Home » Volume III, Issue 2 / Spring 2015 » Minding the Guidance Gap: The Challenges (and Possibilities) in Post-Secondary Planning and College Access in New York City

Minding the Guidance Gap: The Challenges (and Possibilities) in Post-Secondary Planning and College Access in New York City

Tara Bahl
Graduate Center, The City University of New York


College access practitioners in New York City have long described the existence of a “guidance gap” in reference to the uneven landscape of post-secondary access and planning that currently exists in urban high schools. This guidance gap in college counseling has roots in local education policy that privileges accountability measures over providing meaningful support to help schools reach the intended goals of college access. Through policy analysis, literature review, and qualitative analysis of twenty-three interviews conducted with students, teachers, principals, community-based organization staff, and college access experts, this article shows how high-stakes accountability policies force many under-resourced schools to either inordinately rely on guidance counselors, or outsource the work to outside organizations. The article explores the challenges that come with these strategies and provides a number of recommendations to rethink the post-secondary planning process that positions students at the center.


Introduction: The Challenges of College Guidance in New York City Public Schools

In June of 2012, the Center for New York City Affairs – a research policy institute at The New School – convened college access and success experts for a panel discussion on the landscape of college readiness in New York City. At one point during the panel, the moderator posed the question, “Should college guidance be mandated in New York City public high schools?” Shael Polakow-Suransky, representing the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE), provided the following response:

I think that as schools develop out models [for student post-secondary planning] we’re trying to put pressure on them through a number of means: by offering them some resources, but also saying to principals, ‘your grade on your progress report is going to depend on how many kids actually enroll in college’. And, principals are not totally happy with us about that because they feel that, ‘I can get a kid into college, but then that period from May to September when they’re supposed to go, all kinds of things outside of my control can happen’. And, what we’ve been saying is, ‘Yes, that’s true, but if you lay this foundation well and you see this as part of your responsibility, a lot more kids are going to get there’. And, that’s the purpose of that pressure. And so in combination I think what you’re going to see is much, much more attention is already happening across the system to these kinds of resources and supports (“Creating College Ready Communities”, 2012).

This response underscores the policies and standard practices of the NYCDOE during the Michael Bloomberg administration regarding college access and readiness, and more specifically, regarding post-secondary planning guidance made available to students. Though high schools in New York City were historically not held accountable for college readiness, the school district in recent years began to rely on accountability pressure from above to coerce schools into focusing on post-secondary planning for all students. Rather than provide on-the-ground, technical support for schools on how to operationalize college readiness policies, the NYCDOE embraced a top-down policy approach. As Polakow-Suransky argued, if enough policy “pressure” was applied to schools and principals, they would essentially have no choice but to “develop out models” on how to manage the student post-secondary planning process.

Polakow-Suransky’s words capture a disconnect – indeed, a contradiction – between how local policy defines and holds schools accountable for college access and readiness, and the actual needs or resources that schools require to effectively support students in post-secondary planning. Since there is no formal regulation of the job of college counselors, or mandated guidance from the school district related to college access, schools address this absence of policy with a variety of different approaches. In New York City, this has led to profound differences among high schools in college guidance staffing and roles, as well as student college readiness rates measured by NYCDOE metrics. (Fruchter et al, 2012; Nauer, et al., 2013) Some schools, like the specialized high schools in New York City, have robust guidance counselor teams and offices that devote all of their professional time toward providing students with the face-to-face support, resources, and expertise towards completing the college application process. In contrast, other schools assign a teacher or guidance counselor to fulfill this role on a part-time basis, with college advising being only one of a number of other responsibilities that their everyday jobs already entail. This uneven landscape engenders a striking gap in college guidance counseling among New York City high schools, a gap that many schools struggle to effectively close.

In this article, I define and discuss the existence of a “guidance gap”, clarifying how the gap creates challenges in college guidance in New York City high schools. I describe the research methods I used to understand this policy problem. I provide an analysis of the college access and post-secondary readiness policy context in New York City, both under the Michael Bloomberg and Bill de Blasio administrations, and how this context further engenders the guidance gap. I underscore the contradictions between how the NYCDOE holds schools accountable to college readiness metrics, and the lack of adequate resources and guidance that schools need to realize these metrics. Using existing research, policy analysis, and qualitative data I collected, I show how two prevailing strategies are used in New York City high schools to close the guidance gap, especially in the absence of effective policy: an over-reliance on guidance staff and community-based organizations (CBO). I explain how, while these strategies can be relatively effective, they are insufficient in closing the guidance gap and come with significant challenges. Finally, I argue that policymakers and schools must reimagine the post-secondary planning process, with students at the center, and provide a number of recommendations for how to do so.

The Guidance Gap: Observations from the Ground

A term used by college access practitioners working with high school students, the “guidance gap” names the uneven landscape between high- and low-resourced schools, especially urban schools, when it comes to effectively supporting and preparing students to successfully navigate the complex post-secondary planning process. While many wealthier, high-resourced schools provide students with ample numbers of counselors as well as technical and emotional support, many low-resourced schools tend to have elevated student-to-counselor rates. Some schools lack a college specific counselor altogether. Others lack access to important college advising resources such as relationships with college admissions offices, and connections to college alumni networks. Schools may need, but lack, developed and thoughtful college access curricula that teaches students how to apply to college, how to apply for and understand financial aid, and other post-secondary options that are not college. Low-resourced schools also often lack a formal protocol to assist all students in navigating the post-secondary planning process. As a result, students may never have the opportunity to learn about college through visiting college campuses, speak with college representatives, meet college students to cultivate experiences and relationships that demystify what it means to attend college and college life. These experiences are necessary for students to successfully transition into, and succeed in, college or life after high school, but are often unavailable to students as a consequences of the “guidance gap.”

A school’s overall ability to strategically support high school students in the post-secondary planning process is complicated by the challenges faced by first-generation-to-college students, undocumented students, students with limited English proficiency, or special education students. These subgroups of students often require additional post-secondary guidance due to their respective academic challenges. College counselors often invest additional time in supporting and advocating for these students, who may have to find ways to work around the disadvantages they face. Such students have historically been under-represented in college admissions, and completion, and require more intensive college planning support (Saenz, et. al, 2007). Yet, the schools that serve these students are also often ill-equipped or are unable to provide additional college counseling because of a lack of resources.

