Clark D. Ausloos, Madeline Clark, Hansori Jang, Tahani Dari, Stacey Diane Arañez Litam
Trans youth experience discrimination and marginalization in their homes, communities, and schools. Professional school counselors (PSCs) are positioned to support and advocate for trans youth as dictated by professional standards. However, an extensive review of literature revealed a lack of confidence and competence in counselors working with trans youth and their families. Further, there is a dearth of literature that addresses factors leading to increased school counselor competence with trans students. The current study uses a cross-sectional survey design to contribute to the extant literature and explore how PSCs in the United States work with students in the K–12 public school system. Results from multiple regression analyses indicate that PSCs who have had postgraduate training and report personal and professional experiences with trans students are more competent in working with trans students. Implications for PSCs and school counselor education programs are discussed.
Keywords: trans youth, school counselors, competence, counselor education, multiple regression analysis
Trans people experience an incongruence between their sex assigned at birth and their gender identity (GI; Ginicola et al., 2017; McBee, 2013). The term trans encompasses a wide range of gender-expansive identities, including trans (transgender), nonbinary (one who identifies outside the gender binary of male or female), genderqueer or gender-fluid (one who identifies with gender in a fluid, dynamic way) and agender (one who does not identify as having a gender). Trans people face pervasive discrimination and marginalization (Whitman & Han, 2017), leading to severe physical and mental health disparities, like depression, anxiety, and suicidality (James et al., 2016). In schools, trans students face 4 times higher rates of discrimination when compared with cisgender peers (Kosciw et al., 2020; Williams et al., 2021). Trans students are more vulnerable to mental health disorders, a lack of social support, and an increase in self-harm, suicidal ideations, and suicide attempts (Kosciw et al., 2020; Reisner et al., 2014), especially among transmale and nonbinary students (Toomey et al., 2018). These rates are increasing in national trends and are even higher among Black and Latinx trans students (Vance et al., 2021). The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated barriers and inequities for trans students, with increasing health concerns, isolation, economic hardships, issues with housing, and limited access to essential clinical care (Burgess et al., 2021).
Increasingly, trans students face systemic legal barriers to their health and well-being (Wang et al., 2016). States including Arkansas, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, and Tennessee have introduced bills that ban trans students from participating in sports that are congruent with their GI (Transgender Law Center, 2021). In April of 2021, Arkansas banned medical gender-affirming services to students under 18 years of age (American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU], 2021). New Hampshire’s House Bill 68 proposed adding gender-affirming treatments to the definition of child abuse (ACLU, 2021). Beyond political oppression, trans youth experience overt discrimination, verbal abuse, physical and sexual assault, and marginalization within their homes, schools, and places of employment (Human Rights Campaign [HRC], 2018; James et al., 2016). Trans youth additionally face disaffirming and incompetent teachers and medical professionals (Grant et al., 2011; James et al., 2016; Whitman & Han, 2017) and embedded systemic transmisia (the hatred of trans persons; Simmons University Library, 2019). Despite the pervasive mental health concerns faced by trans students (i.e., depression, anxiety, disordered eating, self-harm, suicide), professional school counselors (PSCs) continue to be ill equipped in supporting and advocating for this marginalized population within schools (Simons, 2021). Based upon an analysis of the extant body of research, we found that counselor education training programs lack rigor in working with trans students (O’Hara et al., 2013; Salpietro et al., 2019), counselor educators may hold biased views about trans students (Frank & Cannon, 2010), and there is an absence of quality professional development opportunities on trans issues (Salpietro et al., 2019; Shi & Doud, 2017). It is therefore of paramount importance for PSCs and counselor education programs to obtain a deeper understanding of how to better prepare for and support trans students in schools.
Professional School Counselors and Trans Students PSCs focus on academic, career, and social-emotional growth and work as leaders alongside teachers, administration, families, and other stakeholders. PSCs are therefore well positioned to provide safety and support for trans students, promote change, and act as social justice advocates within schools (Bemak & Chung, 2008). The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) mandates that PSCs “promote affirmation, respect, and equal opportunity for all individuals regardless of . . . gender identity, or gender expression . . . and promote awareness of and education on issues related to LGBT students” (2016a, p. 37). PSCs who work with trans students may provide services through the Multitiered Systems of Support lens (MTSS; ASCA, 2019), through collaboration, by supporting school administration and staff (e.g., trainings, meetings, workshops), and through provision of direct student services (e.g., individual and group counseling, working with families). More specifically, PSCs advocate for and with students for name and pronoun changes within schools, trans-inclusive school policies, and increased visibility and normalization of trans people and issues.
ASCA (2016b) adopted a position that PSCs recognize that “the responsibility for determining a student’s gender identity rests with the student rather than outside confirmation from medical practitioners . . . or documentation of legal changes” (p. 64). It is clear that PSCs should possess knowledge and skills in working with and advocating for trans youth through a range of services at various levels and in coordination with other stakeholders in schools, all while respecting students’ autonomy and authenticity (ASCA, 2016a, 2016b, 2019; Bemak & Chung, 2008).
