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Op-Ed Article by the First Lady on USAToday.com and Across Gannett Platforms

January 30, 2015

Counselors build the bridge to college

Growing up on the South Side of Chicago, it wasn't exactly a forgone conclusion that I would go to college. Neither of my parents and hardly anyone in my neighborhood had gone beyond high school, and while my folks were determined to see me and my brother Craig get a good education, they weren't exactly sure how to make that happen.

I worked hard and got good grades, but I didn't have much in the way of college counseling in high school. Fortunately, Craig was a couple of years ahead of me, and he had managed to get himself into Princeton University. So in addition to applying to one school because I liked the pictures in the brochure and to another because it was close to home, I also applied to Princeton, and my brother helped guide me through the process.

Many young people in this country aren't so lucky, because when it comes to college counseling in our nation's schools, there are really two worlds.

There's the world of high schools where the question isn't whether students are going to college, but where. From the first day of freshman year, students at these schools are shepherded through the process, often by school counselors who ensure they enroll in the right classes; prepare for the SAT and ACT; meet their application deadlines; and choose a school that best meets their needs and get the financial aid they need to pay for it. That's one world.

Then there's the world of the schools that most of our kids attend where school counselors are too often under-valued and overstretched, and they simply don't have what they need to do their jobs. While the American School Counselor Association recommends no more than 250 students per counselor, the national average is one counselor for every 471 students. And often, school counselors are burdened with all kinds of unrelated responsibilities such as proctoring exams, substitute teaching, even monitoring the lunchroom. Many school counselors find themselves doing triage, juggling those duties while trying to help kids in crisis and also keep up with the latest college admissions deadlines and requirements.

As a result, many of our young people have little, if any, guidance on how to pursue higher education. This is a serious loss, not just for them, but for our country. Today, workers with a bachelor's degree make an average of $16,000 more per year than those with just a high school diploma, and three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require a college degree. The facts are very clear: if we want America to compete in the global marketplace, all of our young people will need some kind of education beyond high school, whether that's a two-year or four-year degree or a professional certificate.

Our school counselors are the key to achieving that goal, but only if we give them the support, recognition and resources they need to do their jobs. That's why last year, the White House issued a challenge to universities, foundations, school districts, non-profits and others to step up – and already they have answered with tens of millions of dollars of new efforts on behalf of school counselors and the students they serve.

Non-profit organizations are working to improve student to counselor ratios. Universities are creating college and career readiness courses in their masters degree programs for school counselors. With the help of the U.S. Department of Education, over half the states in this country are giving school counselors new tools to help students fill out their financial aid forms and college applications. And today, for the first time in history, we are honoring the National School Counselor of the Year with a ceremony at the White House.

This work is all driven by the simple belief that in this country, getting the education you need shouldn't be a matter of luck, or privilege, or having a big brother who can pave the way for you like I did. Instead, every young person who is willing to work for it should have a chance to fulfill his or her boundless promise. That is the mission that drives America's school counselors every day, and my husband and I and so many others are doing everything we can to support them as they support our kids and serve our country.

Michelle Obama, Op-Ed Article by the First Lady on USAToday.com and Across Gannett Platforms Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320933

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