Students in these types of special situations need counselors who can strategically advocate for students. They need counselors who have developed relationships with colleges and intimately understand the admissions processes and protocols, and who can “go the extra mile” to help students. Counselors who work with students with additional needs must have the chance to cultivate trusting relationships with students in order to get to know them as human beings, their capabilities, and their goals for the future. It takes a dedicated counselor with time, college relationships, and the overall know-how, alongside a high school that explicitly prioritizes college access and readiness, in order to truly advocate for students during the post-secondary planning process.

The many school-based resources described above not only work toward helping students learn about the post-secondary planning process, but also teach young people how to make use of that knowledge within their own personal contexts so that they can make meaningful decisions and choices about their futures that are relevant to their lives. Without these key resources in place in many high schools across New York City, a pronounced “guidance gap” in college access and readiness work grows between schools that do provide these requisite college planning resources and those that simply cannot.


The purpose of this study was to identify the embedded challenges of doing college access and post-secondary readiness work on the ground within the particular policy context of New York City public schools. In a school district that provided little strategic support to schools toward realizing its college-for-all policies, I wanted to understand, How do schools operationalize college access and readiness policy in New York City?  

To answer this question, I draw from original, qualitative research conducted in 2011 and 2012, in combination with current academic research on post-secondary counseling in high schools and policy analysis. I interviewed eight college students about their experiences in New York City public schools during their own post-secondary planning process. They were all recent graduates from New York City public high schools during the Bloomberg administration, and represent a range of high school configurations, from comprehensive high schools, career and technical high schools, to small schools. I conducted interviews with fifteen college access practitioners, including NYCDOE teachers and school staff, personnel from community-based organizations (CBO), and college access professionals. All of the interviews were semi-structured, conducted in a variety of settings. After transcribing interviews, I used a grounded theory approach to code the interviews, noting repeating ideas and creating themes based on these repeated ideas (Auerback & Silverstein, 2003). The insights gathered from individuals and the themes that emerged out of my analysis are outlined in the following sections.

I also examined NYCDOE policy in order provide a snapshot of how policy manages college access and post-secondary readiness in New York City public schools. Looking to policy documents, School Progress Reports, press releases, and NYCDOE online materials, I framed my analysis of these documents through the lens of how policy defines post-secondary readiness and college access, and the strategies used to hold schools accountable to this definition. Through policy analysis, I examined how policy and practice interact, overlap, and their points of disjuncture.

A Contradiction between College Readiness Policy and Practice: Measuring and Mandating College Readiness

In response to dismal student data revealing that recent public high school graduates were overwhelmingly under-prepared for college coursework and success, the Bloomberg administration implemented a number of high-stakes accountability policies prioritizing “college and career readiness” in the fall of 2012. Prior to this, college access and readiness had rarely been addressed in local education policy as a priority. One method the administration used to address college readiness was the introduction of high-stakes college and career readiness assessment into the city’s pre-existing annual school Progress Reports. These reports documented individual school performance in each New York City public school and were publicly available on the NYCDOE website each year. Every K-12 school received a letter grade in a number of categories: student progress, student performance, school environment, and closing the achievement gap. These letter grades were then weighted into one final school “grade”, ranging from A-F. If a school persistently received a low or failing grade, one of a number of interventions were implemented in order to improve performance, such as firing the principal or the teaching staff, or closing the school altogether (NYCDOE, 2015).

In 2012, “college and career readiness” was added as a metric in school Progress Reports, consisting of three contributing variables and counted as 10 points of the maximum 100-point ranking. However, this new addition represented a marked shift in how New York City education policy framed college and career readiness. Prior to this introduction, the high stakes metrics in school Progress Reports were centered on holding schools accountable for student retention and high school graduation. Below is a brief description of the three college and career readiness metrics that were included in high school Progress Reports in 2012:

  1. College Readiness Index (worth up to 4 out of the possible 10 overall points): This metric addresses post-secondary remedial coursework at City University of New York schools. Credit is given to schools for each student who achieves SAT, ACT, Regents and/or CUNY assessment scores that are adequate enough to test out of any remedial coursework. In the most recent Progress Report (2012-2013), schools also received credit for students who successfully completed three semesters of college, regardless of these scores.
  2. Post-secondary Enrollment Rate (worth up to 3 out of the possible 10 overall points): Schools received credit if their graduates enrolled in college, public service (e.g., Americorps, Peace Corps, military), or accredited vocational programs. This metric attempts to capture how well schools help students to make informed and meaningful post-secondary choices. It measures the breadth, not depth, of post-secondary counseling, and does not capture whether students make these choices as a result of in-school counseling, or from relying on their own social and cultural capital (e.g., families, siblings, afterschool advising).
  3. College and Career Preparatory Index (worth up to 3 out of the possible 10 overall points): This final metric attempts to capture to what degree a high school provides students with opportunities to take more rigorous, advanced coursework. A school earns credit for each student who passes at least one class deemed “advanced” or “college level” by the NYCDOE, such as Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or early college classes. However, the metric does not assess the quality of its college prep curriculum (NYCDOE, 2015)

These Progress Report metrics served as the backbone of New York City policy on college and career readiness. Other than the accountability system used to measure college and career readiness performance of schools, there were few other structures to ensure the policies were upheld. The district did not provide explicit training and direct support to schools around how to realize the city’s college and career readiness goals in everyday practice. The policy emphasized measuring the outputs (e.g., the number of students who enroll in college or the number of college-level courses a high school offers) rather than the inputs (e.g., number of college counselor and college knowledge building activities, trips or experiences, and college planning curricula) that schools would need to effectually realize those outputs. As such, it engenders a policy-practice divide between what the policy hopes to accomplish, and how schools can viably achieve those outcomes in practice. This divide appears to remain, even under a new mayor, Bill de Blasio.

Ambiguity in College Access Policies

On January 1, 2014, Bill de Blasio was sworn in as mayor of New York City. School Progress Reports were made available to the public on the NYCDOE website in early November. The most visible of change to the reports were that they no longer included a letter grade. The same “college and career readiness” metrics were included, and revealed modest gains in college readiness. Since the new term began, the de Blasio administration has yet to clearly articulate its policy approach to college readiness. In an op-ed on de Blasio’s education policy in general, Aaron Pallas (2014) critique the new mayor by saying that “…[de Blasio] failed to deliver a clear message about his goals for the school system – and that ambiguity may leave us with the same, traditional ways of measuring success by test scores and graduation rates…and those [accountability] statistics”.

