A principal greets students as they return to New York City's public schools for in-person learning, as the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, at P.S. 506 in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., December 7, 2020.
A principal greets students as they return to New York City's public schools for in-person learning, as the global outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, at P.S. 506 in Brooklyn, New York, U.S., December 7, 2020. Reuters / Brendan McDermid

During the 2020-2021 school year, over 90% of U.S. households with school-aged children reported that their children engaged in some form of “distance learning” from home, with unequal results.

The disruptions in learning have left many children falling far behind academically, socially, and in other ways, including the all-important planning for adult careers. Disparities in access to technology in the home, childcare challenges, and stress related to COVID 19 all contributed to differences in learning outcomes across student groups.

Among other tasks, school counselors serve as the primary resource for helping students develop career and educational plans. School counselors also help many students complete college applications and student aid (FAFSA) forms that enable students to acquire the financial assistance many depend on to afford higher education.

Unfortunately, the pandemic turn to distance-learning decreased student access to school counselors. This has resulted in negative impacts for many students but especially for low-income students who rely heavily on school counselors for career and educational planning assistance.

For example, Angel Perez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, acknowledges that the pandemic has only heightened awareness that the increasingly complex college application process continues to perpetuate social inequality. These harsh realities are discouraging to school counselors, whose jobs involve preparing students for post-secondary education and careers.

The deeper truth is that school counselors have long been undervalued despite their key roles in preparing young Americans for life after high school. According to a 2009 U.S. Department of Education survey, public school students were then receiving an average of 38 minutes of college admissions advice from their school counselors. The situation has hardly improved in the past decade.

In a 2015 article, the 125-year-old correspondence school Penn Foster uncovered the sad news that the average American school had only one school counselor for every 500 students, half the recommended one for every 250 students. In California and some other states, this number was down to one counselor for every one thousand students, numbers that make providing effective career guidance next to impossible.

Although a more recent 2019 article in Counseling Today highlighted small improvements in school counselor to student ratios (to one school counselor per 455 students, nationally), this “improvement” was too small to improve student access to school counselors.

Beth Zasloff and Joshua Steckel in 2014 wrote in The Atlantic that effective guidance for low-income students involves a myriad of tasks – from helping students find colleges that offer robust support structures and adequate funding to working with students on their personal essays to arranging campus visits to providing individualized guidance for students and their families as they navigate through the financial aid process.

Young Americans from all walks of life require better information, resources, and advocacy through the college application process (the same applies to those seeking technical or other careers requiring post-high school training) that in many cases their families lack the knowledge or experience to provide.

Zasloff and Steckel, both of whom have backgrounds in school counseling, asserted that without caring mentorship and counselors who take time to help them through various personal and family struggles, far too many will give up on their dreams. Worse, they often never finish high school, entering the workforce with minimal skills and crushed hopes.

Penn Foster’s team assessed the huge deficit of qualified counselors as leaving students, and longer term, the society as a whole, in the lurch. Without proper guidance, they argued, “students cannot learn about the path to become the next generation of productive workers, leaders, and citizens.” Even students with strong at-home support have difficulties making the right post-high school choices. The challenges faced by low-income and minority students are even greater.

Both Zasloff and Steckel and the Penn Foster team agree that one size fits all, “process-oriented” guidance counseling ignores the personal stresses of individual students; it is a flawed model that leaves far too many without the skills and confidence they need to reach their potential. The mental wellness organization Here and Now Counseling, Penn Foster notes, found that 60 to 80 percent of students drift through four years of classes with no direction.

Dr. Spencer Niles, Senior Vice President of career planning and development at Kuder, Inc., says there is a great need for more qualified, well-trained career counselors who can guide students toward successful career options in this increasingly complex, diverse job market. The shortfall is especially noticeable in those public schools that have abandoned providing career planning assistance to students altogether.

Niles echoes Zasloff and Steckel’s insistence that effective counseling requires not just giving students the facts but reinforcing their hope that they can have a prosperous future. Hope, says Niles, is an essential motivator for all students, especially those who leave school early, as they fight through the obstacles and challenges that would otherwise discourage them from pursuing their dreams.

Building a larger army of effective school counselors is not an easy task. Licensed school counselors in most states must complete a master’s degree, which includes a practicum, internship, and an exam often followed by months of fieldwork. Effective counselors must be both compassionate and empathetic, have sharp communication and listening skills, and an analytical mind. Through confrontation, questioning, and focusing, they must empower their charges to find their own path to success.

At this critical time in American history the need for effective counselors is greater than ever. Given the shortfall in school-based counseling, the deficit many adolescents experience in knowing how to manage their careers effectively has trickled upward and many businesses have undertaken workplace counseling to assist employees struggling with workplace-related stress or even personal issues.

These problems, argues the employment assistance firm Mazzitti & Sullivan, can affect an employee’s work performance through lowered productivity, increased absenteeism, and tensions with coworkers. Workplace counseling is short-term and focuses on problem-solving that helps employees look at their challenges with a more positive outlook. Employers benefit from increased employee respect and loyalty and avoidance of in-house disruptions.

All in all, the integration of individualized counseling into both school and workplace produces positive results both for the counselee and the society as a whole. As people learn to make better educational, career, and life choices, everyone benefits.

Given the massive societal disruptions caused by both the COVID-19 pandemic and the public responses, investment in human potential provided through effective counseling is likely to produce significant rewards.

Duggan Flanakin is the Director of Policy Research at the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT)