Research by Public Agenda, Prepared for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

FINDING No 1: Most students, even those who successfully complete college, give their high school guidance counselors fair or poor ratings.

Television's The Simpsons seems to have found a niche depicting the frustrating and degrading situations many of us experience in contemporary life. In one episode, Homer Simpson recalls a lackluster meeting with a guidance counselor who describes his job as advising any student whose name begins with a letter from “N” to “Z.”

Sad to say, Homer’s less-than-inspiring conversation with his counselor doesn’t appear to be unusual in today’s high schools. Many of the young adults surveyed by Public Agenda have little good to say about the counseling system, and they give their guidance counselors stunningly poor reviews in some crucial categories connected with higher education.

The guidance system does at least function at a basic level. When asked about their experiences with guidance counselors in high school, just 2 percent of those surveyed told us that that they didn’t have a guidance counselor in high school or never met with one to discuss their plans. But “having the meeting” clearly doesn’t mean that the counselors fulfilled the students’ needs and expectations.

Among young adults who graduated from high school and started some form of post-secondary education, fully 6 in 10 give their high school guidance counselors "fair” or “poor” ratings for helping them think about different careers. Over two-thirds give them "fair" or "poor" ratings for helping them decide which school to go to, with 35 percent giving them the lowest possible rating of “poor.” The ratings are similarly dreary on giving them advice about ways to pay for college or helping them weave their way through the college applications process. Nearly half (48 percent) say they usually felt like “just another face in the crowd” in dealing with their guidance counselor; 47 percent say that their counselors tried to get to know them and work with them personally.

In focus groups conducted as part of the project, young people often characterized their meetings with counselors as dispiriting and unhelpful, especially if the student happened to be one who didn’t stand out as “college material.” One young New Yorker suspected that his guidance counselors prioritized their time based on which students seem most likely to go to college: “[My guidance counselors] didn’t care [about me]. You could see other kids getting called in and being [asked], 'What are you going to do [after high school]?' Those kids would come [for college day] with suits and ties and their parents would come with them. Then there was everybody else.”

Another young woman told this story: “We had to take a test [that] asked [about] all these scenarios and how you would react or what your preference was on a certain topic. It was terrible because it told me I should be a bus driver. They looked at that when you sat with your guidance counselor.” Another student, also from New York, shared his experience with his high school guidance counselors. “ [It was] a mandatory meeting. . . . [T]hey’d look at your grades and then say, ‘Oh, you can get into these schools.' "