One indicator of the de Blasio administration’s ambiguous policy on post-secondary guidance and readiness is the actual number of counselors in New York City public schools, and whether that number is sufficient. The American School Counselor Association recommends a counselor caseload of 250, and research reveals that students enrolled in schools with small counselor caseloads tend to be more successful in navigating the post-secondary planning process and making more informed, relevant college choices (Carrell & Carrell, 2006; Woods & Domina, 2014). In the fall of 2014, the Committee on Education of the City Council began a set of intense hearings toward introducing a bill – Int 0403 – that would require New York City to collect and report on information regarding: how many guidance counselors and social workers work in each school, the counselor-to-student ratio at each school, and exactly what those counselors are doing (i.e. academic work, college preparation, post-secondary planning, helping students with personal problems). The bill would require the NYCDOE to report demographic information on students and memorandums on college readiness.

Local community organizing groups, like the student-led Urban Youth Collaborative, have been calling on education leaders to make these numbers and duties public for years, without any formal response by policymakers. Such information would help to delineate between guidance counselors, college counselors, and social workers, distinct roles that are often filled by the same people in under-resourced schools. During the hearings on Int 0403, City Council members pressed policy officials to disclose the actual number of guidance personnel working in schools. Yet, those officials were unsure and could only provide a rough estimate of 1,000 counselors in New York City public high schools. Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña reestablished the Office of Guidance and School Counseling to assess the distribution and roles of counselors in New York City. How this office will contribute to meaningful policy change and implementation remains ambiguous.

A strategy that the de Blasio administration is continuing from the Bloomberg era is a college guidance workshop series provided by the NYCDOE to train school counselors. Under the Bloomberg administration, the NYCDOE began offering these workshops as resources to schools as they developed models for college readiness and post-secondary planning programs. The workshops consisted of a voluntary six-part series hosted by the reputable college access CBO, Goddard Riverside Options Center. Each high school would send one staff member, either a counselor or teacher or other staff member, to attend the workshops in an effort to ensure that every high school in New York City would have one, in-house college access staff member.

While some have praised the workshops as a step in the right direction, the workshops by themselves simply locate all post-secondary planning information and activities within one person, reifying the guidance gap. Rather than distributing college knowledge across a number of different adult staff and curricula inside schools, or creating clear structures for schools to meet their college readiness goals, this policy relies on the efficacy of one person in the school buildling. Research indicates that developing a college-going culture – one that distributes the work of supporting students’ understanding about college and the post-secondary planning process among school staff, teachers, counselors, and administration – makes the post-secondary planning process more accessible and equitable for all students (Aldana, 2013; Corwin & Tierney, 2007; Oakes, 2003; Oakes et al., 2000). A college-going culture helps to “facilitate student learning, college readiness, and college matriculation for all of its students” where both “adults and students hold the values, beliefs, and expectations that college readiness requires effort and persistence” (Aldana, 2013, p. 132-33). Without a school-wide college access culture, the burden inordinately falls on a college (or guidance) counselor, perpetuating the existence of a guidance gap. In the following section, I discuss the perilous effects of disproportionately relying on counselors to support students during the post-secondary planning process.

The Multiple Roles of College Guidance Counselors

According to the U.S. Department of Education, in 2011, the student per guidance counselor rate in public high schools was 471:1, and this rate has changed little over the past fourteen years. (Clinedinst, Hurley, and Hawkins, 2013) In their annual survey of roughly ten thousand secondary schools, the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) found that the mean number of students per college counselor in public high schools was 348 in 2012. As factors like student enrollment or student poverty rates increase – characteristics common in many New York City public schools – this number grows larger. For instance, when the enrollment of a school reaches two thousand students or more, the student per college counselor increases to 625. These statistics can vary among schools, based on how individual schools define the role of a college counselor.

The NACAC survey also reveals that, nationally, public high school counseling staff spend roughly 23 percent of their time on post-secondary planning counseling, while private schools included in the survey dedicate 53 percent (Clinedinst, Hurley, and Hawkins, 2013). The survey notes that tasks taking away time from public school counselors to focus on college and post-secondary guidance work include: choice and scheduling of courses (24 percent), academic testing (13 percent), and teaching (5 percent), among others. In other words, counselors are expected to do a lot more than college counseling, especially in schools that do not have a dedicated college counselor on staff. This hinders ability to focus on their primary job: providing guidance and support for young people as they embark on the complex and overwhelming post-secondary planning process.

The severity of the situation is corroborated in the education research literature. A number of studies show that counselors do not spend significant time advising students on post-secondary options (Lautz, 2005; McDonough, 2004). Jean Johnson et al. use data from the Public Agenda to understand how recent high school graduates perceive their former counselor (2010). They found that, of the young people surveyed, 48 percent reported that they usually felt like “just another face in the crowd” when dealing with their counselor (p. 75). The authors argue that these sentiments are associated with the fact that counselors are expected to juggle too many unrelated tasks, like administrative work, discipline issues, managing student schedule changes, overseeing testing programs, lunch duty, attendance monitoring, and substitute teaching (p. 76). With little policy direction that mandates specific counselor roles and responsibilities, and varied expectations of counseling staff by school administration, counselors are often pulled away from their responsibilities to advise and counsel students. The counselors must “juggle” these multiple and varied duties, while still also being expected to “effectively assist hundreds of students in planning their futures” (p. 76). This “juggling” is detrimental both to students who require undivided attention of school counselors, and to guidance counselors, as increasing time spent on non-guidance duties increases the likelihood of counselor burnout (Demato & Curcio, 2004; Lambie, 2007; Moyer, 2011).

In New York City, while specific data on college counselor time on task is unavailable, local experts estimate it to be on par with the national figures – around 25 percent. Omar Morris, a local college and career pathways expert, explains how guidance counselors are stretched thin among their many responsibilities:

It includes any of the behavioral issues, maybe meetings with parents, which you can imagine takes a lot of time and paperwork. It could include lunch duty. I kid you not. Some guidance counselors serve almost as APs [assistant principals] in their schools. It’s not like there’s one job. Schools have to be very creative in how they use their staff. It’s quite possible that you can walk into any college advisors meeting and ask the counselors what their day-to-day jobs are, and you will get 20 different answers. But the one thing that would be clear is that each person wears 10 different hats. (Nauer et al., 2013, p. 30)

These “10 different hats” are in addition to the various and already complex tasks related to the core work of guiding students through the post-secondary planning process.

