‘My guidance counselor didn’t do any of this’: How mentors can extend the vital work of school counselors

By Jean Rhodes

“When I was in high school, my guidance counselor did not do any of this…I saw my guidance counselor when I was applying for college.” (Jacquelyn Indrisano, ninth grade guidance counselor at East Boston High, quoted in Boston Globe)

A Boston Globe article recently described the changing roles of high school guidance counselors who “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. This shift — a response to students having more intense needs — has provided a valuable in-school resource, but at a significant cost: It has pushed college advising to the back burner, according to interviews with three dozen counselors, school officials, researchers, students, and lawmakers. In wealthier communities with lots of college-educated parents, counselors’ college-advising work may seem less than vital. But in schools with large numbers of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, counselors are crucial partners in economic mobility, helping facilitate high-stakes decisions about college and financial aid. Many students — particularly those who are first in their families to pursue higher education — lack a basic understanding of the college admissions and financial aid processes, or what it takes to succeed on campus, according to a study of roughly 500 Massachusetts high school seniors by Richard Lapan and Timothy Poynton, professors in the University of Massachusetts system who specialize in school counseling and education.

One thing is clear to me: Not getting high-quality and in-depth counseling services has negative consequences for these deserving young people,’’ Lapan said. [Guidance counselors] operate in triage mode, giving priority to students with the most pressing needs — serious problems at home, severe anxiety, or suicidal thoughts…forced to put off students needing guidance on where to go to college, how to pay for it, and how to begin preparing for careers.”

But does getting emotional support and college guidance have to be a zero sum game? One way to ensure that programs can provide both is by embedding trained volunteer mentors to help extend the needed support that guidance counselors provide.

Mental health needs. As the article indicates, the professional counselors, nurses, and social workers at schools are typically the first line of defense for children who are struggling emotionally. Among those students who ever obtain mental health services, nearly all of them (70 to 80%) receive it at school, with the highest rates seen in low-income school districts. What’s more, students are 20 times more likely to receive their mental care in schools than in mental health centers in their communities. Students in schools with mental health providers show better attendance rates and academic performance, in addition to lower rates of suspension and disciplinary and school safety incidents. 

Unfortunately, even as funding for police officers has risen, American public schools, particularly those in poorer districts, face critical shortages of such professionals. For example, some schools have ratios of only one guidance counselor to nearly 900 students, despite data that suggest a ten percent boost in college enrollment for every additional high school guidance counselor. Moreover, nearly 90% of schools do not meet the minimum recommended professional standard of one psychologist per 750 students and at least one counselor and one social worker per 250 students. Well-trained volunteer mentors can be enlisted to extend the school guidance functions, supporting the work of overburdened frontline professionals in schools. A particularly valuable role for embedded mentors may be to support student involvement in the many social emotional learning (SEL) that are being offered through school guidance programs (see MENTOR’s excellent new guide). Social emotional learning programs are designed to help youth learn and develop skills (e.g., self- and social- awareness, decision making, self-management, relationship skills) to understand, recognize, manage, and express emotions; set goals; and develop positive, empathic relationships. These executive functioning and self-regulation skills help children plan for the future, manage emotions, and keep impulses in check. Such skills are vital to many youth who have been exposed to chronic stress (e.g., living in poverty or repeated exposure to violence). Such stressors often elicit automatic fight-or-flight neural connections (or circuits) in the brain that crowd out the development of circuits that govern more intentional responses needed to pay attention and learn. Across all of these settings, as well as in their support of mental health and other apps, mentors can help youth practice and apply the skills that they are learning, incorporating them into daily life. 

College guidance.  Volunteer mentors can work with guidance departments to expand college access.  One of the best evidence-based programs  I have was developed by economists at UC Irvine and Dartmouth College economists Scott Carrell & Bruce Sacerdote. The program targeted high school seniors who had expressed an interest in college, but had not yet managed to apply, met through their high school guidance departments, with trained mentors who taught them how to complete applications and essays, apply for financial aid, prepare for standardized tests, and successfully interview. Evaluators compared this supported evidence-based approach to a lighter touch intervention, which provided students with all of the same information but no mentor. Those who worked with mentors were nearly twice as likely to attend a four-year college. Take, for example, 16 year-old Danielle, who began meeting with Jen, a 20 year old Dartmouth College student, in January of 2016. Danielle’s guidance worked closely with a college mentoring program to identify those students who was right at the margin. Her single mom was holding down two jobs to keep the family afloat and just didn’t know the ropes. Indeed, just 9 percent of the nation’s poorest students earn a four-year degree by age 24, compared with 77 percent of those in the top quartile–a divide that both defines and reinforces inequality. So Jen met with Danielle for several hours per week. Together they outlined essays, sent in transcripts, requested letters, and filed fee waivers. And, since Danielle came into the program with the capacity to forge a productive relationship, she hit the ground running.  Like other targeted programs, which intervene at the right time with the right assistance, the program was a success (Carrell & Sacerdote, 2017). And, the effects of this success can reverberate into the future (Burning Glass, 2018).

Guidance departments offer promising venues for embedding trained, caring mentors to help students navigate both the mental health and college access, extending the benefits of support and guidance a larger number of today’s youth.