Counselor Education Programs Although professional standards provide best practices (ALGBTIC LGBQQIA Competencies Taskforce, 2013; ASCA, 2016a), many PSCs never receive the training necessary to effectively serve trans students (Bidell, 2012; O’Hara et al., 2013; Salpietro et al., 2019). Salpietro and colleagues (2019) reported that counselor incompetence was related to a lack of rigorous training that attends to family systems, intersectionality, and medical issues through gender-affirming therapies (i.e., blockers, hormones, or surgeries). These researchers indicated a need for comprehensive, standardized, and thorough formal training (i.e., graduate school) and informal professional development opportunities. These findings are consistent with Shi and Doud (2017), who recommended PSCs specifically take advantage of conferences and workshops to supplement formal educational curricula. The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) conducted a survey that reported about 81% of school mental health professionals received “little to no competency training in their graduate programs related to working with [trans] populations,” and about 74% of participants rated their graduate training programs as “fair or poor” in preparing them for work with trans students (GLSEN et al., 2019, p. xviii). GLSEN and other professional organizations additionally reported about two-thirds of school professionals do not feel prepared to work with trans students (GLSEN et al., 2019). Although there are some professional development opportunities, such as those offered through the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), the HRC, and the Society for Sexual, Affectional, Intersex, and Gender-Expansive Identities (SAIGE), there is still a lack of concrete training within graduate programs and through fieldwork experiences and an overall lack of accessible, professional trainings. There is a clear need for increased attention to trans issues in formal educational programs and professional development offerings.
Purpose of the Study and Research Questions
This study examines factors that contribute to PSC competence in working with trans students in K–12 public schools. We highlight the need for PSCs and counselor education training programs to better focus on and support trans students. More specifically, we examine the following PSC factors: (a) the PSC’s GI, (b) whether the PSC has received postgraduate training on trans issues or populations, (c) whether the PSC has worked with self-identified trans students, and (d) whether the PSC knows someone who identifies as trans outside of the school setting.
PSC Gender Identity Researchers recommend that special attention is given within a category of interest (i.e., gender identity) to historically marginalized groups, encouraging counselor-researchers to view all samples “in terms of their particularity and to attend to diversity within samples” (Cole, 2009, p. 176). We were intentional in using PSC GI demographic factors in data analysis, attending to diversity among PSC gender identities, as research indicates there may be relationships between counselor GI, privilege and oppression, and multicultural counselor competence (Cole, 2009). Culturally competent counselors engage in self-reflection, examine their own biases and stereotypes, consider how their positions of privilege or oppression impact the therapeutic alliance, and deliver culturally responsive counseling interventions.
Postgraduate Training Addressing Trans Issues Researchers note that graduate programs in counselor education are not adequately preparing school counseling students to work with trans students (Bidell, 2012; Farmer et al., 2013; Frank & Cannon, 2010; GLSEN et al., 2019; O’Hara et al., 2013) and that much of the awareness, knowledge, and skills gained in working with this population are result of counselors’ self-seeking professional trainings, education, and workshops that are focused on trans issues and students (Salpietro et al., 2019; Shi & Doud, 2017).
Professional Experiences With Trans Students O’Hara and colleagues (2013) reported no significance on scores of competence in working with trans clients between counseling students who completed practicum or internship and those who did not. In the present study, our variable relates to PSCs who have already graduated, reflecting on their professional tenure as PSCs, and if these experiences provided opportunities to work with trans students.
Personal Relationships With Trans People O’Hara and colleagues (2013) reported that participants in their study identified informal sources as necessary for gaining trans-affirming knowledge and skills, such as “exposure to or personally knowing someone who [is trans]” (p. 246). Research supports the concept that increasing affirming attitudes and mitigating negative attitudes and beliefs toward trans individuals can be accomplished by exposure and intentional engagement in fostering personal and professional relationships with trans people (Salpietro et al., 2019; Simons, 2021). In forming relationships with trans people, we can listen to and learn from the lived experiences of this community, examine our own biases, and position ourselves as supportive allies, personally and professionally.
Research Questions With these factors in mind, the following research questions were identified:
What is the relationship between PSC factors (GI, postgraduate training, PSC work with trans students, and PSC personally knowing someone who is trans) and levels of PSC self-perceived competence in working with trans students in schools?
What is the relationship between PSC factors (GI, postgraduate training, PSC work with trans students, and PSC personally knowing someone who is trans) and PSC awareness in working with trans students in schools?
What is the relationship between PSC factors (GI, postgraduate training, PSC work with trans students, and PSC personally knowing someone who is trans) and PSC knowledge in working with trans students in schools?