College Counseling: Core Responsibilities and Workload

Students frequently report that one source of stress during the post-secondary planning process is keeping track of application materials and deadlines. According to a NYCDOE “College Action Plan Outline” made available online, students should complete six basic components of a college application (if required by a school): the application form, personal essay, test scores like the SAT or ACT, high school transcript, teacher recommendations, and financial aid applications (such as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA). In reality, students also often need to include application supplements, student loan information, and parent/guardian tax income forms that go along with FAFSA, or opportunity program paperwork like the Tuition Assistance Program (TAP) for State of New York colleges. The “College Action Plan Outline” suggests that New York City students apply to roughly five colleges. As such, students must maintain six basic components of applications to five different colleges until their college application process is complete.

Multiply this by 348, the average number of students per college counselor rate in U.S. public schools, and you have the basic job responsibilities of a college counselor.

These caseloads add up quickly when considering the different aspects of applications, as well as shifting deadlines and requirements. College guidance counselors must not only remain aware of deadlines, but also support students as they navigate the post-secondary planning process. A former CollegeBound Initiative college counselor in New York City, Carmen Pena, describes this as a strategic, yet sensitive, experience of “hand holding,” explaining that “[students] often feel that the process is so overwhelming and so stressful that they end up shutting down…you have to reinforce it so many times for them to actually get it” (Nauer et al., 2013, p. 31). While paperwork and deadlines are an important aspect of the college guidance job, it requires a sensitivity that transcends simply filling out forms and mailing application packages. It requires patience, strategy, and empathy through trusting relationships with students – all which counselors need time and space built into their workday to achieve. Yet, most counselors in the U.S. are only able to allot a fraction of their time to work directly related to college counseling, creating the uneven landscape in which the guidance gap continues to exist.

Aside from paperwork and deadlines, college counselors are also tasked with supporting students and families through the challenging process of obtaining financial aid – the FAFSA process. This can be overwhelming for students because it involves family finances – something about which many young people know little. The process also requires coordinating financial and tax documents with families, which can be a sensitive and personal topic for any family, especially those who have a number of different, context-specific living or work situations that further complicate and already convoluted process. A college guidance expert with a local Urban Assembly school explains that even well-trained counselors struggle with this strategic coordination: the process is “a complicated skill that requires someone in charge to know and understand all the nuances of verification, and all that good stuff that comes with actually getting a kid a financial aid package and get everything complete.”

Financial aid, and the supporting paperwork, can be a major pothole in the road to college. Students may grow so overwhelmed by the financial element of the post-secondary planning process that they give up on applications, or never even start them (Kimura-Walsh, et. al., 2009). Others may get accepted into a college, but an aspect of their financial aid falls through, or is incomplete. Without counselors to help them, students struggle to navigate their way through the process. Furthermore, counselors are often unavailable during the summer to advise students; as a result, an accepted and college-eligible student may never make it to her first day of college classes (Castleman & Page, 2012; Hoover, 2009).

While applications alone can occupy much of a college counselor’s time, equally important is forging meaningful relationships with college admissions offices. While a student may appear unqualified for a certain school, counselors may have an understanding of the student that she might still be a successful candidate. A counselor’s ability and willingness to advocate for and to “go to bat” for his/her students is an important skill (Schaeffer et. al., 2010). However, a college counselor can only advocate effectively if they have enduring relationships with college admissions offices, which requires consistent networking and outreach only allotted to counselors in schools that have resources and structures in place for counselors to nurture relationships with colleges.

One important example that illustrates the need for resources to allow counselors to advocate for students is in the case immigrant students, who have particular challenges in the post-secondary planning process. At one international high school in Brooklyn that serves a high proportion of recent immigrants who are English Language Learners (ELLs), a teacher who also simultaneously served as a college counselor, explained how ELLs are at a disadvantage in the college application process. Each year, a number of students in the senior class who, while wholly capable of completing the coursework demands, are not initially accepted into four-year City University of New York (CUNY) or State University of New York (SUNY) colleges. This was largely because of their relatively low scores on the New York State-mandated Regents exams in English Language Arts, and because their academic transcripts are disproportionately coded with English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, a consequence of the way the school programs courses for ELLs. From the perspective of a college admissions office, ELLs do not appear to have experienced a rigorous high school program or coursework, and most CUNY and SUNY four-year colleges simply look at grades, transcripts, and test scores to determine admission. In other words, on paper these students do not appear to be competitive four-year college candidates, even if, in reality, they are able to successfully complete four-year college coursework. However, there are protocols for college counselors to petition on behalf of students and help students gain access into a four-year college after an initial rejection, if they believe that the student is capable. While serving as college counselor at her school, this teacher spent a portion of her professional time petitioning on behalf of students she knew were four-year candidates, but were not granted admission because of their status as English language learners.

Beyond the application process, there are the many, more informal and intangible duties of guiding students through the post-secondary planning process. Guiding a student as they consider which college is “right”, while helping another student determine his next step after receiving a rejection letter; urging one student to stay persistent with college applications when he feels like he is on the verge of giving up, while simultaneously encouraging another that she should apply to at least one “reach” school that is out of her comfort zone. These are the intangible supports that students need in order to successfully navigate the post-secondary planning process, alongside technical information and knowledge. The interactions between counselors and students build trust and lead to improved college readiness outcomes (Schaeffer et. al., 2010). They are also a part of the many varied layers that make up the life of a college counselor struggling to fill the guidance gap.

Triaging: Dangerous Consequences of Overworked Counselors

Like overwhelmed emergency room physicians, college counselors often find themselves in impossible situations, attempting to fill the guidance gap in schools that are understaffed or where counselors are under-resourced. A school study by Kimura-Walsh and additional authors (2009) lifts up this idea of counselor triage. The authors found that students in the top 10 percent of achievement – those highest achieving students in a school – received full access to their school’s “College Corner”, provided with one-on-one, ongoing college advising. In contrast, those students not included in the top 10 percent were actually prevented access from the “College Corner”, along with the benefits associated with it, like consistent on-demand access to college application support. Even in the same school, not all students receive the same level and quality of counseling, largely a consequence of over-burdened and under-resourced counselors.

