Why are school counselors so bad?

Recent news articles following up on the Occupy X movement have focused on youth unemployment and student debt. One aspect of this that strikes me are the absurdly bad choices students make. And from discussions with undergraduate students I ahad over the years, school counselors shares share part of the blame.

For one, they keep sending students into supposedly easy majors, even if job prospects are slim. If a student cannot handle the rigors of a serious university education, he should not be in university. He is less likely to get grants, more likely to take longer to graduate and then be in debt, less likely to get well-paying jobs there after and thus will face students debts for many years. Also, students with ambitions in better majors are told to switch to easier majors when they face difficulties, instead of helping them to overcome these difficulties. This is in particular the case for ethnic minorities and women, and one then wonders why they are underrepresented in science and technology. The problem is that counselors perpetuate or even amplify prejudices. An example is Neil deGrasse Tyson who was told that as a black he should go to basketball, not physics, and was not offered the help white students were getting when he struggled with classes, when blacks are not expected to excel in physics.

Also, counselors seem to obsessed with finding the "right college," which often an obscure little university where every major has only two or three faculty, and turn out to be expensive. The usual explanation is that the students needs small classes. This seems like another case of someone who is going to be highly in debt for a long time. And to come to Economics, the major is filled with undergraduates who did not get in or got kicked out of the business school, most often for failing on business mathematics and statistics. And what do counselors tell them? Get into a similar major, like Economics (or Psychology), ignoring that those quantitative skills are even more needed.

Why do counselors give such bad advice? I do not have an answer beyond wild guesses. But my casual observation tells me that the best psychologists or education professionals do not espouse this career, and for a good reason: on average the entry salary for a graduate of a Masters program in school counseling is an astounding US$33,000. In some sense, this is the bottom of the barrel that is trying to give advice to people on how to avoid falling to the bottom of the barrel. That is hardly inspiring. Schools should hire at least a few people who had successful careers to show how it is done, for example retirees.

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