Traditionally, high school guidance counselors have been utility players. In theory, their main job is tending to the academic, personal, and college advising needs of hundreds of students. But in practice, they often been tapped for other duties, from managing special education compliance to coordinating testing. In some schools, you could even see them substitute teaching.

This pattern has undercut the push to get more students prepared for college. A 2003 study of counseling practices in four CPS high schools found that only 30 percent of the students surveyed had chosen courses with help from a counselor. Less than 20 percent had been informed about honors or Advanced Placement courses.

Large numbers of students who were struggling with absences and low GPAs reported that no school personnel had talked with them about their difficulties. Latino students had the least contact with counselors.

In 2004, under the administration of Arne Duncan, Chicago became one of the first districts to contract with the National Student Clearinghouse to find out how many CPS June graduates had actually enrolled in college the following fall. The disappointing baseline number—just 43 percent—lent urgency to the effort to improve.

Greg Darnieder, who led college-preparation work in the district for five years, pushed principals to ensure all seniors completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form (FAFSA) and created a new position: post-secondary coach. Coaches were recent college graduates, many from CPS, who helped students navigate admissions and financial aid.

High schools responded by creating teams of staff focused on post-secondary preparation, including helping students with college admissions and financial aid. The teams remain active in many schools, and counselors often lead them.

By 2012, the CPS college enrollment rate was approaching 60 percent, within striking distance of the national average of 63 percent. A national expert on higher education described the change in Chicago as “one of the miracles of my lifetime.”

See “With little guidance, students drift through and out of school,” Catalyst March 2003 and “Jones and Urban Prep shine as citywide college enrollment rises,” Catalyst August 2012


Today, the stakes for high schools to improve college preparation and advising are even higher. In 2013, the district made college persistence part of its accountability rating system for high schools. This came at a time when financial constraints were chipping away at the district’s Office of College and Careers and eliminated district money for post-secondary coaches. (Some high schools continue to pay for coaches with their their schools’ discretionary funds.)

Partnerships with college-focused nonprofits are filling the gap. “We absolutely encourage them,” says Alan Mather, the district’s chief officer of college and careers.

CPS counts 24 nonprofit partners working in high schools, from OneGoal’s intensive student mentoring to whole-school coaching from the Network for College Success. “One of the reasons our college enrollment and persistence numbers have gone up is because these partners are super-helpful.”

Growing enrollment in charter high schools offers more students other avenues to innovative college advising. With lower labor costs, charters can afford to hire more counselors, which lowers their caseloads. Private fundraising allows charters to hire “alumni coordinators” to stay on top of their graduates through freshman year of college and even beyond.

See “School performance ratings released,” Catalyst September 2013 and “Charter schools stress college-going support,” Catalyst February 2015


High school counselors and their partners are becoming increasingly sophisticated in addressing the specific challenges first-generation students face in staying the course through college graduation.

Counselors and post-secondary coaches are now receiving intensive training to find colleges that will challenge their students intellectually and have strong track records of graduating first-generation students. Counselors are also delving deeper into college affordability to better help students avoid excessive debt.

Last summer, CPS resurrected summer counseling for June graduates to ensure their plans to enter college didn’t get derailed by unexpected red tape or fees. Mather says that despite the district’s fiscal crisis, they “hope” to do that again for this year’s graduating class.

The district is also encouraging principals to rethink special education oversight to reduce the burden on counselors. After eight months of principal training, Mather says they’ve reduced the share of counselors acting as special education case managers by 14 percent.

At the same time, local colleges and universities are beginning to reach back into high school to help their freshmen before they arrive. The University of Illinois at Chicago is piloting an effort to increase college persistence by supporting new freshmen while they are still high school seniors. A transition counselor meets weekly with seniors planning to attend UIC and will keep tabs on them once they arrive on campus.

“It’s almost like having an individual counselor,” says Lissette Aguirre, a guidance counselor at North-Grand High School, which is one of a handful of CPS high schools in the pilot.

See “Easing barriers to college completion,” Catalyst February 2015 and “Summer counseling aimed at getting more high school grads in college,” Catalyst September 2015


Freelancer Maureen Kelleher's work has appeared in Education Week and the Harvard Education Letter. She was an associate editor with Catalyst Chicago from 1998-2006.

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