Counselors Make a Difference

They have an impact on high school graduation and college enrollment, study finds.

May 11, 2020
 
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The effectiveness of high school counselors has an impact on whether students graduate from high school and attend a four-year college. The impact is especially great with low-income students. And students benefit from having a counselor of the same race.

These are some of the findings of a new study, published in Education Next, by Christine Mulhern, a doctoral candidate in public policy at Harvard University.

For the study, Mulhern focused on Massachusetts because public schools in the state largely assign counselors to students by the students' last names. She examined 131 high schools for which she could link counselors to students, for a sample of 510 counselors serving 142,000 students.

She found that students assigned to counselors who are one standard deviation more effective than the median are two percentage points more likely to graduate high school, 1.7 percentage points more likely to attend a four-year college and 1.4 percentage points more likely to persist in college into a second year. The graduation rates of the colleges students choose to attend are also 1.3 percentage points higher.

A minority student assigned to an effective counselor is 3.2 percentage points more likely to graduate high school and 2.2 percentage points more likely to attend college that are minority students with white counselors.

"These results indicate that counselors may be an important resource for closing racial and economic gaps in college completion," Mulhern writes.

She adds, "In general, the counselors who are effective at improving high-school graduation are also effective at increasing college attendance. This may not be surprising since students must graduate high school in order to attend college. If, however, we expect that the marginal student induced by a counselor to graduate high school is unlikely to be a college attendee, it suggests that counselors who are particularly effective in boosting educational attainment are able to do so for different kinds of students."

And Mulhern concludes that having a counselor of the same race has a large positive impact. Nonwhite students with nonwhite counselors are 3.8 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school and attend college than they would be with a white counselor.

In an email interview, Mulhern said, "I think the main implication of the study as a whole is that counselors can be important resources for students and can have large effects on what their students do in high school and afterwards. The results on the same-race counselors indicate that there may be large benefits to hiring more nonwhite counselors in schools with many nonwhite students. The fraction of counselors who are white is much larger than the fraction of students who are white."

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