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The Role of School Counselors in High School

When most of today’s high school counselors were teenagers, they saw their own guidance counselors when they needed help applying for college, changing their schedule or getting early release to go to work. But the nature of guidance counseling in high schools has seen dramatic changes in recent years, as the support students need today becomes more intense and immediate.

Even the type and amount of help students need to apply for college is different. A study of roughly 500 Massachusetts high school seniors recently found that many students, often the first in their families to pursue higher education, lack a basic understanding of the college admissions and financial aid process. And they have no idea what it takes to succeed on campus once they get there.

Teens and Stress

Colorado Public Radio has produced a series of articles on “Teens Under Stress,” in which they examined the pressures adolescents are under and what can be done about it. In Colorado, the increase in teen suicides is alarming, jumping by 58% in the past three years. Many factors fuel teen stress, including anxiety and depression brought on by intense social media involvement. These Colorado teens reported that “emotional isolation, a definition of success that means getting into the right four-year college, social pressure to look a certain way (always, because Snapchat never sleeps), trauma at home or school, and the political climate” are among the top reasons they suffer anxiety and depression. “They worry about climate change, school shootings and figuring out who they’re supposed to be.”

High School counselor Laura Oliver says the issue is huge and complex. “It’s the layering of multiple stressors on top of one another that has put some teens at the breaking point.” Teens now “use the vocabulary of anxiety and depression in the way that nobody was using 10, 15 years ago,” said Diana Rarich, a social emotional learning specialist at Chatfield High School.

The Changing Role of School Counselors

Jacquelyn Indrisano, a guidance counselor at East Boston High School, sees herself as both school mother and enforcer to about 160 ninth-graders. In a typical day, she will text one student to make sure she wakes up on time while discreetly providing soap, toothpaste and shampoo to students who lack these basic needs at home. A Boston Globe article about the changing roles of counselors reported, “Once focused largely on helping students prepare for college and careers, counselors have seen their portfolios expand to encompass a host of new responsibilities for students’ social and emotional well-being.”

The American School Counselor Association’s guidelines say that every school should have at least one guidance counselor for every 250 students. But the average is 464 to 1. Consequently, counselors must give priority to students with pressing needs like serious problems at home, severe anxiety or suicidal thoughts, leaving little time to help students choose the right college or apply for financial aid. This is largely because there are simply not enough guidance counselors to go around.

New Research on School Counselors

Christine Mulhern, a Harvard graduate student, produced a study recently to quantify how more than 500 counselors affected the outcomes of nearly 150,000 students over a number of years. Her research found that a counselor can make a substantial difference (particularly for low-income students); that students of color do much better when matched with a counselor of color; and that counselors impact suspensions, AP and SAT test-taking, and the type of college students attend.

In addition, having better counselors seems to have as much of an impact on student outcomes as having more counselors. “Better counselors boost students’ chances of graduating high school and enrolling in and remaining in college.” She provides evidence that “the benefits, in terms of educational attainment, from improving access to effective counselors will likely be similar to or larger than those from reducing counselor caseloads.”

In a recent article, Chalkbeat discussed Mulhern’s study, concluding that the study “doesn’t provide clear insight on how to improve counselor effectiveness. But it does suggest — in line with past research — that hiring more counselors would help.” By hiring even one additional counselor, the average school graduation rate may increase by about half a point and college enrollment can increase by nearly a full point.

Mulhern also finds that although counselor roles vary considerably from school to school and district to district, there are four main channels through which counselors influence students.

  1. They influence cognitive skills by directing students in scheduling courses and helping them access support like language services or special education.
  2. Counselors help students with non-cognitive skills like improving behavior and engagement with school.
  3. Counselors provide information students need about postsecondary education and the job market.
  4. Counselors directly influence students’ high school experiences in many ways, like writing letters of recommendation, obtaining SAT fee waivers, assisting in the completion of college or job applications, and other individual accommodations.

Becoming an Effective High School Counselor

You can gain the knowledge and qualifications required to become an effective high school counselor by earning a master’s degree in education in school counseling. Arkansas State University offers a fully online comprehensive program, ideal for working professionals who want to obtain an MSE in School Counseling.

Learn more about Arkansas State University’s online Master of Science in Education in School Counseling program.


Chalkbeat: It’s Not Just Teachers: How Counselor Diversity Matters for Students of Color

Harvard University: Beyond Teachers: Estimating Individual Guidance Counselors’ Effects on Educational Attainment

The Education Trust: Why School Counselors Matter

CPR News: Colorado Teens Say School Stress, Phones, Social Pressure Are Behind Growing Mental Health Issues

Boston Globe: ‘My Guidance Counselor Didn’t Do Any of This’: How School Counselors’ Roles Have Evolved

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