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

Why Tackle This Problem Now?

President Barack Obama is one of many leaders in government, business, education and the nonprofit sector who has stressed the need for the United States to increase the number of Americans with college degrees and certificates and has urged a concerted effort to help students who start college successfully complete their degrees. This mission is especially urgent at the nation’s community colleges, where only 1 out of 5 students has earned a degree three years after starting classes.

If the United States is to meet its higher education goals and reduce its unacceptably high college dropout rates, we need to look candidly at the various factors contributing to the problem. Clearly, academic preparation in high school is a factor, as are the financial issues that arise when college tuition costs are outpacing the growth in family incomes. Since 2000 tuition prices have gone up even as family incomes have stagnated or declined. Indeed, according to an analysis by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, “the financial burden of paying for college costs has increased substantially, particularly for low- and middle-income families, even when scholarships and grants are taken into account.”

The News May Be Hard To Hear

But based on the responses here, the high school guidance system is another factor that educators and policymakers need to look at. When it comes to facilitating students’ transition from high school to college or work, the current system is seriously under-serving those it is intended to help. For the profession itself, the intense criticism young adults have for their guidance counselors may be hard to absorb, especially given the absurdly high student-counselor ratios in many public schools and the nerve-wracking juggling act that counselors often have to perform.

But sugarcoating the reality that emerges here, or trying to hide it, does not serve the counseling field in the long run. Our hope is that this research, based on what young people themselves say about their high school experiences, will open up a broad, forthright reexamination of the high school guidance counseling system. We hope it will spur changes that will make the counselor’s role more effective and more professionally fulfilling.

Is It Time For A Little Help From Some Friends?

We also hope the findings here will generate innovative thinking about ways other institutions and other entities could lend a hand. Perhaps higher education, business, and local civic and community groups could provide trained volunteers who could help high school graduates better understand the higher education choices open to them. Maybe it’s time for a higher education “”—some type of online resource that introduces students to the best potential college matches for them, given their distinct skills and aspirations. Maybe social networking that brings aspiring high school students together with students and professors could play a useful role.

In the end, however, it seems obvious to us that young people who are completing high school and aspiring to go to college deserve better advice. At the very least, they deserve the opportunity to talk seriously with adults—counselors, teachers, family members, and others—who take a strong personal interest in their futures and have the time and skill to guide them through this period of decision and change.