What is the relationship between PSC factors (GI, postgraduate training, PSC work with trans students, and PSC personally knowing someone who is trans) and PSC skills in working with trans students in schools?
We hypothesized there would be a statistically significance difference (p > .05) between PSC factors (GI, postgraduate training, PSC work with trans students, and PSC personally knowing someone who is trans) and levels of PSC self-perceived competence in working with trans students in schools. More specifically, we hypothesized that cisfemale PSCs who have had postgraduate training on trans issues, who have worked with trans students, and who personally know someone who is trans, would report higher scores in measures of awareness, knowledge, skills, and overall competence. Cisgender (cis) refers to someone who experiences congruence between their sex assigned at birth and their GI. Research demonstrates that cismales may express more negative attitudes and hold restrictive views toward queer and trans people when compared with cisfemales (Landén & Innala, 2000; Norton & Herek, 2012).
Participants With an anticipated medium effect size of 0.15, a desired statistical power level of 0.95, and desired probability level of 0.05 (Israel, 2013), we determined an appropriate minimum sample size for the proposed study was 120 PSCs. Initially, 499 responses were recorded. Of those, 110 were incomplete or had missing data, yielding a total of 389 fully completed surveys. Participants in this study (N = 389) were PSCs with a valid school counseling license working in a public school setting, from kindergarten through 12th grade, in the United States. Participant demographic information can be found in Table 1.
Demographic Characteristics of Professional School Counselors (PSCs)
Procedures For ease of use and accuracy of representation, we used probability sampling, more specifically, a simple random sample selection process (Creswell, 2013). Upon approval by the IRB, we posted a series of three recruitment letters (with 2 weeks between each posting) to PSCs through an online professional forum, ASCA Scene. We also posted our recruitment letter on ASCA Aspects, a monthly e-newsletter. Data were collected over a period of 6 weeks. PSCs who elected to participate were directed to the electronic informed consent document and the survey.
Instrumentation Demographic Questionnaire Participants completed a questionnaire with write-in options for both age and gender and forced-choice responses to gather racial-ethnic identity, years working as a licensed school counselor, the region in which they practiced, and grade levels in which the participants worked. Our four independent variables were collected through the demographic questionnaire. Participants indicated their experiences, if any, with trans students, experiences with postgraduate training on trans issues, and personal relationships with trans people.
Gender Identity Counselor Competency Scale The Gender Identity Counselor Competency Scale (GICCS), a revised version of the Sexual Orientation Counselor Competency Scale (Bidell, 2005), was used to assess PSC competence, the dependent variable in the study. This is the instrument best suited for intended measurement of self-perceived competence (Bidell, 2012; O’Hara et al., 2013). Bidell (2005) developed the instrument based on Sue and colleagues’ (1992) research of multicultural counseling competencies, with the domains of attitudinal awareness, knowledge, and skills. Bidell (2005) reported the Cronbach’s alpha of .90, with subscale scores for internal consistency of .88 for the Awareness subscale, .71 for the Knowledge subscale, and .91 for the Skills subscale (Bidell, 2005, 2012). Test-retest reliability for the overall instrument was found to be .84, with .85 for the Awareness subscale, .84 for the Knowledge subscale, and .83 for the Skills subscale (Bidell, 2005). The GICCS is a 29-item self-report assessment on a 7-point Likert scale (where 1 is not at all true and 7 is totally true). Examples of questions include: “I have received adequate clinical training and supervision to counsel transgender clients” and “The lifestyle of a transgender client is unnatural or immoral” (O’Hara et al., 2013, p. 242). Cronbach’s alpha in the present study was .70, adequate for our analysis.
Awareness Subscale. The Awareness subscale consists of 10 items focused on counselors’ attitudinal awareness and prejudice about trans clients, including statements like “It would be best if my clients viewed a [cisgender] lifestyle as ideal” and “I think that my clients should accept some degree of conformity to traditional [gender] values” (Bidell, 2005, p. 273). Cronbach’s alpha for the Awareness subscale has been reported as .88 (Bidell, 2005) and was .89 in the present sample. Self-awareness and reflection are critical skills for counselors in examining deeply held biases and beliefs and in asking culturally responsive questions to strengthen the therapeutic alliance.
Knowledge Subscale. This subscale of the GICCS consists of eight items focused on counselors’ experiences and skills with trans clients, including statements like “I am aware that counselors frequently impose their values concerning [gender] upon [trans] clients” and “I am aware of institutional barriers that may inhibit [trans] clients from using mental health services” (Bidell, 2005, p. 273). Cronbach’s alpha for the Knowledge subscale was reported as .76 (Bidell, 2005), and was .73 in the present sample. Counselors who impose their own values on a client may cause rifts in the therapeutic alliance and could potentially even harm clients.