This idea of college counselor triage came up frequently during my interviews with college students who reflected on their post-secondary planning processes. Reggie and Joanna’s stories were particularly indicative of the experiences that many had as high school students in New York City. Both were bright students at Brooklyn College pursuing future careers in education. Both graduated from the same large, comprehensive high school in Brooklyn, three years apart. They had the same two college guidance counselors during their junior and senior years in high school. Reggie was a promising football player, and Joanna was an involved cheerleader. However, they had very different experiences with the post-secondary planning process. In the end, what affected their process the most was the need to manage expectations.

In high school, Reggie was a zoned student who was not enrolled in any formal academic program at his high school. He lived close enough to his high school, so the school was mandated to accept him, regardless of his middle school academic and attendance records. He understands this as a defining factor in the amount and rigor of college advising he received. Even before he formally began the college admissions process during his junior year, Reggie noticed that other zoned students were not provided access to the same kinds of academic resources as non-zoned students. He explains that, “I was a zoned kid so I didn’t get offered a lot of opportunities like APs or advanced classes that other students who weren’t zoned got. I had a lot of friends [who weren’t zoned], and talking to them, I realized I didn’t get offered a lot, even though I had the same grades as them.” While some students were expected to take advanced classes and perform well in them, he did not feel those same expectations from his teachers. Even though he dreamed of going to college, and had a cousin who encouraged him to pursue higher education, he had limited support from most of his teachers and counseling staff. He does not remember teachers emphasizing the importance of grades to get into college. Instead, the focus was just to, in his words, “pass and move on and graduate high school.”

Such lackluster academic expectations were also pervasive in the college admissions process. Even though Reggie was an athlete and very involved in afterschool activities, he realized that students in his classes, and his zoned friends, understood far less about the procedures and practices of getting into college. He explains this division among his classmates as a kind of “segregation”:

[school staff] tried to accommodate everybody, but it just wasn’t the same for everybody. I wish some of us zoned kids would have been offered more opportunities and were talked to more, but it just wasn’t the case… a lot of kids I felt were more prepared that me. They knew so much more about college and applications than I did…and I didn’t understand why, or how. I think about whether it is my fault or I just wasn’t told, but I think it’s just because I really wasn’t ever told.

Reggie tried to access his college counselor and school staff for help as much as possible, but found that the two or three friends he had who were enrolled in more rigorous academic classes were the best sources of college knowledge. It was through these friends that he learned about important college admissions information and activities, such as college trips and application requirements. The one college trip that he made, to Stony Brook University, only happened because one of these friends informed him about it. During the single, required advising session he had with a college counselor during his junior year, the counselor only presented him with information about community colleges. Private colleges or four-year colleges – like Brooklyn College, where he ultimately ended up after transferring from a community college – were never presented to him as viable options.

While now a successful and engaging college graduate, Reggie looks back on his college planning experience as influenced by a label, or stereotype, which was implicitly placed on him the first day of his freshman year in high school: zoned student. He explains that,
I guess [the college counselor] would pick and choose who they thought were going to do well in college. There was judgment there of who they thought would do well. I was on the football team and a zoned student, but I was actually good both academically and in sports. Still there was a lot of prejudgment. I took from it and learned from it, but a lot of my other friends never got to college… they never thought about their futures and no one told them they should.
In stark contrast to Reggie and his experiences, Joanna says that she always felt that she had a support system in her school, comprised of teachers and a college counselor who were there to help. While the process was stressful, she felt encouraged to go to college by her counselor and teachers. She was enrolled in the humanities academic track (as opposed to a zoned student), positioning her to study journalism or English in college.

Even during her first of many advising meetings with the college counselor, Joanna remembers being introduced to the idea of “reach, match, and safety” schools. This concept encourages students to apply to a range of colleges – “safety” schools are those that report average GPA and test scores below a student’s average; “match” schools are those that report average GPA and test scores similar to a student’s average; and, “reach” schools are those that report average GPA and test scores above a student’s average. Because Joanna was encouraged to apply to reach, match, and safety colleges, she applied to CUNY and SUNY schools, and her “reach” school was Penn State University. This was partially because one of her beloved social studies teachers had attended the school. They frequently had conversations about Penn State, and how it would be a good fit for her academic and social goals. Even though she did not ultimately choose to enroll there, Joanna believes that it was a positive experience to have adults in her school that encouraged her to think about options outside of New York City.

The same teacher also helped Joanna make a final college decision once she received her college acceptance letters. Unlike Reggie, who was only ever encouraged to apply to community colleges and did not feel as if he had a support system of teachers and guidance staff, Joanna was able to explore different college options with a number of adults in her school who were familiar with the process. The consistent, one-on-one time with knowledgeable adults in school made a critical difference between Reggie and Joanna’s post-secondary planning experience.

Joanna believes that because she and her friends were considered “good” students, and took many advanced placement classes, they also spent a lot of time together working on applications. She would “run into a lot of my friends in the college office,” so it was always easy to get quick answers from friends to important questions like application deadlines or FAFSA issues, even if a college counselor was not immediately available. In contrast to Reggie, Joanna took trips to visit a variety of schools, after hearing about these opportunities from the college counselor and her friends. The visits helped her gain experiences on college campuses. She explains that, “I think I missed half of my cheerleading games” in order to visit colleges around New York State. She also notes, “[the trips] helped me figure out what kind of college was a good match for me, because I got to see them in real life and talk to students who went there.”

Teachers in Joanna’s academic classes also made connections between things they were learning in class with college and the application process. For instance, Joanna’s English teacher would regularly remind students of the fundamental elements to an effective college essay. Her teachers would also reflect on their own college experiences or classes. While teachers in Reggie’s classes would tend to simply stress passing the class and graduating from high school, Joanna had teachers who would talk about the relationship between what they did in high school classes to how it connected to college classroom experiences.

