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.
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.