Skip Navigation
REL Appalachia

[Return to Blogs]

News You Can Use: College-Access Counselors' Edition

April 19, 2021

SRI International
   CJ Park, REL Appalachia

Counselor providing guidance to student in school setting

As a college access counselor, you provide guidance and expertise to students charting their path to postsecondary education and employment. So, how do counselors build their knowledge and expertise? The Virginia College Access Network (VCAN) 2020 virtual conference, attended by Regional Educational Laboratory Appalachia staff, offered sessions designed to guide counselors as they support students' access to postsecondary opportunities. Here are some highlights from a few VCAN sessions, as well as other resources that can support counselors.

State policy updates: Equitable, affordable, and transformative

Conference speakers focused on gaps in postsecondary access and degree attainment in Virginia across student subgroups, particularly for students of color and students from low-income households. The goals in the Virginia Plan for Higher Education, developed by the State Council for Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) with extensive stakeholder input, reflect the need for educators to help address these inequities. The plan presented at VCAN prioritizes access and attainment that is:

  • Equitable: Close access and completion gaps by removing barriers, especially for Black, Hispanic, Native American, and rural students; and for students learning English as a second language, from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and with disabilities.
  • Affordable: Lower higher education costs to students by investing in and developing cost-saving initiatives that maintain effective instruction.
  • Transformative: Expand prosperity to individuals and communities by increasing social, cultural, and economic well-being.

Additionally, staff from SCHEV shared recommendations to change the state's need-based financial aid to further these goals, specifically, by allocating more funding to institutions with a larger proportion of low-income students than to large institutions with more students overall.

Research suggests some actions counselors can take to support student postsecondary access and completion as well. For example, counselors can:

  • Provide students and families with information about and personal support in completing the FAFSA application. 1
  • Develop students' sense of academic self-efficacy (one's self-judgment of how well one can achieve academically), to improve their academic adjustment in college. 2, 3
  • Prepare students to succeed in postsecondary settings by exposing them to college norms and expectations during high school. 4

Learning and earning a career counseling credential

One conference session attended by REL staff featured the Virginia Career Coach Certification (VCCC) program, which is available to Virginia Community College employees and partners for a fee. The VCCC program is a 40-hour program offered by the Virginia Community College System (VCCS) to provide counselors with shared core knowledge in career coaching that may not have been a deep focus of their prior training. The program includes 10 hours of face-to-face training in helping skills, career development theory, assessment, ethics, and program planning. The additional 30 hours of training includes self-paced learning through online modules such as, “The role of the career coach,” “Career-planning models,” “Assessment, goal-setting, and action planning,” and “Ways to use labor-market information to guide academic and career planning.” The online content is multi-modal and includes learning assessments.

The VCCC program also offers counselors a stackable credential. Counselors who have completed the VCCC program can then pay a fee and take an 80-hour Facilitating Career Development (FCD) course offered by a certified National Career Development Association (NCDA) instructor to further develop their skills. Upon completion of the FCD course, individuals can apply for a credential through the NCDA as a Certified Career Services Provider or through the Center for Credentialing and Education as a Global Career Development Facilitator. The credentials can signal expertise and training specific to career development.

For additional, free resources to strengthen your counseling practice, check out the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Appalachia-developed Paving the Pathway to College and Careers Resource Compilation for evidence-based strategies to develop students' nonacademic knowledge and skills that will help you support students' postsecondary transitions. The compilation includes sections related to the logistics of the college application process, preparation for the expectations of postsecondary, and relevant social-emotional competencies.

Building students' sense of belonging

A session from the Virginia Center for Inclusive Communities highlighted the importance of building students' sense of belonging. The presenter guided participants through reflection on memorable events from their own K–16 experiences. The session focused on five statements that indicate a sense of belonging:

  • I am safe.
  • I am valued.
  • I have some power.
  • I know that I am learning.
  • I can make mistakes and not lose my dignity.

For each statement, the presenter asked participants to think of strategies that can help students feel they belong at their postsecondary institution, such as encouraging students to join organizations or clubs reflecting their interests and identities, creating a wellness center on campus, or providing safe housing.

Research also suggests that building a sense of belonging can promote students' academic and postsecondary outcomes. 5, 6 Helping students who are about to enter college understand that challenges are common and that they shouldn't doubt their success had positive impacts on students from socially and economically disadvantaged backgrounds in one study, including increasing their first-year full-time college enrollment rates. 5

This REL Northwest infographic presents research-based actions for building students' sense of belonging that counselors can adopt:

  • Have, communicate, and support high expectations for all students.
  • Strive to find common ground and similarities with all your students.
  • Use culturally responsive practices to promote a sense of belonging.
  • Encourage mastery, which accommodates mistakes as part of learning, rather than performance goals.

In conclusion, counselors supporting young people plan for the transition to postsecondary education and employment have multiple resources, including those from VCAN and the REL program, to inform their work.



1 E. P. Bettinger, B. T. Long, P. Oreopoulos, & L. Sanbonmatsu. (2012). The role of application assistance and information in college decisions: Results from the H&R Block FAFSA experiment. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 127(3), 1205–1242.

2 M. M. Chemers, L. Hu, & B. F. Garcia. (2001). Academic self-efficacy and first year college student performance and adjustment. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93(1), 55–64.

3 L. Ramos-Sanchez, & L. Nicholas. (2007). Self-efficacy of first-generation and non-first-generation college students: The relationship with academic performance and college adjustment. Journal of College Counseling, 10(1), 6–18.

4 E. Barnett. (2016). Building student momentum from high school into college. Ready or not: It's time to rethink the 12th grade. Boston: Jobs for the Future.

5 D. S. Yeager, G. M. Walton, S. T. Brady, E. N. Akcinar, D. Paunesku, L. Keane, D. Kamentz, G. Ritter, A. L. Duckworth, R. Urstein, E.M. Gomez, H. R. Markus, G. L. Cohen, & C. S. Dweck. (2016). Teaching a lay theory before college narrows achievement gaps at scale. Proceedings of the National Academic of Sciences, 113(24), E3341–E3348.

6 REL Northwest. (n.d.). Shifting the current school climate: Sense of belonging and social and emotional learning. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Northwest, regions/northwest/pdf/social-emotional-learning.pdf