Between college counselors, teachers, and friends taking similar coursework, Joanna reflects that she had a network of support in high school, which guided her through the post-secondary planning and college admissions process. She believes that this was the most important factor in choosing a college that suited her academic, social, and emotional needs: a college that was a “good fit.” Joanna explains that, “I had so many teachers and other people in school who really cared. I was so overwhelmed, so that really mattered. They went to college so they knew about it, and they also knew me because I was in their classes.” In other words, Joanna was surrounded by adults who both expected her to go to college, and “cared” about the choice that she would make. She believes that this was a motivating factor for her to continue to focus on academics and stay consistent with college application deadlines and information.

In large high schools, like the one Reggie and Joanna attended, graduating senior classes are 1,000 students, or more. Oftentimes, they have only one or two college counselors to support these swelling caseloads. When counselor caseloads are this high, by the time a counselor has met with each student during his or her junior year even once, senior year is already upon them. This scenario unfortunately forces many counselors to triage, much like a doctor in an emergency room, based on expectations of who seems likely to be college-bound. Unless caseloads are made more manageable for counselors, supplemented by school support and resources, they will continue to be forced to typecast students and only serve the highest achieving students. Such was the case with Reggie and Joanna. The complex and challenging landscape – illustrated broadly in this section – represents the everyday, lived experience of post-secondary planning and programming in many public high schools in New York City, as students and counselors struggle to realize the goal of college-for-all in practice.

Community-Based Organizations: An Alternative Strategy Toward Filling the Guidance Gap

A secondary strategy used by some schools in New York City toward managing the post-secondary planning process is to make use of community-based organizations (CBOs) to provide college counseling support to students. For Lillian, the smartest choice she made during the post-secondary planning process was to seek support outside of her own school. With only one college counselor serving all juniors and seniors in her small Brooklyn high school that was co-located with five other schools, Lillian did not receive consistent help from school staff. Her school had no formal requirement that students meet with the college counselor, so students often crowded the college guidance office vying for much needed one-on-one support. In describing her post-secondary planning experience, she explains that, “we had a class that was designated for college counseling, but we didn’t do too much. It was primarily focused on passing the SATs. Everything was geared toward testing, and that’s mostly how our school dealt with the college process.” While this class handled SAT preparation, and her college counselor managed application deadlines and paperwork, Lillian did not find consistent one-on-one support when it came to roadblocks she had during the post-secondary planning process, especially with things like teacher recommendations or finding scholarships. She recalls that she and her friends would “fight tooth and nail” with each other to find teachers to write recommendations, because there were “so many students, and not enough teachers.”

When Lillian began her freshman year of high school, AMIGOS, a community-based organization, had been recruiting students in her school, offering services like afterschool programming and mentoring. Some of her friends decided to join, and since Lillian was an enthusiastic and committed student, she did, too. In retrospect, Lillian sees this as a crucial decision that helped her successfully enroll in college, though she was unaware of how important the organization would be toward her future college plans at the time:

[AMIGOS staff and mentors] were the ones that helped me network, because we were all assigned mentors and they had [college] alma maters, so they knew how the college admissions process worked…they were the ones who explained the college admissions experience to us. They took me on my only college tour…helped me with my [college] essay…and made sure I was on track to graduate.

When Lillian’s high school was unable to offer her resources that were critical in helping her navigate the post-secondary planning process, especially elements that required consistent one-on-one support like college essay writing or teacher recommendations, it was a CBO that filled the holes in her support system. Lillian’s mentor stepped in, as a surrogate college counselor, to make sure that she was taking the necessary steps toward completing her application and graduating with classes that would help her become a successful college student.

Lillian is one example of many New York City high school students who rely on the help of a CBO or non-profit organization in order to survive the post-secondary planning process. A 2011 study conducted by Graduate NYC!, a collaboration led by the NYCDOE in conjunction with the City University of New York, surveyed a wide spectrum of 156 CBOs who do post-secondary readiness and college access work in New York City. The study identified 253 organizations that provided college access services, with a total of 92,677 students served in 2010 (Graduate NYC!, 2011). According to the survey, these CBOs predominately serve Black and Latino/a high school students through post-secondary preparation activities like college trips, supporting students through the college application process, and college scholarship awareness (Graduate NYC!, 2011). A majority of these organizations also report doing youth development work alongside college admissions and preparation work, covering personal and academic student behaviors like study skills and social behaviors that will prepare students to be successful, independent college students (Graduate NYC!, 2011).

The study also indicates that most of the post-secondary preparation services provided by CBOs are delivered to students on a one-on-one basis. Organizations reported that 53% of time spent with youth was used for college application support, and 51% for completing the FAFSA and financial aid work, all done in a one-on-one setting with students (Graduate NYC!, 2011). Such individualized counseling is crucial to helping students make informed, educated post-secondary decisions because it gives students meaningful time with a counseling professional (Johnson et. al., 2010; McKillip et. al., 2012). Veronica Aguilar Hornig, manager of college guidance at The Opportunity Network, cites this as the most important college service that many non-profits and CBOs can provide young people in New York City:

What’s most important when you’re dealing with college is one-on-one counseling, because it makes lasting personal connections. Sitting down one-on-one and talking about [student] options in-depth and frequently is the only way to survive this whole process and do it well. A personal connection makes the difference between a student who gets through it, and does well in college, and the ones who may fall through the cracks.

Each student has specific needs and concerns during their post-secondary planning process, and individualized counseling is crucial when students have unique situations, such as being undocumented or first generation-to-college students. In these cases, students benefit from having a personal connection with an adult during post-secondary planning. As a result, they are much more likely to persist through the process and successfully enroll in college (McKillip et. al., 2012; Stanton-Salazar, 1997).

CBOs and non-profits also offer college admissions support during afterschool and summer hours, providing coverage during a precarious time before college starts when support is not provided for students inside their schools. According to the Graduate NYC! study, 73% of surveyed organizations provided college admissions support during afterschool hours, while 63% provided it during the summer months. During school time, students are doing a number of different things, like academic classes, test preparation, and extracurricular activities or clubs. However, school-based college guidance counselors and teachers tend to only be available to students during school hours, and during the school year. CBOs and non-profits recognize this gap in college support. For instance, the College Directions Program at Kingsbridge Heights Community Center, a settlement house in the northwest Bronx, works with students from the community during afterschool hours throughout the year, because it fits with their personal schedules. Alison Torres, a former program coordinator, explains, “We are a different type of program because our focus is the students”, and “so we work 1pm-9pm. It gives students a place to go and do homework or college application work with a computer available. We’ve been able to fill the gaps as needed, and our students drop in constantly.” The College Directions Program serves roughly 200 registered students a year, alongside dozens of students who drop in during the year with quick questions or post-secondary planning needs.

