Panel Paper: Counselor Value-Added: How High School Counselors Impact Student Choices and Long-Term Outcomes

Saturday, November 10, 2018
Lincoln 3 - Exhibit Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Christine Mulhern, Harvard University

High school counselors guide students when selecting courses, assist them with college and financial aid applications, and help students choose where to apply to or enroll in college. Given that many students have limited information about these pathways, counselors have the potential to significantly impact students’ choices and long-term outcomes (Hoxby & Avery, 2013). However, there may exist considerable variation in the support provided by counselors, in part, because most receive formal training in psychology rather than college and career preparation.[1]

Little is known about how counselors influence students’ choices or how much of the variance in student outcomes can be explained by counselors. Current research indicates that lowering the ratio of students to counselors can have large impacts on enrollment rates in four-year colleges (Hurwitz & Howell, 2014) and after-school counseling programs can influence the type of college a student attends (Castleman & Goodman, 2018). This suggests that the time counselors spend with students may have important implications for their postsecondary choices, but it is unclear how supports toward specific pathways vary across high school counselors.

I measure how counselors influence students’ high school and college choices, and how these effects vary across counselors, using data from two school districts with a combined 41 high schools and over 250 counselors. These school districts assign students to counselors based on the first letter(s) of their last name and the assignment rules vary over time and across schools. I use these quasi-random assignments to show how a student’s counselor assignment is causally linked to a range of outcomes during and after high school. I follow the methods used in the teacher value-added literature to construct value-added measures for a range of student outcomes (Kane & Staiger, 2008; Chetty, Friedman, & Rockoff, 2014; Jackson, 2016).

High school counselors impact a variety of student outcomes in high school and college. A one standard deviation change in the relevant value-added measure of a student’s counselor increases a student’s weighted GPA by .17 points, largely by increasing AP course-taking, and increases the number of times a student takes the SAT by .08. Similarly, it reduces the probability of attending an “undermatch” college by 3.3 percentage points. A one standard deviation better counselor also improves first-year college persistence by 1.4 percentage points and increases the average annual earnings associated with the college a student attends by $1,481. Within counselors, value-added scores along these dimensions are highly correlated.

These estimates are larger for low-income and underrepresented minority students, who may receive less information from their parents or social networks. Thus, counselors can be an important resource for students, but there is considerable variation in their effectiveness. My estimates suggest that being assigned to a better counselor may be more important for postsecondary outcomes and earnings than being assigned to a better teacher (Chetty et. al, 2014). These findings are relevant to policies about counselor caseloads, the design of counselor training programs, and national efforts to increase academic success and postsecondary attainment.