Category Archives: College Counseling

An Interview with Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy, Ph.D.


Dr. Holcomb-McCoy

Credit: Alvin McCoy

CDI counselor Rachel Jones recently asked Dr. Holcomb-McCoy, a professor and Chair of the Department of Counseling at Johns Hopkins University, a few questions. (Dr. McCoy’s complete bio is below.) An excerpt from this interview appears in the Winter 2012 issue of CDI’s quarterly newsletter, Milestones.

Q: How would you characterize challenges in the college counseling profession today, as opposed to ten years ago?

I believe the challenges in college counseling are probably the greatest they have been in the history of the U.S.  First of all, a majority of the fastest growing occupations in the U.S. require a bachelor’s degree or more and President Obama has stated that by 2016, four out of ten new jobs will require at least some advanced education or training.  With this new trend in job skills, it is imperative that all students have access to college (2 or 4 year) or some type of post-secondary training.  No longer can we assume that students will be able to have productive careers/jobs (jobs that provide enough in salary to support a family) with a high school diploma.  This is quite different than it was ten years ago.

Not only has the need for post-secondary training/education increased, but the population of kids who need to be prepared for college and beyond is more diverse than ever before.  For instance, Latino student enrollment in many states has tripled over the past ten years. The ethnic, cultural, economic, and linguistic diversity of students requires that college counselors be able to effectively counsel students within different cultural contexts and within the framework of different cultural expectations.  In many cases, familial norms  and what some would call “traditional families” no longer exist… requiring that college counselors be more aware and accepting of student and family differences.

And probably the most significant challenge in college counseling is the extensive and persistent gap between low income and high-income students who attend college.  Despite financial aid expenditures, the gap still persists.  Improving students’ academic preparation and developing college-going cultures in schools (particularly middle and high schools in low-income communities and high minority communities) are challenges that school-based college counselors face everyday.  Turning schools from “drop-out factories” and “graduation-only high schools” to “college prep schools” is a major challenge for the school counseling profession.  There is a need for school counselors to be trained to do this kind of work and to know how to work with other stakeholders (administrators, teachers, etc.) to turn schools around.

Q: What are some skills, traits, and values an effective college counselor should have? 

I believe an effective college counselor should be, first and foremost, knowledgeable of the college application process (including financial aid, selecting the right college for diverse students, how to involve parents in the process, etc.).  Secondly, an effective college counselor should be patient, persistent, organized, inquisitive, and have good interpersonal skills.  Third, a good college counselor should be culturally competent and responsive.  Given the diversity of students in today’s schools, counselors must be able to work openly and genuinely with all students, regardless of their cultural, linguistic, or economic background.  And last, a good college counselor should embrace the notion and need for “equity” in today’s schools and communities.  Equality is a long-term goal, but equity must be addressed first.  We can’t treat all students equally  until all students begin with the same resources and skills.  Treating existing students with unequal resources equally will only result in persistent unequal results.  Good counselors understand this concept!

Q: What are three key ingredients in improving college advising for low-income, first-generation to college students?

1. Relationships.  All students should have at least one solid and nurturing relationship with a key person that can provide accurate knowledge about  the college application process, course-taking that can lead to college admission, etc.

2.  Parent Involvement.  Increasing parents’ knowledge of college-going, applications, etc.   Counselors and parents need to work together (true partners), respect each other, and have good long-term relationships.

3. Early college counseling/advising…we can’t wait until high school to begin talking about college.  College advising and/or “college talk” should begin in elementary school or even earlier!

Q: A 2008 Pell study highlights that only 11% of low-income, first-generation to college students who matriculate in college graduate within six years. What are some of the challenges these students face, and how can they be better supported?

College completion, along with college access/admission, is also a major challenge for college counselors.  Once students enroll in college, it is difficult to retain them (particularly low-income students and students of color).  I believe that there should be some type of counseling and coaching for high school graduates during the summer between high school and college. Instead of ending the counseling relationship at the end of high school, the relationship should continue over that critical summer.  High school counselors and college-based counselors (particularly at community colleges) should work together to plan students’ freshman year.  I believe we are missing an important transition point….and there is a need for K-12 counselors and higher education counselors to work together, whenever possible so that students make this transition seamlessly.

Q: What are some critical areas in ongoing professional development for college counselors?

1.  Cultural responsiveness and cultural competence.  Counselors ability to work with diverse groups of students…including but not limited to ethnic, academic, economic, and cultural diversity.  Counselors need to  continuously work on moving beyond their  biases, stereotypes, and misconceptions of who is “college material.”

2.  Financial aid awareness.  More awareness of FAFSA forms and the limitations of completing these forms.  Increased knowledge of scholarships.

3.  Integrating college preparation, advising, awareness into the high school curriculum for all students (not just students in advanced classes, college prep classes).

4.  Developing and sustaining partnerships with colleges and universities, particularly admissions departments/offices.

5. Learning about professional organizations that specialize in college counseling (e.g., NACAC).

Dr. Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Counseling and Human Services at Johns Hopkins University.  She has written over 50 articles in refereed national journals and is the author of School Counseling to Close the Achievement Gap: A Social Justice Framework for Success. She has served as guest editor for the Professional School Counseling journal and is currently one of the Associate Editors of the Journal for Counseling and Development. Visit her website.