Many students need additional post-secondary guidance or support after high school graduation. Some are accepted to college but never show up on the first day of classes due to problems that arise with financial aid or registration during the summer months before enrollment, a common phenomenon referred to as the “summer melt” (Castleman & Page, 2012; Hoover, 2009). Omar Morris of CollegeBound explains summer melt in this way: “we’re finding that there’s a drop-off of students…who [start the FAFSA] but don’t do it completely. So, they go into the summer thinking that their FASFAs are complete and they really aren’t, and they don’t have guidance over the summer because counselors are not in the schools.” In these situations, CBOs or non-profits step in to help fill the guidance gap for New York City students.

The Benefits of Community-Based Organizations: Knowing the Community

One reason why many CBOs do successful, meaningful post-secondary planning work with students is because they serve residents in one community. Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, in Brooklyn, offers an array of programming for community members at every age group. It acts as a comprehensive, multi-service CBO that offers things like Headstart, young adult programs, and employment services for adults. The organization maintains a strong presence in the Cypress Hills neighborhood by providing the community a variety of resources. Thus, post-secondary work is a natural fit. As Andrea Soonachan, former director of college programming explains, “a strength of our organization is that we work so closely with a neighborhood so we know the lay of the land well…and this filters into knowing the particular needs of students living and going to school in this neighborhood.”

CBOs assume a unique position in communities that allows for a nuanced awareness of the challenges that young people and their families face. This proves to be a particular strength of CBOs who do post-secondary planning work. As one college counselor at a Brooklyn high schools explains, “The fact of the matter is that for disadvantaged students the process is way longer and way harder than it is for privileged students.” As such, CBOs sometimes have an advantage over schools, because they have a demonstrated history of working with not only students, but also entire communities. For instance, the College Directions Program at Kingsbridge Heights Community Center is only one program along a spectrum that is offered to the community supporting young people’s development and growth from birth into college, and beyond. Allison Torres, former program coordinator of the College Directions Program, attributes this to their capacity to know and understand students in their community. She explains that, “we are able to have that one-on-one time with students and develop relationships throughout the course of their young lives. We see them from afterschool programs in elementary schools, to tweens, to teens, and then to the college program. So we see the full range of their development…and you don’t always get that in schools.” The close relationships CBOs forge with young people throughout their lives are useful toward providing relevant, one-on-one counseling during the post-secondary planning process.

Community organizations also garner parent and local community buy-in during the post-secondary planning process, especially when dealing with sensitive aspects of the process. For instance, FAFSA and financial aid requires families to be transparent about their income and other family information. Some families are hesitant to give this information to schools because it reveals personal information, while for others it becomes a matter of legality, as some students or their families are undocumented. (Abrego, 2006; Perez, 2010) Schools report that these circumstances make it difficult for schools to be in a position to help families with undocumented parents or incarcerated family members. One former director of college readiness at a local high school in Queens has experienced this with a number of high school students:

the NYCDOE legally cannot ask a kid whether they have papers or not. And they can’t ask for their Social Security number because a student is guaranteed an education until 12th grade regardless of whether they’re documented or not. So it’s touchy, a lot of times…[even if] you’re asking for a Social Security number in 11th grade or 12th grade and you’re doing it for the FAFSA purposes…it can be a little bit of a gray area.

A “touchy” or “gray area” for many schools tends to be easier for some CBOs that work with local neighborhoods, because of the meaningful relationships they have formed with families over the years.

The Challenges of Partnerships between Schools and Community-Based Organizations

Currently the NYCDOE has no formal protocol for how CBOs can, and should, build relationships with schools, especially within the context of post-secondary planning and programming. This proves to be a barrier for many organizations. Some schools have well-articulated partnerships with CBOs, such as American Asians for Equality (AAFE) who have a strong presence within two high schools in Queens. AAFE helps to manage a large portion of these schools’ post-secondary planning work, and AAFE staff is housed inside high school college offices. They work closely with school staff to develop effective programming, and if the school does not have the capacity for certain activities, like college trips or financial aid workshops for parents, AAFE might fill the gap.

Other CBOs do not have this kind of explicit and structured relationship with high schools because they are not located within a school. In these cases, the job of forging a useful and lasting relationship with schools can be difficult. Andrea Soonachan, formerly with Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, explains that, “schools aren’t always aware that CBOs are a resource to them. There’s no systematic way for schools to leverage those partnerships and the NYCDOE needs to do a better job in coordinating that. Schools struggle with how to assess the quality of a CBO. They don’t know what they’re looking for and asking for.” Allison Torres, formerly with the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center, faced this problem frequently. She reports that it can be challenging to partner with schools because they may perceive CBOs as trying to do their jobs. “When we work with schools, at times,” she explains, “counselors aren’t as receptive as we would like. Sometimes they think we’re taking their job. But the way I look at it, school counselors may have a caseload of 400 kids, and I only have 200, so let’s work together to fill in those gaps. It’s a struggle, though, to get this point across to them.” For many organizations that do not have a longstanding relationship with high schools, communicating this point can be difficult.

CBO’s should not replace a school, but should act tactically to provide college counseling in ways that schools cannot. They can use their resources in local neighborhoods and communities toward contributing to a growing safety net for students during the post-secondary planning process. Monique Darrisaw, who joined the NYCDOE school support structure after serving as a principal for many years, typifies this balance, explaining,

from my point of view as a school leader, a CBO or a partner organization can’t supplant what I feel is my responsibility. It’s like sending your child to visit somebody. Dinner is my responsibility. If someone gives them a snack, I’m very thankful. You know they went to your house and they had a snack, but it’s still my responsibility to feed and clothe that child. (Nauer et al., 2013, p. 45).

If CBOs can effectively rely on schools to “feed and clothe” students, then they are able to step in to supplement this with support that some desperately need. However, achieving this balance requires that schools and CBOs have an established method to communicate and forge meaningful relationships with one another. This requires NYCDOE policy to provide more strategic, useful direction and support to schools that would benefit from partnering with CBOs to close the guidance gap.

