School counselors have a lot on their plates. According to the American School Counselors Association (ASCA), postsecondary planning, which includes career and college counseling, is a third of their members’ work pie. They are also responsible for a wide array of other tasks. They help students prepare for all aspects of life after high school and oversee interest development, advise on opportunities, and assist in course selection for all grades.
But this is a general parameter. Caseloads vary from school to school, with counselors serving anywhere from several dozen students to 700 or more. Some counselors are responsible for students in grades 7–12, while others have jobs specific to grades 11–12. Some schools have college counselors whose only role is to support the college search and application process.
The role and tasks of the school counselor reflect the values and priorities of the school. Schools with a high percentage of college-bound students invest in college search and application software, block off time for college planning meetings, sponsor college fairs and college rep visits, and creatively tailor students’ schedules and course selections to prepare them for college. Schools with slim budgets often have school counselors who must prioritize response counseling, provide support for students on differing educational plans, and offer services to support students in their quest for a high school diploma.
Regardless of these varied job descriptions, school counselors working in a variety of different settings may find themselves serving a student who is also working with an independent educational consultant (IEC). The resulting collaboration, if approached with the right mindset, can inspire all students and positively impact the school culture.
Like hiring a tutor, athletic coach, or music instructor, hiring a college adviser costs money. Families are paying for a tailored approach, ready access, and individualized guidance. A reputable IEC doesn’t charge for information that is available for free, but rather for organization, advising, resourcing, counseling, and research. Many IECs have a percentage of pro bono clients, and put on free workshops, or can steer people to free resources for no cost.
School counselors are accountable to their students, families, faculty, and school administration through measurable performance objectives; IECs are accountable to their business’ bottom line. While these motivations seem worlds apart, student-focused ethics unite school counselors and IECs. School counselors are guided by ethical codes provided by ASCA, and IECs are guided by those put in place by the Independent Education Consultants Association (IECA) and/or the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA). All are steered by NACAC’s Guide to Ethical Practice in College Admission.
This shared student-focus should drive all counselors and IECs to break free of their silos and explore the best ways to work collaboratively.
This shared focus on the student experience should drive all counselors and IECs to break free of their silos and explore the best ways to work collaboratively. Below are five guidelines for working together to improve practices and reach more students.
When a school coach knows their star athlete is playing on a club team or going to summer sport camp, they are pleased. The student is actively seeking additional training and guidance to improve performance in an area of importance to them. The coach can leverage this extra support by guiding the student toward leadership roles and opportunities to set an inspiring example for others.
Similarly, a student may approach the college search and application process by seeking out a college adviser to guide them and tailor the process. It’s not unreasonable to expect a level of personal attention to match their own ambition, nervousness, or curiosity.
Private college advisers are hired to facilitate a process. The role may go by many names: college advisers, college consultants, postsecondary planners, career developers, academic advisers, etc. Some private college advisers have earned the IECA or HECA credential. School counselors are state-licensed to facilitate many processes for serving their students, including postsecondary planning. School counseling licensure requires a master’s in counseling with a focus on personal/social, academic, and career areas.
IECs and counselors each lead different parts of the college search and admission process. Sometimes these processes complement each other. Sometimes they can lead to conflict, such as when schedules are announced but the student doesn’t adhere to the dualenrollment deadline; receiving information about whether to take an AP course or an honors course; when and how to ask for a letter of recommendation; or when to start a college essay, to name a few.
To effectively collaborate, it’s useful to focus on the process and information each role provides. The goal is to share information in such a way that both professionals can better serve the student.
For example, when a high school decided they couldn’t implement, with fidelity, their year-long AP courses in one semester due to the COVID-19 hybrid schedule, the school changed the courses’ titles from “AP” to “Advanced.” To understand this redirection and how this change would be communicated clearly to colleges, the IEC phoned the school counselor. From the conversation, the IEC learned that the school had updated the school profile, provided extra support for students learning on this remote schedule, updated transcripts, and scheduled AP tests in May. They also learned that the school had reached out to different college admissions reps regarding this move prior to making a final decision.
The IEC’s role to was to understand how to best support the student in their planning and application (rather than weigh in with an opinion about the decision). In this situation, both the school counselor and the IEC worked together and the student benefited.
Another example is the process of deciding which courses to take, both inside and outside of school. School professionals spend considerable time and effort strategizing the best course offerings and creating a high school course catalog to prepare students for life after high school. The school counselor is involved in the student’s decision-making, while an IEC makes suggestions. By respecting the breadth of research and discussion and keeping a focus on the process, both the IEC and school counselor can provide options for their students. And by working collaboratively, both the IEC and school counselor can understand which options fit best. The school counselor provides assurance of rigor of honors courses, clarification of the dualenrollment credit approval process, and parameters on which virtual course offerings meet graduation requirements. Additionally, with accurate information, the IEC can guide the student in how to briefly note any additional courses or changes in their application and how to review their school’s profile to see how it is positioned.
Each collaborating professional has their own agenda. Each has their own metrics by which to measure the extent to which they are effective, successful, and ultimately worthy. It’s important to refrain from evaluating another’s work with one’s own metrics. School counselors have standards set by ASCA. Their caseloads often encompass several grades and include students with a multitude of issues. School counselors also have a holistic view of their students, not a singular focus on college. IECs have their own business metrics to gauge success. Both ultimately share the common goal of serving the student well. And each has different bandwidth. Respecting one another’s work situation leads to refraining from critically discussing decisions and actions with others.
Both school counselors and IECs are, in essence, hired by the student and parent. Our jobs, and what we hold most in common, is the goal to serve our students well. We each do that in different ways. We each measure our effectiveness differently. Any action that doesn’t add value to the student and their experience is waste.
While this is a reasonable tenet for life, it serves collaborating professionals well. It prompts us to listen. It promotes an understanding of the connection between the end goal and the process. It assumes that the professionals share a primary purpose—serving the student. When either of us loses sight of our common ground, when we think of performance or business first, when we speculate what we would do if we had the other’s job, then we aren’t serving our student well.
There are unforeseen benefits from our respectful, collaborative mindset. They include:
Additionally, the IEC:
Ultimately, the only relevant measure of successful collaboration is the impact on the student experience. Increased consistent accountability for process, integrity of resources and information, and supportive and timely assistance are just three metrics. Both school counselor and independent counselor know what each offers so there’s a lesser chance of missing information.
Counselors and IECs frequently hear student comments. We are lured into making assumptions. And when we do, we are at risk of evaluating another’s performance based on woefully insufficient data and anecdotes. That’s not our job.
Our job is to help students prep, plan, and apply themselves to their postsecondary plans, which include college, work, and other opportunities. Keep the focus. Find ways to collaborate so we can each do our jobs better—then we can serve students better.
Patti Tomashot is director of school counseling at a Vermont public high school and MaryAnne Gatos an independent educational consultant at ROI Education Associates.
We school counselors and independent education consultants hear the phrases below all the time, so it’s vital we work together to change student mindsets and get them where they need to be!