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

FINDING No 2: Students who get perfunctory counseling are more likely to delay college and make more questionable higher education choices.

Most parents today want their children to go to college, but students from college-educated families start with some undeniable educational advantages, among them that their parents typically have experience planning for college. Well-educated, affluent families often invest considerable energy in helping their children look at different colleges and universities and accumulating the needed financial resources. For some, college planning is a major parental enterprise that can begin from the moment a child is born. And it pays off: In our survey, students whose parents had four-year degree were much more likely to themselves be successful in a four-year college or university.

But nationwide, nearly 6 in 10 public school students are from families where neither parent has completed college. Analysis from this survey shows that among other things, parental income and education level are strongly correlated with student success in completing a college degree. Among students who complete a two- or four-year degree or certificate, about half say that when they were living at home their family had money left over at the end of the month, and nearly 7 in 10 of their parents had at least some college education. Among those who fail to finish college, 56 percent come from families that just barely made ends meet or had trouble getting by; 4 in 10 (41 percent) have parents whose highest degree is a high school diploma or less.

A Need for Practical Advice

For young people from less well-educated, lower-income families, the ability to know and talk to adults who are familiar with the higher education system can be essential. Public Agenda research has shown repeatedly that the vast majority of lower-income and less well-educated parents have high educational aspirations for their children. Even so, these families may not have enough in-depth practical knowledge about how the system works to give their children the best advice. In such cases, access to an attentive and knowledgeable guidance counselor can be decisive.

So what happens to students who don’t have constructive and helpful counseling experiences? As part of the research analysis, we compared the responses of young people who said that their counselors seemed to see them as just another face in the crowd and compared them to the responses of young people who said that their counselors really made an effort to get to know them and help them.

The results are sobering and some suggest that a lack of good counseling may have a long-lasting effect on students’ lives and prospects. Students who are poorly counseled are less likely to go directly from high school into a college program—a step that research shows is highly correlated with dropping out of college.

There is also evidence of a pronounced negative financial effect. Students who believe that they have been poorly counseled are more likely to say they would have attended a different school if money were not an issue, by a 46 percent to 35 percent margin. They are also less likely to say that they received a scholarship or financial aid for college; only about 4 in 10 got this kind of help compared with more than half of those who believe that they received better counseling.

Finally, students who come from families with less education are more likely to rate their guidance as "fair" or "poor" when it came to helping them decide which college was right for them.

Better Advice Would Be Welcome

When the survey asked young people to rate a dozen different ideas that might help them to successfully complete college and other postsecondary programs, 72 percent said that “the opportunity to talk with advisors who know all about the different college and job training programs so you can make a good choice” would help “a lot.” Those numbers rise to 91 percent among young African Americans and 83 percent among young Hispanics. Young people identify a number of reforms and proposals that could help them, but it is noteworthy that improved advice and counseling in high schools ranks at least as high as ideas like having better access to student loans, providing day care for college students, and improving teaching at the college level “so that the classes are more interesting and relevant.”