Skills Subscale. This subscale of the GICCS consists of 11 items focused on counselors’ experiences and skills with trans clients, including statements like “I have experience counseling [trans male] clients” and “I have received adequate clinical training and supervision to counsel [trans] clients” (Bidell, 2005, p. 273). Cronbach’s alpha for the Skills subscale was reported as .91 (Bidell, 2005) but was .75 in the present sample. Counselors working with trans students need to understand the importance of evolving language and terminologies; utilize affirmative, celebratory, and liberating counseling; and have knowledge of and connection to medical providers who support gender-affirming interventions.
Data Analysis Procedures Data Cleaning We first screened the data to ensure it was usable, reliable, and valid to proceed with statistical analyses. We continued data cleaning by coding the demographic variable of GI 1 through 4: cisfemale (1); cismale (2); nonbinary, trans, and/or genderqueer (3); and agender (4). Racial-ethnic identities were coded 1 through 10: American Indian or Alaska Native (1); Asian or Asian American (2); Black or African American (3); Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish Origin (4); Middle Eastern or North African (5); Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander (6); White (7); Some Other Race, Ethnicity, or Origin (8); Prefer Not to Answer (9); and Multiracial Identity (10). PSC location was also coded 1 through 6: Midwest (1), Northeast (2), South (3), West (4), Puerto Rico or other U.S. Territories (5), and Other (6). Last of the demographic variables, we coded PSC School Level 1 through 4: Elementary (1), Middle School (2), High School (3), and Other (4). In addition, we cleaned variables highlighting PSC professional and personal training and experiences with trans persons. The first variable was dummy coded to reflect participants who had worked with trans students (1; n = 297, 76.3%) and participants who indicated not working with trans students (0; n = 92, 23.7%). The next variable, PSC postgraduate training, was dummy coded for use in data analyses, reflecting those who indicated they engaged in postgraduate training (1; n = 193, 49.6%) and participants who indicated they did not engage in postgraduate training (0; n = 196, 50.4%). The final variable was dummy coded to reflect participants who know someone who is trans outside of the school setting (1; n = 93, 23.9%) and those participants who do not know someone who is trans outside of the school setting (0; n = 296, 76.1%). Per Bidell (2005), we started by reverse scoring coded GICCS items and created new variables for the GICCS total mean score, attitudinal Awareness, Skills, and Knowledge subscales.
Data Analysis Post–data cleaning, we entered all the data from the demographic questionnaire and the GICCS into SPSS 26. To best answer the research questions, we used a series of standard multiple regression analyses to determine “the existence of a relationship and the extent to which variables are related, including statistical significance” (Sheperis et al., 2017, p. 131). Although multiple regression analysis can be used in prediction studies, it can also be used to determine how much of the variation in a dependent variable is explained by the independent variables, which is what we intended to measure (Johnson, 2001). Our independent variables were four categorical variables measured by our demographic questionnaire: PSC GI, postgraduate training, PSC work with trans students, and PSC personal relationships with someone who is trans. Our dependent variable was school counselor competence in working with trans students, as measured by the GICCS (Bidell, 2005).
There are many assumptions to consider when conducting a multiple regression analysis, including (a) two or more continuous or categorical independent variables, (b) a continuous dependent variable, (c) independence of residuals (or observations), (d) linearity (both between dependent variable and each of the independent variables, and between the dependent variable and the independent variables as a whole), (e) homoscedasticity, (f) absence of multicollinearity, (g) no significant outliers, and (h) normally distributed residuals (Flatt & Jacobs, 2019). The research variables met assumptions (a) and (b) in conducting multiple regressions. In analyzing data in SPSS, independence of residuals was determined by using the Durbin-Watson statistic, which ranges in value from 0 to 4, with a value near 2 indicating no correlation between residuals. Assumption (c) was met, as the Durbin-Watson value found was 1.46 (Savin & White, 1977). Additionally, we plotted a scatterplot using variables, as well as a partial regression with each of the independent variables and the dependent variable, and observed linear relationships, attending to the assumptions of linearity (d; i.e., a linear relationship between dependent and independent variables) and homoscedasticity (e; i.e., residuals are equal for all values of the predicted dependent variable). Homoscedasticity was also assessed by visual inspection of a plot of studentized residuals versus unstandardized predicted values. To assess the absence of multicollinearity (f), we considered the variance inflation factors (VIF) indicated in the coefficients table (Flatt & Jacobs, 2019). We found VIF values ranging from 1.01 to 1.05, indicating an absence of multicollinearity (f). VIF is a measure of the amount of multicollinearity in a set of multiple regression variables (Flatt & Jacobs, 2019). We checked for unusual points (g): outliers, high leverage points, and highly influential points. We did identify a significant outlier (−3.10) in case number 133 by examining the range of standardized residuals ([−3.10 to 2.34]), which is outside the common cut-off range of three standard deviations (SD). We then inspected the studentized deleted residual values and found a value in case number 133 (−3.15), which falls outside the common cut-off range of 3 SD.
