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The Challenges, Necessity, and Complexities of Guidance Counseling in Community College

The Challenges, Necessity, and Complexities of Guidance Counseling in Community College
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Jordan Friedman September 4, 2014

With a significant amount of students attending community colleges across the nation, understanding how the guidance counseling systems work at these school is essential.

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In the 2011-2012 school year, 45 percent of undergraduate students were enrolled in community college. Of those 8.3 million students, 3.3 million were enrolled full time.

While a community college education has plenty of benefits — like lower tuition andan easier commute from home — there are some limitations, too.

For example, according to Columbia University’s Community College Research Center, the ratio of students assigned to each guidance counselor at these institutions is about 1,000 to 1, which can adversely impact student success. By comparison, high schools are more likely to see ratios of 500 to 1 or 700 to 1.

Beyond just the numbers, guidance counseling differs greatly between community colleges and other post-secondary schools across the U.S.

How does guidance counseling at community colleges work?

Guidance counselors at community colleges spend much less time — about half, in fact — on career counseling than they do on academic counseling, according to a Columbia University report. So, work experience and co-op education programs are rarer. Though academic and personal counseling certainly play important roles in completion, a lack of career counseling may mean that “experimenters" receive less attention than do those students who have a clearer idea of the path they wish to pursue, the report says.

Generally, community college guidance counselors have roles beyond just academic advising, as they also help students address personal concerns such as health and family issues. Because these students are often balancing work and family obligations that less commonly affect those who attend four-year schools, these issues play a larger role in the professional responsibilities of community college guidance counselors.

According to the “Academic Advising: A Comprensive Handbook," the two most common forms of counseling at community colleges are:

  • The split model, in which faculty and guidance counselors each work with a certain subset of students.

  • The self-contained model, where advising occurs from within one centralized unit.

How do community college guidance counselors help?

“The needs of every student are different," said Daniella Foster, community college alum and CEO and co-founder of Emergent Leaders Network.

“The beauty of community college is you have a broad range of students, from high school students taking a class for college credit to returning students coming back later in life. Many students go to community colleges because it's a financially smart option that allows them to finish their first two years of college and then transfer on to a four-year college or university. I see one of the key roles of an advisor as getting students through community college so that they can transfer."

# Clearing your path to a four-year school

Many community colleges also have what Foster referred to as “articulation agreements." These agreements, sometimes called transfer agreements or 2+2 systems, are established between community colleges and four-year institutions to create formal pathways from two- to four-year colleges. They ensure that specific course credits will transfer over when a student transitions from the community college to the four-year destination school.

These systems guarantee acceptance at participating four-year colleges to students who complete the required coursework and meet GPA targets at the partner community colleges. Guidance counselors help students navigate these systems and successfully transfer.

Foster described the current role of guidance counselors at community colleges as “very traditional." There is plenty of room for counselors to take more innovative approaches to guidance counseling at these schools and to tackle the issue of working with so many students, she said.

Limited resources make student access to guidance counseling difficult

Beyond the large volume of students and the limited number of guidance counselors at community colleges, Foster said counselors should be more innovative in their approaches to guiding students. However, this can be difficult to accomplish given the limited resources at these schools.

“They need to encourage students to think outside the box," Foster said. “Maybe [students] should go to schools outside their state or even their country, maybe even Ivy League schools. There really hasn’t been enough resources or people to get through that process. It needs to be a little more innovative and focus on career paths and role models. They need to demonstrate that community college is a clear path to success."

Providing services that satisfy a variety of student needs at these schools is also challenging, according to the Columbia University report. You have older students who are planning job changes, but you also have “experimenters" who aren’t sure of their academic or career paths and want to explore different options, it says.

How does a lack of guidance affect students?

According to Grubb’s Columbia University report, when guidance counselors fail to fully address student needs, the result can be lower completion rates and likelihood of transferring.

If you aren’t sure which courses to take at community colleges, it’s important to meet with your guidance counselor — especially if you’re what Grubb referred to as an “experimenter" and unsure of your academic path.

“It can be really difficult to navigate the system," Foster said. “Understanding which classes you need to take to transfer is critical." This action is as important for students who plan to transfer as it is for students intending to earn an associate degree.

A lack of guidance may also affect students financially. In a study conducted by the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, 45 percent of respondents said finances were vital to their continuation in school. More than three-quarters of respondents identified financial aid as among the most essential support services, but expressed frustration about the services offered at their college. The intersection of financial aid and academic requirements is complicated, but it’s often critical to student success at community colleges. These findings underscore the need for effective guidance across all areas of students’ undergraduate experience..

What can colleges do to address the issue?

Grubb and other experts point to several solutions. Aside from allocating more financial resources to guidance counselors, Grubb recommends trying to “spread out" counseling sessions over the course of an entire semester, noting that some schools have experimented with advertising or public relations campaigns to encourage students to regularly meet with their guidance counselors.

“Definitely helping them navigate the system is crucial," Foster said. “They need to make sure students are plugged in the right way."

Additionally, Grubb said, some schools have assigned different counselors to specific departments so that they become experts in those academic concentrations — though, he acknowledged, that doesn’t really help students who are undecided on what field of study to pursue.

Grubb pointed to some successful examples of guidance counseling services offered at certain schools. Lorain County Community College in Elyria, Ohio, for example, offers what the Institute for Higher Education Policy describes as a “one-stop approach to academic guidance and counseling," where a single team assists with services ranging from transfers to financial aid to academic advising and personal counseling.

Grubb also pointed to Valencia Community College in Orlando, FL, where support services use the LifeMap program to set certain benchmarks for students in the career development process.

Finally, Foster recommends “thinking creatively" about resources in order to ensure that students are on the right paths. One example is making greater use of online communication to stay in touch with students. And, she said, it’s crucial to share success stories of other community college students, who can serve as role models for current students to follow as they pursue their own educational tracks.


Cooper, M. (2010) Student support services at community colleges: A strategy for increasing student persistence and attainment. Washington, DC: Institute for Higher Ed Policy. Retrieved August 3, 2014, from U.S. Department of Education

N. Gordon, V., R. Habley, W., & J. Grites, T. (2008). Academic Advising: A Comprehensive Handbook (2nd ed.). Manhattan, KS: National Academic Advising Association.

Grubb, W. N. (2001). “Getting into the world": Guidance and counseling in community colleges. Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University. Retrieved August 3, 2014, from Community College Research Center

LifeMap. (n.d.). Retrieved August 6, 2014, from Valencia College

Monaghan, D., & Attewell, P. (2014). The Community College Route to the Bachelor’s Degree. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 20(10), 1-1. Retrieved August 5, 2014, from Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis