The first steps on a student’s pathway are usually taken with a high school counselor. In the words of the American School Counselor Association on the essential role of the counselor, “High school students need guidance in making concrete and compounded decisions. They must navigate academic, peer and parental pressures as they face high-stakes testing, the challenges of college admissions, the scholarship and financial aid application process and entrance into a competitive job market.”¹ Both students and parents alike rely on a school counselor’s expertise and knowledge to help guide them through this process. In addition to the myriad other responsibilities school counselors have, today’s counselors are expected to advise students on how to academically prepare for college, apply to college, and – more and more these days – they must help students understand the financial impact of their college decision. But as the ways of paying for college have become increasingly burdensome, are school counselors equipped to help? Do they have the resources? And, do they view this guidance as even falling within their purview? To help assess how secondary school counselors are helping students navigate the financial side of their post-high school choices, in 2017 American Student Assistance® conducted a nationwide survey of high school counselors to hone in on how much information counselors are prepared to discuss with students and families about paying for college and how discussions about financial fit factor into their college recommendations.
What the survey revealed is that many school counselors are not comfortable talking about the financial side of college planning. Counselors strongly believe that information on the true cost of college is important to convey to their students, but most feel unprepared and have received little training to do so. Counselors are more likely to recommend schools that are a good academic fit for the student and are less likely to dissuade a student from going to a college that is a bad financial fit. In addition, many counselors admit that when making recommendations on which colleges a student should consider, they sometimes know very little about the student’s actual ability to afford the schools being recommended.
In general, the findings show that, while getting into college and being able to pay are likely part of the same thought process for students and families, conversations about the ability to academically get into college are still separate from conversations a school counselor may have about a student’s ability to pay for college. Despite the considerable investment families are being asked to make in higher education, finding a college that is the right financial fit is not generally seen as a factor equal to academic fit for many high school counselors. While it is true these conversations are going on between some counselors and students, it is not happening universally.