Bloomberg Got Some Stuff Right

I read with interest about Michael Bloomberg’s latest good deed—that is, his initiative to get more high-performing lower-income high school students into top colleges. That is an easy initiative to support. I had just written an article about how guidance counselors are not really equipped to do what needs to be done for most high school seniors (both because guidance counselors are overworked and because they lack the background and personal experience with a wide variety and large number of colleges to help students make an informed choice). Bloomberg’s plan to hire full-time counselors (who, I hope, are truly qualified), bring in current college students as part-time advisors, provide application-fee waivers, and so on is great—as far as it goes.

Bloomberg Got Some Stuff Right by Regina H. Paul on Policy Studies in Education

I understand the impulse of philanthropists, politicians, business leaders, and other thoughtful individuals to take care of lower-income smart kids who do not have the family background and cannot afford the outside help they would likely need to navigate the confusing waters of college admissions, especially to the best schools. But let me say a word or two about the lower-income average students who cannot figure out how to get into college either.

In the public Early College high school I co-founded in Brooklyn, we took in average and not-quite-average students coming out of eighth grade classrooms across all five boroughs. Though our innovative school was designed to operate on trimesters and send kids to college early after just three years (instead of the traditional four), our students were typical New York City public school students. Most of them were not high performing; they did not take entrance exams or need impressive middle school grades to get into our school. Our principal, Chris Aguirre, said from the beginning that this school would be for all kids, especially those who had not gotten a break in elementary or middle school, often through no fault of their own. As you might guess, there are a lot of these average and not-quite-average students.

Our small high school gave these average and not-quite-average students, mostly from lower-income families, every advantage—from small class sizes to hand-picked teachers to rigorous high school courses to college classes to staff focused almost entirely on getting them into the right college. Most high schools in the U.S. cannot possibly do that. And still, getting them into the right program at the right college was a struggle, even though many of them were going directly into our Early College partner, the CUNY campus across the street.

The fact is that there are more average students than top-performing students. Average students also need the best higher education they can get, and there are many colleges in the U.S. that will happily take average students and give them a good education that will improve their chances of having a productive career. Affluent average students go to those colleges; lower-income average students more often get lost in the shuffle. That’s what Bloomberg’s plan will not fix.

By the way, some of those low-income average students might have been top-performing high school students if their lives had been a bit different—if they had not been living on couches with relatives or in homeless shelters, if they were not working at night at a fast-food restaurant, if their public middle schools had been better, if they had gotten extra help when they needed it in earlier grades, and so on. That means that they could turn into top-performing college students, given a chance at college.

So, kudos to Bloomberg. But now, who is going to work on the problem for all the rest of the kids?

3 Reasons a Guidance Counselor Cannot Help Your College-Bound Child Enough

I have spent a lot of time in high schools all over the U.S. and have had a lot of chances to observe students and staff members at work. As an outside consultant, I have worked closely with many of those staff members—teachers, guidance counselors, administrators, and others—and talked for hours and hours with students and their parents, individually and in groups. I have watched guidance counselors deal with students in serious trouble—especially personal and interpersonal trouble. I have been amazed at what students have to cope with at home and at school and what guidance counselors have to help them cope with. That is a full-time job for anyone.

Perhaps that is exactly why a high school guidance counselor cannot help your child enough when it comes to exploring college options and then choosing one. That is not to say there are not some guidance counselors whose high schools have allowed them to specialize in college placement and who have become experts in the world of college and its overwhelming number of opportunities. If your child’s high school has such a guidance counselor, you are lucky indeed.

3 Reasons a Guidance Counselor Cannot Help Your College-Bound Child Enough by Regina Paul on Policy Studies in Education

If I were a parent of a high school student now (as I once was, three times over) and I were relying on a guidance counselor—or any other college advisor—to help my child navigate the world of college options, I would ask that person these three questions:

1) How many colleges have you visited? This sounds like a low hurdle, but I am convinced that many guidance counselors and other college advisors do not have a broad background of visiting a wide variety of colleges—in your city, in your state, in your region of the U.S., in other regions of the U.S., and abroad. Even though many students end up going to college in their own state for a variety of reasons, which certainly include logistical and financial ones, it is not good enough for someone to advise your child on what colleges to consider if that person has not “seen it all”—or, at least a lot of it. Your child’s college advisor should be able to talk about a variety of urban, suburban, and rural college campuses from firsthand impressions of those campuses and then to discuss whether a beautiful campus or a certain geographic location close to or far away from home or a particular type of setting makes any difference to your child.

I might ask someone trying to advise my child, “Have you seen the handsome University of Washington campus or the color of the buildings at Stanford University or Thomas Jefferson’s realized vision for the University of Virginia? Have you been in the freezing cold of the University of Chicago or the sweltering heat of Rice University? Have you been on the University of Pennsylvania’s City-of-Brotherly-Love campus or Savannah College of Art and Design’s campus in the prettiest city in the South or the picture-perfect setting on the Thames River of the lower-division campus of Richmond, the American International University in London? Have you seen the grand LBJ Presidential Library at the University of Texas or the world-class Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University? Have you seen idyllic Kenyon College’s Middle Path in the middle of nowhere or majestic Columbia University in the middle of everything?”

Why do you think that parents who can afford it take their children on the traditional college tour so that they can see the options? Because sometimes place means a lot. If someone has not seen, say, 150 such places—college campuses of all sizes, locations, and settings—I would not want that person advising my child.

2) How many colleges have you studied at or had family and close friends and former students study at? Yes, I know that most people (guidance counselors and other college advisors included) probably studied at only one or two or possibly three colleges, but were they all the same? Ideally, someone advising my child would have some experience—either firsthand or close secondhand—with the variety of collegiate institutions available.

There are the public and private and public/private institutions, two-year and four-year colleges, liberal arts and technical schools, big universities and small colleges, single-sex and coeducational schools, faith-based institutions, HBCUs, fine arts and business schools, military service academies, and more. That is a lot. While no individual can know about each of these types of institutions firsthand as a student, I would want someone advising my college-bound child to know about most of these at least secondhand—that is, by the testimony of thoughtful family members and informed friends and trusted former students who had gone there. If a guidance counselor or other college advisor cannot be an expert in every individual college, he or she should at least be an expert in the types of institutions that are available to my child.

3) How many colleges have you worked at or closely with? Most guidance counselors and other college advisors based in high schools have not also worked at colleges, and that is a shame. Yes, they were all once students in college, but that view is very different from the view you get as an employee or even consultant. You can learn a lot about the operations of a college when you are working backstage, and you can better figure out how those operations impact students.

For example, if a guidance counselor had worked with college support services offices, it would be easier to judge what services might be available for a student with special needs. Or, if a guidance counselor had worked with a number of college department chairs, it would be clearer how easily a student might be able to change a major if that student started down the wrong path. Or, if a guidance counselor had worked with college registrars, it would be easier to figure out how to get a student credit for college courses taken while a student was still in high school.

Of course, all colleges are not the same. But a firsthand dose of working at a college can sometimes go a long way toward helping students choose a college that is a good fit.


So, ask the questions and listen closely to the answers. Then, get whatever additional help you might need so that your child makes the best college choice possible.