Additionally, we determined two cases of problematic leverage values that were greater than the safe value of 0.2 (0.36 and 0.23). The cases that violated assumptions were filtered out and the standard multiple regression analysis was run again. This time, the data did not violate assumptions (a) through (g). Last, we observed normally distributed standardized residuals (h). To determine if any cases were influential in the data, we examined the Cook’s Distance values, which ranged from .000 to .090. As there were no values above 1, there were no highly influential points. To answer the first research question (the relationship between PSC factors and levels of PSC self-perceived competence in working with trans students in schools as measured by total scores on the GICCS), we used a standard multiple regression analysis (Sheperis et al., 2017). To answer research questions 2 through 4, we conducted standard multiple regression analyses using the Awareness, Knowledge, and Skills subscales as the dependent variables, respectively.
Correlations Between Variables of Interest Prior to the regression analysis, we examined correlations between the variables: PSC GI (cisfemale, cismale, trans, agender), having worked with trans students, postgraduate training experiences, personally knowing someone who is trans, the GICCS Awareness subscale, the GICCS Skills subscale, the GICCS Knowledge subscale, and the GICCS total score. Correlations of variables of interest are found in Table 2. There were multiple significant correlations as determined by Pearson product moment correlations (r). The GICCS total score was significantly correlated with the Awareness subscale (r = −.65, p < .001), the Skills subscale (r = .83, p < .001), and the Knowledge subscale (r = .66, p < .001). The Awareness subscale was significantly correlated with the Skills subscale (r = −.26, p < .001) and the Knowledge subscale (r = .30, p < .001). The Knowledge subscale was also significantly correlated with the Skills subscale (r = .30, p < .001). In examining demographic factors, cisfemale GI was significantly correlated with cismale GI (r = −.90, p < .001), trans GI (r = −.37, p < .001), and agender GI (r = −.21, p < .001). Additionally, cisfemale GI was significantly correlated with having worked with trans students (r = −.12, p = .036), as well as the GICCS total score (r = −.14, p = .005), the Skills subscale (r = −.14, p = .005), and the Knowledge subscale (r = −.15, p = .003). Cismale GI was significantly correlated with the GICCS total score (r = .11, p = .038), the Skills subscale (r = .12, p = .017), and the Knowledge subscale (r = .11, p = .003). Trans GI was significantly correlated with personally knowing someone who is trans (r = .12, p = .002), as well as with the GICCS total score (r = .12, p = .034). Having worked with trans students was significantly correlated with the GICCS total score (r = .41, p <.001), the Skills subscale (r = .55, p < .001), and the Awareness subscale (r = −.11, p = .032). Postgraduate training was significantly correlated with many variables, including personally knowing someone who is trans (r = .14, p = .005), and with the GICCS total scores (r = .36, p < .001), the Skills subscale (r = .41, p < .001), the Knowledge subscale (r = .19, p < .001), and the Awareness subscale (r = −.10, p = .040). Last, personally knowing someone who is trans was significantly correlated with the GICCS total score (r = .35, p < .001), the Skills subscale (r = .29, p < .001), the Knowledge subscale
(r = .25, p < .001), and the Awareness subscale (r = −.22, p < .001).
Correlation Table for Variables of Interest
Model 1: PSC Competency R² for the overall model was 35.2%, with an adjusted R² of 34.1%, a small to moderate size according to Cohen (1988). PSC factors significantly predicted levels of PSC self-perceived competence in working with trans students in schools, F(6, 381) = 34.430, p < .001. In examining beta weights (β), having worked with trans students received the strongest weight in the model (β = .35), followed by postgraduate training (β = .29) and personally knowing someone who is trans (β = .27). The variable with the most weight, having worked with trans students, had a structure coefficient (rs) of .67, and rs2 was 45.2%, meaning that of the 35.2% effect (R2), this variable accounts for 45.2% of the explained variance by itself. This shows that PSCs’ competence is increased by experiences with trans students, engaging in postgraduate trainings, and personally knowing someone who is trans. A summary of regression coefficients and standard errors can be found in Table 3.
Multiple Linear Regression Analyses Exploring Professional School Counselor Competence
Model 2: PSC Awareness R² for the overall model was 5.8%, with an adjusted R² of 6.2%, a very small effect size (Cohen, 1988). PSC factors (GI, postgraduate training, PSC work with trans students, and PSC personal relationship with someone who is trans) significantly predicted awareness of PSC self-perceived competence in working with trans students in schools, F(6, 380) = 3.873, p = .001. Personally knowing someone who is trans was the only significant predictor in this model. We examined the regression coefficients and corresponding data (β = −.20, rs = −0.90, rs2 = 80%). Of the 5.8% effect (R²), personally knowing someone who is trans accounted for 80% of the explained variance by itself.
