Why many smart, low-income students don’t apply to elite schools

**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**

A guest post by Carol Miller

It’s taken me a few days to respond, but when I went home the other day, the first thing my husband said to me when I got home was, “Did you listen to NPR today?  They were talking about Guidance Counselors.”

(Of course, before I could respond to his question, I had to correct him by saying, “You mean School Counselor.”)

But, I didn’t hear it, and I had to pull it up on the NPR website to listen.

You can listen to it here, or read the transcript here.

The basic premise of the report is that many low-income, high achieving high school students don’t apply to elite colleges because their “guidance counselors” steer them towards less expensive options. While NPR reports that recommending colleges is not always on the uppermost thoughts of many counselors due to high caseloads, they do state that  “guidance counselors may not have gone to selective colleges themselves.” and that your guidance counselor might not know “for a low-income high achiever, Harvard or Yale could be free.”

What NPR fails to report is that, while many low-income, high achieving students may be able to attend elite schools at a significant cost reduction, school counselors may not be privy to the net worth and financial backgrounds of each of our students.  In addition, when talking about different college options with students, we listen to their needs and concerns.  While Harvard or Yale might be free, transportation costs to and from these schools are not.

In addition, there is no magic wand that can guarantee a student’s acceptance into a college where the chance of admittance can be less than 10%.  Do we want students to apply to dozens of colleges on a chance that they will be accepted?  I know I want students to apply to a variety of colleges, but I also want them to apply to schools that would be considered reach schools, target schools and safety schools.  So throw a Harvard or Yale in the mix (because I DO know that the ivy league schools have a “no loan” program for students under a certain family income–I have encouraged a few to apply to Cornell), but also apply to a few state schools and also a few more small private schools that would have great financial aid packages with generous grants and fewer loans.

I also want students to think about the fact if they are majoring in Biology, Psychology, or Physical Therapy, that they will need more than 4 years of college.  I also want them to think about how they need to consider their indebtedness upon graduation.  I have seen more students come back to me with $60,000 or more in college loan debt by going to “elite schools” which they are then unable to pay back.

NPR fails to report that public schools have so many mandates for course requirements these days, with Common Core testing, Regents Exams, or State Exit Exam requirements, that school counselors do not have opportunities to  talk to students about these college awareness fundamentals.  Class time is a hot commodity, and is not given away by teachers easily.  Even at the middle school level, I struggle to find teaching time to talk about the things not covered in ELA, Math, Science or Social Studies but are important none-the-less.  Bullying, study skills, healthy behaviors, kindness, compassion, and college awareness are topics that are needed but not easily incorporated into the school day.

While I regularly listen to NPR, I was bothered by this article.  I would like those at NPR to know that first of all, I am a school counselor.  I am NOT a Guidance Counselor.  I am so much more than a paper pusher and a signer of transcripts to go on to colleges.  I am a teacher, a motivator, a cheerleader, and a coach.  I have inspired many low-income, high achievers to believe that college is an option.  I have taught them to understand financial aid packages, and what to look for on a college tour.  I have refused to give up on them and have helped them set goals.  I have encouraged them to take AP classes and helped to find them scholarships to cover the AP exam fees.  I have written letters to prestigious schools on their behalf carefully describing all the things that school would be missing if they didn’t accept my student.  I have given sound advice, but most importantly, I listened to my students, respecting their decisions, their values, and their goals.

I would like NPR to join me in helping to educate others on the important work of school counselors, and the need for school counselors in the lives of students.  We need smaller student caseloads and time with students.  We need an increased awareness of the importance of college planning and social emotional learning in the school day, as it can not be an afterthought to the Common Core and Teacher Evaluation System.  Our programs should be as developed as any other class curriculum, as we teach important life skills. This last report did not highlight the strengths of School Counselors.  I know, however, that every day, we do great things for these great kids.  It’s really unfortunate that you did not get the chance to see it.

This post originally appeared on The Middle School Counselor, and was republished with permission.
Carol has organized School Counseling Conferences for several years in Central New York through TACA and has presented at these conferences on College Admissions, Best School Counseling Programs, and Sharing Counseling Resources. She is a member and past President of the Tompkins Area Counselor Association, and  a member of NYSSCA and NACAC, and NYSACAC. Carol is a mom to three sons, a crafter at heart, and a soccer and basketball coach in her free time.
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