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While a lot is made of overcrowded classrooms and slashed funding for arts, sports and electives, Americans are less likely to be up in arms about a severe shortage of guidance counselors in schools around the country.
According to the Association for College Admission Counseling, the average American school now has one guidance counselor for every 500 students. In some places the ratio is far more dire — nearly 1,000 kids for every counselor. In the worst cases, there are none at all.
"I think it’s a massive crisis," Bill Symonds, the director of the Global Pathways Institute, told Here & Now's Robin Young. "I think it’s really the black hole in the American education system. Every year we spend thousands of dollars educating every student, [but] we spend the equivalent of one can of Coke on guidance counselors, one can of Coke.”
"We spend the equivalent of one can of Coke on guidance counselors."
The most severely affected students are the ones in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, Symonds says — a problem that fuels education inequality.
"It’s a massive inequity," said Symonds. "If you look at the wealthy suburbs, even in the public schools in those wealthy communities, students get a lot of hand holding when they're applying to college, and a lot of direction on which colleges they’re likely to get accepted to. In contrast, many low income students get next to nothing in terms of college counseling and really nothing when it comes to, what are they going to do with their life? What is their career going to be?"
Developing "career literacy"
In some cases, this lack of guidance has expensive consequences for the students who do make it into higher education. According to Seymonds, 60 to 80 percent of students are drifting through four years of classes with no direction. The problem, he asserts, is solved through earlier development of "career literacy" in schools.
"Career guidance should really be a process," he said. "Let's equip all students, and for that matter adults, with the skills, knowledge and support they need to figure out what career makes sense for them and whats the pathway to pursue that."
How might schools better equip students? One solution he offers is to bring in mentors who take pressure off the overwhelmed guidance counselors. Retirees are one great source of talent that Seymonds recommends. They have the experience, the time and can "really impart a great deal of wisdom."
This story aired on January 16, 2015.
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