Model 3: PSC Knowledge R² for the overall model was 10.3%, with an adjusted R² of 8.9%, a small effect size (Cohen, 1988). PSC factors (GI, postgraduate training, PSC work with trans students, and PSC personal relationship with someone who is trans) significantly predicted knowledge of PSC self-perceived competence in working with trans students in schools, F(6, 379) = 7.257, p < .001. Personally knowing someone who is trans, postgraduate training, and cismale GI were all significant in this model. Personally knowing someone who is trans received the strongest weight in the model (β = .20, rs = .76), followed by postgraduate training (β = .16, rs = .58) and cismale GI (β = .12, rs = .35). After examining regression coefficients and corresponding data, we determined that of the 10.3% effect (R2), personally knowing someone who is trans accounted for 58.3% of the explained variance by itself. These findings demonstrate that PSC knowledge is strongly supported through fostering personal relationships with trans people.
Model 4: PSC Skills R² for the overall model was 50.2%, with an adjusted R² of 49.5%, a medium effect size according to Cohen (1988). PSC factors (GI, postgraduate training, PSC work with trans students, and PSC personal relationship with someone who is trans) significantly predicted self-perceived PSC skills in working with trans students in schools, F(6, 380) = 63.945, p < .001. Having worked with trans students, postgraduate training, and personally knowing someone who is trans were all significant in this model. Having worked with trans students received the strongest weight in the model (β = .51), followed by postgraduate training (β = .35) and personally knowing someone who is trans (β = .20). After examining regression coefficients and corresponding data, we determined that of the 50.2% effect (R2), having worked with trans students accounted for 79% of the explained variance by itself. Counselors can augment their skills by staying updated on appropriate language and terminologies and by fostering relationships with affirming providers and medical professionals in the community.
The most salient finding in this model is that PSCs who worked with trans students were strongly positively correlated with GICCS total scores (r = .61, p < .001). This finding may indicate that increased exposure to trans students may subsequently increase competency in working with trans populations. Our research findings supplement existing studies that reported a relationship between affirming attitudes toward trans students and professional exposure to trans people (Salpietro et al., 2019; Simons, 2021). Avoidance of counseling trans students because of discomfort is not only unethical (ASCA, 2016b) but inhibits a PSC’s ability to develop their GI competence (Henry & Grubbs, 2017). Thus, it is imperative that PSCs receive opportunities to work with trans students (through practicum or internship experiences); consult with experienced, gender-affirming PSCs who have worked with trans students; and “expose themselves to published texts . . . films . . . [and] service-learning activities . . . to gain a better understanding of the experiences of [trans] persons” (O’Hara et al., 2013, p. 251). Additionally, PSCs must engage in constant self-reflection, introspection, and processing of biases and worldviews to provide culturally competent care to trans students.
Counseling Competence Postgraduate training was moderately positively correlated with GICCS total score (r = .43, p < .001), indicating that additional postgraduate training in trans issues increased competence in the present sample (Model 1). This is consistent with extant literature, which demonstrated that PSCs who received postgraduate training were more competent in providing affirming services to trans students compared to PSCs who had not received the training (Salpietro et al., 2019; Shi & Doud, 2017). Finally, the presence of personal relationships with trans people was moderately positively correlated with GICCS total scores (r = .47, p < .001). These results support current literature in that PSCs who currently have or have had personal relationships with trans people were more competent in providing affirming services to trans students (GLSEN et al., 2019; O’Hara et al., 2013; Salpietro et al., 2019; Simons, 2021).
Awareness We explored the relationship between PSC factors on the Awareness subscale of the GICCS in the second research question (Model 2). In examining coefficients for the model, having personal relationships with trans people is associated with a decrease in GICCS Awareness subscale scores, a weak, negative correlation (r = −.19, p = .001). This finding may indicate that people who did not know someone personally who is trans would score slightly higher on the Awareness subscale. These unexpected findings are contrary to existing research, which reported that engaging in personal relationships with trans people increased affirming attitudes and mitigated negative attitudes (Henry & Grubbs, 2017; Salpietro et al., 2019). Because of the lack of practical significance of PSC factors (i.e., GI, postgraduate training, PSC work with trans students, and PSC personal relationship with someone who is trans) on the Awareness subscale, these results should be considered with caution.