Reimaging Post-Secondary Planning: Positioning Students at the Center

With limited time to reach all students, college counselors often forgo quality one-on-one time with students and replace their interactions with checklists and dense information for students to unpack on their own. Meanwhile, students not only need accurate college knowledge, they also need to understand how to position their own personal, family, social, and financial contexts within the post-secondary planning process. During the interviews I conducted with eight college students, the role that peers can play during the post-secondary process surfaced as an indispensable resource. Each of the eight interviewed college students, at some point during their interview, noted that they learned about a deadline, or a college trip, or how to access financial aid, by way of a peer who was also navigating the post-secondary planning process.

For one student I interviewed, Alex, peers played a large role during her post-secondary planning process, by helping to translate dense college information into meaningful, situated knowledge. Her school had “student helpers” who worked in the college office, and were Alex’s peers who were also navigating the post-secondary planning process. For the most part, they filed paperwork and did administrative tasks. However, according to Alex they, “knew a lot more about the whole college process”. Alex explains that when she would go to her college counselor for help, oftentimes the counselor would simply say, “you’re supposed to research it” and send her on her way. As such, Alex and many of her friends viewed their counselor as largely focused on “getting our paperwork turned in,” rather than helping her to make sense of and understand the relevance of the post-secondary planning process. For Alex, the “student helpers” were peers her age with whom she “felt comfortable talking to them and [they] understood where I was coming from…but they knew more about everything since they worked in the office.” These student helpers acted as a bridge for Alex in the college planning process. They served as post-secondary planning experts, who also understood her own personal context because they were her peers, navigating the same process in the same school.

This peer-to-peer connection is at the heart of one program working to fill the guidance gap in New York City, the Youth Leadership for College Access program developed by two former high school teachers. In 2011, Lori Chajet and Janice Bloom founded College Access: Research & Action (CARA) in response to the guidance gap. CARA is an organization that creates spaces to address the needs of first generation-to-college students via a number of programs that bring together schools and community-based organizations. One of the programs, Youth Leadership for College Access, positions young people as Youth Leaders to engage their peers, and themselves, in the post-secondary planning process. Youth Leaders are trained over a number of weeks during the summer on the entire post-secondary planning process, learning the ins and outs of complex aspects of the process, like the FAFSA, or the art of creating a well-balanced college list. They develop important leadership skills related to working with their peers, such as counseling skills, workshop development, and data tracking. They learn what it takes to not only complete the post-secondary planning process for themselves, but also how to make it more engaging and effective for their peers. After summer training, Youth Leader begin their responsibilities at their own schools, working inside a college office or other school space, to provide college planning support. They design and run student workshops on college related topics, work in one-on-one or in small groups with high school juniors and seniors as they navigate the post-secondary planning process, and generally act as a credible source of college knowledge and expertise among their peers. Youth Leaders are considered paid professionals who work with their peers inside schools.

Youth Leadership for College Access represents one strategy toward reimagining the post-secondary planning process. Rather than simply telling students what they need to know, making the process a set of mechanical steps toward completing a checklist, Youth Leaders live the post-secondary process alongside their peers. For Youth Leaders, the students they help are not just a name in a caseload because they are classmates. They may even be friends or family. Youth Leaders experience the same feelings, emotions, and struggles associated with college planning as their peers. One young person described his experience with the Youth Leaders at his school in the following:

Youth Leaders are students at the school. They take the same exact classes that we do. They understand what we’re going through a lot more than a teacher. Some teachers they just need to get this done. [Our college counselor] just needs us to hand in the applications so she has what we have done. The Youth Leaders were that bridge between an adult, with all the information necessary to make sure we are successful in the process, but also making sure that, as students, we knew we had people that understood what we’re going through; we had people that cared about us.

This short excerpt underscores a number of ways we can begin to reimagine the post-secondary planning process. In the following, I outline three ways in which schools can begin to close the guidance gap in a student-centered manner.

  1. Policy must focus on how to support schools, rather than outputs alone.

An output-driven model alone will not productively fill the guidance gap. Policies must leverage and provide the activities and inputs that schools need and already have to address student needs during the post-secondary planning process. For instance, Youth Leadership for College Access utilizes students as resources for their peers, focusing on the ways in which the post-secondary planning process as an important stage in students’ lives, rather than something that “just need[s] to get…done.” A shift in focus away from outputs, and toward meaningful activities and supports, will lead to more effective college readiness polices that provide resources that schools need to effectively support students in the post-secondary planning process.

  1. Develop post-secondary planning programs as learning opportunities

The college planning process should be a meaningful learning experience, providing experiential learning where young people develop skills they will need for the rest of their lives. Effective schools often develop post-secondary planning curriculum that emphasizes student inquiry as opposed to mechanical steps or irrelevant information, so that students can develop college knowledge through a variety of intellectual and skill-building experiences. The process should also be student-centered. For example, using a peer-to-peer model, Youth Leaders do not simply deliver college knowledge, or guide peers through a set of steps, but they act as a source of social and emotional support.

  1. Listen to experts…and that includes students

In order to create effective policies that address college access and readiness, policymakers should consider the advice of college access experts, teachers, principals, researchers, and parents to fully understand the different areas of need. They should also learn directly from the very students who live and breathe education policy inside their schools every day. Listening to student experiences and insights will provide them the information they need to design a better guidance program in schools to serve young people.


These are only a few ways that education policy and schools can reimagine the post-secondary planning process. Currently, the policy context of college access and post-secondary readiness in New York City focuses on outputs, rather than the supports that schools need to successfully help students navigate the post-secondary planning process. As a result, students are statistics or benchmarks toward an accountability measure, rather than agents of change in their own lives. In the absence of useful policy resources and formal college guidance mandates that support schools, schools manage the post-secondary planning process in different ways, engendering an uneven landscape of post-secondary guidance among public high schools. Many under-resourced schools rely on two dominant methods in addressing the guidance gap: an over-reliance on counselors, or outsourcing some (or all) of this work to local community-based organizations. Both strategies have drawbacks, and school districts continue to struggle, even as they are increasingly being expected to prepare students for college. In order to systematically fill the guidance gap, we need to move away from an output-driven accountability model, and move toward reimagining the post-secondary planning process as a meaningful, inquiry-driven process that positions young people at the center.


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