I’ve been working a lot lately on two big projects that touch on the issue of secondary school guidance. The first is a large project for the European Commission on admission systems across Europe and the second is one of HESA’s own projects looking at how students in their junior year of high school process information about post-secondary education (the latter is a product for sale – drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re an institution interested in insights in how to get on students’ radar before they hit grade 12). And one of the things that I’ve realised is how deeply difficult it is to present information to students in a way that it is meaningful to them.
Oh, we hand out information all right. Masses of it. We give students so much information it’s like drinking from a fire-hose. It’s usually accurate, mostly consistent (though nothing – nothing – drives students crazier than discovering that information on a student’s catalogue is different from the information on the website, which happens all too frequently). But that’s really not enough.
Here’s what we don’t do: we don’t provide data to students in a way that makes it easy for them to search what they want. Information is provided solely by institutions themselves and students have to go search out data on an institution-by-institution basis. We have nothing like France’s Admission Post-bac system which – while not without its faults as an admissions portal – actually does simplify an otherwise horrifically complicated admissions system by putting institutional information in a single spot. We have nothing like the state-level guides in Australia where students in their graduating year can get info on all institutions in a single book.
We don’t make it simple to try to learn about their choices. Institutions have every reason not to do this – their whole set-up in term of providing information to students is based on a philosophy of LOOK AT ME PAY NO ATTENTION TO THOSE OTHERS (though I kind of wonder what would happen to an institution that tried the “compare us now” approach used by Progressive Insurance). Government has chosen not to play a role, preferring to leave it to institutions. And third parties have given them things like rankings, and other statistical information which adults think they should know and care about but by and large don’t.
What students want – what they really, really want – is not more information. They want guidance. They want someone who is knowledgeable about that information AND who knows and appreciates their own tastes, abilities and interests and render it meaningful to them. Yes, Queen’s is my local university and it’s pretty prestigious, but will I fit in? Sure, nursing pays well, but will I get bored (and which schools are best for nursing)? I want to do Engineering, but it seems like a lot of work – can I actually handle it? And if so, would it be better to go to a big school with lots of supports or to my local institution?
But this is precisely what guidance functions in secondary schools don’t deliver on a consistent basis. Too often, their role is that of a really slow version of the internet – a centralized place to get all the individual view-books and brochures. They don’t know individual students well enough to provide real, contextualized guidance, so that task falls upon favoured teachers and – more often – students own families.
Well, so what, you say. What’s wrong with making students do a little leg-work on their own, and asking family and friends for guidance? Well, the problem with this is cultural capital starts to play a really big role. While guidance is helpful for everyone, the students who have the least idea of what to expect in post-secondary education, the ones most in need of guidance, are precisely the ones whose families have the least experience in post-secondary. So if guidance fails, you get a Matthew Effect, with the already-advantaged receiving another leg-up.
(Secondary complaint: it is astonishing, if you believe students, how little guidance counselors want to talk to students about government student financial assistance. On the other hand, they seem quite prepared to peddle stale chestnuts about how easy it is to get institutional aid because “millions of dollars go unclaimed every year because people don’t apply”. I cringed every time I heard this.)
The way forward here is probably not to increase the number of guidance counselors to make it easier for them to know individual students. The fact is, they will never get as close to students as will senior-year teachers. Better, probably, to let those teachers do the advising (after some training, of course) and then build in time and rewards appropriately.
But it requires investment. We have to stop preferring the provision of information over guidance because it’s cheap. Good decisions require good guidance. Skimp on it in schools serving richer areas if we must, but when it comes to serving low-income students it’s a false economy.