Knowledge In the third research question, we explored the relationship between PSC factors on the Knowledge subscale of the GICCS (Model 3). In examining coefficients for the model, PSC cisgender male GI was moderately positively correlated with the Knowledge subscale scores (r = .476, p = .032), indicating that cismale PSCs scored moderately higher on the Knowledge subscale when compared with other PSC gender identities in the present sample. One possible explanation is the present study’s sample of cisfemales (N = 368, 94.6%) and cismales (N = 17, 4.4%). Within this sample, the ages of the cismale PSCs could reflect a time in which counselor education programs increased attention to diversity, whereas this was not always a main tenet in training among older PSCs (who may be more represented by cisfemale PSCs in this sample [Bemak & Chung, 2008]). Presently, the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP; 2015) requires accredited counselor education programs to deliver a counseling curriculum that includes specific attention to social and cultural diversity, an essential foundation of competent counselors. Additionally, PSC postgraduate training was weakly positively correlated with Knowledge subscale scores (r = .292, p = .002), which supports the literature that PSCs who engage in professional training opportunities outside of graduate school increase their knowledge of trans students and trans issues (Salpietro et al., 2019; Shi & Doud, 2017). Having personal experiences with trans people was moderately positively correlated with Knowledge subscale scores (r = .434, p < .001), indicating that those PSCs who personally knew a trans person felt more confident and competent in their knowledge about trans students and issues. This supports current literature (GLSEN et al., 2019; Henry & Grubbs, 2017; O’Hara et al., 2013; Salpietro et al., 2019) showing that PSCs who intentionally engaged in and fostered personal relationships with trans people reported greater competence.
Skills Finally, we explored the relationship between PSC factors (GI, postgraduate training, PSC work with trans students, and PSC personal relationship with someone who is trans) on the Skills subscale of the GICCS in research question 4 (Model 4). In examining coefficients for the model, having worked with trans students was moderately positively correlated with Skills subscale scores (r = .545, p < .001), which may indicate that PSCs who work with trans students will be more likely to employ the necessary supports to ensure growth in “academic, career and social/emotional development” (ASCA, 2016a, para. 1). This is supported by literature in which researchers reported number of students worked with and “interpersonal contact” (personal exposure) as positive predictors of affirmative counselor competence (Bidell, 2012; Farmer et al., 2013). PSCs play an essential role in advocating for and removing barriers for trans students, which improves trans students’ well-being, academic success, and interpersonal growth. PSC postgraduate training was strongly positively correlated with Skills subscale scores (r = .845, p < .001), which may indicate that PSCs who engage in professional development opportunities and trainings gain essential skills for working with trans students. This finding is consistent with extant research that reported the importance of postgraduate training and professional development opportunities on trans topics (Bidell, 2012; Frank & Cannon, 2010; GLSEN et al., 2019; O’Hara et al., 2013). Finally, knowing someone personally who is trans was moderately positively correlated with Skills subscale scores (r = .576, p < .000), which may mean that having familiarity and exposure to trans folks increases PSC’s self-perceived skills.
Professional School Counselors Based on the results of our study, PSCs who worked with trans students reported significantly higher scores of overall self-perceived competence compared to PSCs who had not worked with trans students. Specifically, our results indicate a link between PSCs having worked with trans students and higher scores on the Knowledge subscale. The GICCS Knowledge subscale addresses PSC knowledge of trans psychosocial issues (Bidell, 2005). This supports the idea that PSCs who work with self-identified trans students have a deeper understanding of the social and psychological challenges faced by trans people, and these experiences increase their comfort in working with trans students. All PSCs are required to protect and support the well-being of queer and trans youth and must have foundational knowledge and familiarity with trans students and issues (ASCA, 2016b). PSCs must attend professional development offerings on trans issues, and counselor education programs must provide increased time and attention to discussing trans issues, clients, and students.
PSC postgraduate training experiences are significantly linked to an overall increase in scores on the GICCS, indicating that PSC postgraduate experiences contribute to PSCs feeling more confident and competent in working with trans students. We conceptualized postgraduate training experiences as any training or education focused on trans persons or issues that a PSC received after their graduate program education. These results indicate that to increase competence and provide affirming, ethical care to trans students, PSCs should engage in some type of postgraduate training on trans issues and students, especially if they are unfamiliar with trans issues. These results are congruent with other studies, which found no significance in the relationship between groups on the Awareness subscale, but significant relationships on both the Knowledge and Skills subscales, with professional training experiences (Bidell, 2005; Rutter et al., 2008). PSCs are therefore encouraged to join professional organizations that promote best practices in working with trans students, like WPATH, the HRC, and SAIGE, as these organizations often offer professional development opportunities. It is essential that PSCs seek out trainings that are specific to trans students and issues, attend to unique psychosocial barriers, outline best practices, describe social/medical affirming care, and provide an overview of ethical and legal issues.
