Pathways Counseling: The New Essential Service
All too often, we place the onus of a college or career pathways choice on young people themselves. Community leaders – in education, government, industry and beyond – make note of the gaps between degrees earned and degrees required, of the chasm between number of students graduating from high school and the number earning a skilled credential or entering the workforce. In Tennessee, we react to these realities – but it’s time we caught the problem upstream. How might our community look different if each of us had been provided intentional, student-centric, college-and-career specific guidance during our high school years – or even earlier?
Perhaps our own parents, guardians, or other trusted adults helped us determine which path we would take after high school. Maybe we benefitted from the service of a college and career-specific counselor. But an assumption that all students have access to this specific brand of academic support would be incorrect, and would not reflect the thinking of a truly equitable public education system. The truth is that not every high-school student has access to guidance from adults equipped to provide education and/or career guidance (also referred to as pathways counseling) to a young person.
The need for expertise in such a role is clear – this counselor should be an individual who knows the ins-and-outs of post-secondary attainment, career pathways, technical education, military opportunities, and so on. A 2018 study found that students with access to advising services are seven percent more likely to enroll in postsecondary education. As the state of Tennessee pushes forward its Drive to 55 Initiative – a goal to see 55 percent of Tennesseans equipped with a college degree or certificate by the year 2025 – dedicated college and career counselors should be regarded as crucial assets in the mission to set young Tennesseans on a path toward economic success.
It is critical to remember that the role of college and career counselor is different from that occupied by a school counselor, who is responsible for myriad student needs including academic counseling, social and emotional health services, and crisis management. With a statewide student-to-counselor ratio of 335:1, and large caseloads proving to be the rule rather than the exception, it is not realistic to assume that Tennessee school counselors have the time, capacity, or requisite training to provide robust pathways counseling in addition to their other key duties.
School counselor education has historically emphasized the social-emotional component of student care, frequently leaving pathways counseling out of the equation. Fortunately, change is coming; in 2016, the main accreditor of American counseling programs added college and career readiness to its practice standards. But applicable programs have until 2023 to comply; and this change will only affect candidates who are in the process of completing a counseling program. Though currently-practicing school counselors may have a deep desire to offer college and career counseling to their students, a robust base of knowledge in the field of pathways counseling cannot be guaranteed. In order to appropriately counsel students through their college and career options, it is essential that college and career counselors – trained to provide exactly this form of guidance – be made available to young Tennesseans.
A pathways counselor’s first priority will often be to walk with a student, hand-in-hand, through the pros and cons of various post-high school pathways. In a perfect world, this pathways counselor will have access to information regarding each student’s individual aptitudes and interests – perhaps determined through a program like YouScience – and will use this information to guide students to their next level of education or to a career. The process of making a pathways choice can be an emotional one, often involving deep self-reflection on one’s own skills, passions, and hopes for the future – combined with consideration of subjects like cost and eligibility. Students who have a trusted hand guiding them through this whirlwind are likely to benefit in the long-term; a 2020 research study found that high-school students guided by effective counselors were more likely to graduate high school, attend college, and persist in college than peers who did not have the same access.
Through a pathways-specific guidance process, a counselor also has the opportunity to introduce students to careers they may never have discovered otherwise. Students do not always have access to such neutral forms of career exploration; research tells us that for many students, a pathways choice is highly influenced by the profession of their parents. In some instances, a student will be well-placed to follow in the footsteps of their parents. But this certainly is not the case for all. A dedicated college and career counselors can coordinate a field trip to the site of a large local employer, organize guest speakers from various walks of professional life, or coordinate internships for their high school students. In today’s socially-distanced reality, a college and career counselor may lean on virtual job-shadowing software to accomplish the same goal. By increasing the availability of college and career counselors, students will be given the opportunity to seek professional guidance from a non-familial adult who has been trained to meet that very need.
The process of pathways examination should eventually lead students to a phase of decision-making – a period of time that will often involve a flurry of forms, tests, deadlines, and fees, all of which can be more easily navigated with the guidance of someone who has experienced this process many times before. This moment in a student’s college-or-career-going journey may also require a series of pivots. Perhaps a career in medicine sounds perfect, until a student comes to understand the time commitment involved with that particular pathway. Maybe launching into a manufacturing career post-high school sounds tempting, until a student realizes that they will not have the opportunity to advance upward without a particular degree in hand. These twists and turns can come loaded with stress and a fear of the unknown – the perfect moment for a professional pathways counselor to step in and responsibly guide the student through the process of changing course.
For so many pieces of a student’s academic journey, a well-trained adult supervisor is regarded as not only beneficial, but absolutely essential. Today, Tennessee schools include teachers, paraprofessionals, speech and language therapists, special education service providers, school counselors, principals – the list goes on and on. But when it comes to the crucial cliff between secondary school and the real world – the world of college, certificates, careers and independence – too little has been done to prevent students from merely dangling off the edge. But there is hope; intentional and thorough college-and-career counseling can help our students bridge this gap. The Scarlett Family Foundation firmly believes that we must prepare our students for success after high school; as such, we designate “College and Career Readiness” as one of our four key initiatives and proudly support organizations who empower students through pathways guidance.
In the next installment of the “Pathways Counseling: The New Essential Service” series, we’ll explore the wide range of innovative counseling solutions popping up across the state of Tennessee and around the country. In the field of pathways counseling, student success stories are plentiful; it’s worth wondering how many Tennessee students could become the stars of such stories if given the right counselor-champion.
Katie Hazelwood is a Program Officer at the Scarlett Family Foundation, where she champions the Foundation’s college scholarship program and “College and Career Ready” initiatives.