) is committed to identifying and dismantling school-based systems, policies and practices that hinder equitable postsecondary opportunities for students. CPRS grew out of then-First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Reach Higher” initiative, and recommendations were published in a January 2017 report, “The State of School Counseling: Revisiting the Path Forward.” CPRS is taking a leadership role in identifying, testing and replicating effective school counseling and college advising models and practices that can drive successful postsecondary outcomes and increase students’ economic mobility.

There is an urgent need to operationalize a set of standards — linked to training, credentialing and licensing, as well as to success metrics — that can be consistently applied to the college advising field, which has no professional college and career competencies. We will need the appropriate stakeholders to agree that the standards and practices are necessary to ensure consistent support for all students. Then, college access organizations, counselor preparation programs, and school districts and administrators will need to be prepared to integrate these competencies into their programs and evaluation systems.

Closing opportunity gaps, especially among new majority populations, can be facilitated by the availability of well-trained, culturally responsive and resourced school counselors and college advisors. Counselors can become integral partners in driving equitable student outcomes and cultivating culturally responsive school systems. In turn, this will strengthen the U.S. economy and help build a diverse workforce with the necessary knowledge and skills to address the challenges of the 21st century.

We need to modernize the college counseling system and give all children access to the postsecondary guidance they deserve. If we cannot, the joke’s on us — and, sadly, on the students whom we claim that we are striving to help.


Laura Owen, a research associate professor and director of the Center for Postsecondary Readiness and Success at American University. Marina Koestler Ruben is a graduate research assistant at American University’s Center for Postsecondary Readiness and Success. This column was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. You can learn more about student Karoline Jiménez’s experience in the feature-length documentary film Personal Statement: personalstatementfilm.com.


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