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Career counseling crisis

Hoosier students get insufficient attention

A recent discovery akin to finding buried treasure reveals the need to provide more support to more students searching for economic opportunity.

During the last school year, low-income high school students enrolled in Indiana’s Jobs for America’s Graduates program discovered $2.3 million to pay for college and other postsecondary education – more than twice the amount located through JAG in any other state.

The significant success in harvesting postsecondary support did not result from an increase in funding from government, foundations or private donors. The dollars always were there.

The students simply needed help finding and digging up the financial aid.

JAG provides that assistance through an in-school specialist who helps high-risk students to map their graduation and career plans, prepare for postsecondary education and then locate available grants and scholarships to achieve those goals.

While new state funding is expanding JAG to more than 100 sites, too many Hoosier students will not receive this high level of personal attention due to a crisis in school counseling.

The average school counselor in Indiana serves 539 students – that is the eighth-worst ratio in America.

According to the College Board, counselors also are assigned additional duties such as administrative paperwork, the coordination of testing and other clerical tasks that “pull counselors away from the college and career-going activities they are uniquely suited to provide their students.”

This lack of personal attention has consequences.

In a research review conducted for the state’s new Indiana Career Council, the Indiana Business Research Center reported that “K-12 students receive little career guidance, so they’re unsure which courses and programs to pursue.”

Other surveys in Indiana have discovered that only 26 percent of low-income students know how to apply for need-based financial aid; that one of the biggest fears among parents is that they will miss deadlines and other postsecondary opportunities for their children; and that 90 percent of counselors desire more training on topics such as postsecondary options, admission standards and financial aid.

As the landmark study, “High Hopes, Long Odds,” concluded, “The challenge in Indiana is to show the state’s young people how to go about making their hopes and dreams come true and to make sure conditions exist in schools and communities to give them a chance.”

In schools, the College Board recommends increased training and stronger accountability measures for counselors. More training for counselors results in more postsecondary readiness for students, “and the results indicate a need for improved professional development opportunities throughout counselors’ careers.”

As for accountability, the College Board recommends three measures – the percentage of students who complete postsecondary prep courses, the percentage who apply to postsecondary schools and the percentage who are accepted by those schools.

Most counselors, however, are measured by high school graduation rates (which do not necessarily indicate postsecondary readiness) as well as by their administration of tests and clerical tasks.

The College Board also reports that less than a third of school counselors collaborate with community organizations to provide students and families with essential postsecondary information. Former College Board staff member Carol Easterday, now a school counselor in Westfield, concurs.

“Schools have not taken full advantage of the incredible support that the community stands ready to provide,” she said. “Instead of feeling isolated, we just need to be more proactive in engaging the talent we have in our own backyard.”

Parents also need to be proactive. Cynthia Cain, a school counselor in Crawford County, implored, “Don’t be afraid to come in. Don’t be afraid to make that phone call or send that email. Advocate for your student. Come in and see us. That’s what we’re here for.”

Families, school counselors, community organizations and mentors also can utilize several free resources located on TripToCollege.org.

The website provides links to the state’s “Learn More” initiative, helps students compare college costs through the Indiana College Cost Estimator and also links to several scholarship sites.

In addition, the site allows students to enroll for Trip to College Alerts – timely text messages of vital information based on the student’s high school graduation year.

The positive effects of these many efforts will be apparent when postsecondary success and economic opportunity become everyday expectations instead of a remarkable surprise.

Bill Stanczykiewicz is president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. He wrote this for Indiana newspapers.

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