January 16, 2024

Counselors matter

Christine Mulhern discusses the impact of high school counselors on students’ academic success.

Source: monkeybusinessimages

Numerous studies have highlighted the importance of effective teachers for student achievement. But new research suggests that school counselors may be just as critical as teaching staff for some students.

In a paper in the American Economic Review, author Christine Mulhern found that effective high school counselors can significantly improve the chance that students graduate from high school and attend a four-year college. She says that although it is challenging to predict which counselors will have these large positive impacts, the effects are comparable to many popular education interventions.

Mulhern recently spoke with Tyler Smith about the role that counselors play in students' choices, which students benefit the most from counseling, and the lessons administrators and parents can take away from her findings.

The edited highlights of that conversation are below, and the full interview can be heard using the podcast player.


Tyler Smith: What services do the counselors you study typically provide?

Christine Mulhern: I am focused on general high school counselors, and what they do varies a lot across schools and to some extent across states. In Massachusetts, there's not a lot of guidance or a strict set of guidelines around exactly what they do, but some survey evidence and conversations with schools and folks in Massachusetts indicates that they have a few main responsibilities. One, they help students register for courses and select courses. Two, they also provide personal needs or mental health counseling to students having trouble in school. The counselor will often be the first touch point to help them figure out how to navigate that. Third, they help students with their post-secondary planning, which includes college advising, career advising, and anything that fits under plans for after high school. 

Smith: Which student outcomes did you think were important to look at to measure the impact of these counselors?

Mulhern: I was really focused on outcomes in high school that might be impacted by the advising counselors provided around course taking or course pathways in high school. We know they might influence whether or not students take advanced courses in high school or if they choose to take more math or STEM courses versus not, and then what their plans are for post-secondary education. For example, do they enter college? What kind of college are they going to? How well do they do in college? Does it seem like they ended up at one that was a good fit for them?

Smith: How did you go about estimating the impact of counselors?

Mulhern: The main feature here that is really appealing as an economist is that most counselors or many counselors in Massachusetts—and also across the United States—are quasi-randomly assigned to students. I use students who are assigned to counselors based on the first letter of their last name. For example, if a high school has four counselors, they're going to divide the alphabet into four chunks. And each portion of the alphabet is going to get assigned a different counselor. This is really great because we know exactly why you were assigned to that counselor. It wasn't because you thought they were going to be the best counselor for you, or your parents did all this research and figured out that they were the best counselor, and they wanted you to have access to that. We know exactly why you're being matched with them, and we can account for that in the empirical models. This also means we know that counselors aren't assigned based on which teacher you have or who your peer group is or because you're interested in a STEM field. This allows me to separate the effect of a counselor from some of these other factors in schools that may be influencing high school or post-secondary education. We can use that assignment rule in a similar way to how you might use random assignment or quasi-random assignment in other settings. We know that that assignment process shouldn't be correlated with anything else that's influencing your outcomes. We can see exactly how individual student outcomes are related to that counselor to whom they're assigned.

Smith: When you take this approach, what do you find?

Mulhern: I find that the counselor to whom you're assigned makes a big difference in terms of your high school and post-secondary outcomes. So we see that there's a lot of variation across counselors in the types of impacts that they're having on students. Some counselors are really good and are increasing things like high school graduation rate, achievement in high school, and college attendance rates, while other counselors are not having those same positive impacts. That means that, one, which counselor you get assigned to matters, and, two, that counselors must be doing something important because who you're assigned to matters. If it didn't matter, we wouldn't see this variation across counselors.

Access to counselors varies a lot across schools and in different parts of the United States, so making sure that people, especially those lower-income or lower-achieving students, have access to high-quality counselors can be really important.

Christine Mulhern

Smith: Is there a type of counselor that's more effective than others?

Mulhern: That is challenging to estimate in this framework. There's only so much we can see in the data. Unfortunately, I can't tell which students counselors are meeting with for how much time and what they were talking to students about. That would be really interesting. But that's kind of beyond the scope of this study. I also look at things like how much experience counselors have, where they went to school, and anything else that might predict their effectiveness. Unfortunately, most of the things I can see in the data aren't strong predictors of who is more or less effective, and we don't see that counselors have more positive effects the longer they've been a school counselor in Massachusetts. I think this is a really important area for future research. If we want to hire the best counselors or direct the highest-need students to the best counselors, how do we identify who those counselors are in a simple manner?

Smith: Were there any types of students that seemed to benefit more than others from having counseling?

Mulhern: It does appear that the lower-income and lower-achieving students benefited more from having access to a good counselor than their peers, which I think is encouraging and also not necessarily surprising. These may be the students who have the least information about their education options. We know from other research that lower-income students are less likely to have information from their social networks, their peers, and their families about these options. We think that the guidance or information that counselors are providing them may be really impactful. For the lower-achieving students, there may just be more room to influence their decisions. We think that they may be on the margin of attending college or not more often than the higher-achieving students. It looks like the counselors here are able to have impacts both in what they're doing in high school, as well as what they're doing after high school.

Smith: Are there any lessons for school administrators or students or parents?

Mulhern: I think one important takeaway is that counselors can have substantial impacts on how students are navigating their education options. Thinking about this as school administrators who decide how many counselors to hire and which counselors to hire, they should know that those decisions can be really important, which may influence how they approach them. And similarly for students and parents, they should know that counselors have the potential to be valuable resources as they're navigating these options. Access to counselors varies a lot across schools and in different parts of the United States, so making sure that people, especially those lower-income or lower-achieving students, have access to high-quality counselors can be really important.

Beyond Teachers: Estimating Individual School Counselors' Effects on Educational Attainment” appears in the November 2023 issue of the American Economic Review. Music in the audio is by Podington Bear.