Of all the variables in the present study, PSCs knowing someone who identifies as trans was significantly linked to an increase in overall confidence and competence, as well as a significant increase in both Knowledge and Skills. Surprisingly, PSCs who indicated they did not know someone who identified as trans scored slightly higher on the Awareness subscale scores when compared with PSCs who did. The Awareness subscale of the GICCS examines a PSC’s self-awareness of anti-trans biases and stigmatization (Bidell, 2005). This result is contrary to existing research, which reported that engaging in personal relationships with trans folks increased affirming attitudes and mitigated negative attitudes (Henry & Grubbs, 2017; Salpietro et al., 2019). The link between a PSC personally knowing someone who is trans and a counselor’s competence in knowledge and skills supports extant literature that speaks to the importance of non–work-related experiences with trans people (e.g., personal, familial, social) and an increase in counselors’ competence in working with trans students (Whitman & Han, 2017). It is important that PSCs continue to monitor and increase their personal engagement with trans communities, as this significantly links to PSCs feeling more comfortable and more competent in working with trans students. Personal experiences may include fostering connections to trans family members, friends, and trans people through community organizations (GLSEN et al., 2019; Henry & Grubbs, 2017; Salpietro et al., 2019). Given the findings of our study, it is important for PSCs to connect to affirming resources in their communities. PSCs may consider exploring the multitude of resources offered by GLAAD (glaad.org), the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE; transequality.org), and PFLAG (pflag.org).
Counselor Education Programs Our results indicate that those PSCs who engage in professional development are more competent than those who do not. Professional counseling organizations (i.e., ASCA) and accrediting bodies (i.e., CACREP) mandate that school counselors-in-training receive formal training in social and cultural diversity (F.2; CACREP, 2015), including multicultural counseling competencies (F.2.c.; CACREP, 2015), and deliver a comprehensive “counseling program that advocates for and affirms all students . . . including . . . gender, gender identity and expression” (ASCA, 2016a, para. 3). Although current standards call for the inclusion of LGBTQIA+ issues within counselor education curricula, the reality is that counselors-in-training receive minimal training in working with trans and gender-expansive students (Frank & Cannon, 2010; O’Hara et al., 2013). It is imperative that CE programs and counselor educators broaden the scope of learning about trans issues, going beyond the minimal requirements (CACREP, 2015) and providing depth and rigor in gender-related coursework in diversity courses. This research supports other emergent literature which recommends that counselor education programs offer additional, specific courses related to affectional and sexual identities (LGBQ+), and gender-expansive identities (trans, nonbinary), as covering specific issues and populations increases counselor competency (Bidell, 2012; Henry & Grubbs, 2017; O’Hara et al., 2013, Salpietro et al., 2019).
Limitations and Directions for Future Research Limitations of the study include potential social desirability factors and inattentive responding, which may influence the quality of the data, as the study relied on self-report. Particularly, we note that the findings of higher self-awareness for PSCs who did not know someone who identified as trans could be a potential result of social desirability factors. Although the present study confirms that certain professional and personal factors contribute to PSCs increased competence in working with trans students in the present sample, additional research should be conducted. Also, much of our sample consisted of White ciswomen and, therefore, we caution readers about generalizing these findings to school counselors outside of those identities. The revised GICCS has not been used in many studies focusing on trans populations and additional research is needed to assess its validity with PSCs and trans youth (Bidell, 2005, 2012). Future researchers should consider additive studies that more deeply examine the types of professional development opportunities that promote PSC competency, including length, location, modality, themes, and expertise of presenter(s). Knowing these factors is important for crafting and delivering meaningful and competence-fostering professional development opportunities for PSCs. Also, future studies should examine unique nuances within trans groups, such as nonbinary and gender-fluid students (Toomey et al., 2018), and highlight the voices of trans students of color (Vance et al., 2021). Finally, future studies should also include demographic factors like religiosity and spirituality and their correlation to PSC GI competence, building on the work of Farmer and colleagues (2013).
This study highlights the need for increased attention to trans issues in many domains: among PSCs, within school counseling training programs, and in existing professional development offerings. ASCA mandates that PSCs be advocates for trans students, but there is a lack of attention to trans issues in school counseling training programs, leading PSCs to feel unprepared and to seek outside professional development offerings. The study also highlights the importance of building community and connections with trans people in and outside of professional settings, leading to increased PSC competence in professional settings. PSCs should continue to learn about the evolving language, trends, and needs of the trans community, ideally from those who are part of that community. Additionally, PSCs should engage with and use resources from professional trans-affirming organizations, such as WPATH, HRC, SAIGE, GLAAD, NCTE, and PFLAG.
Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
The authors reported no conflict of interest
or funding contributions for the development
of this manuscript.
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Clark D. Ausloos, PhD, NCC, LPC, LPSC, is a clinical assistant professor at the University of Denver. Madeline Clark, PhD, NCC, ACS, LPC (VA), LPCC (OH), is an associate professor at the University of Toledo. Hansori Jang, PhD, NCC, is an assistant professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. Tahani Dari, PhD, NCC, LPC (MI), LPSC, is an assistant professor at the University of Toledo. Stacey Diane Arañez Litam, PhD, NCC, CCMHC, LPCC-S, is an assistant professor at Cleveland State University. Correspondence may be addressed to Clark D. Ausloos, 15578 John F. McCarthy Way, Perrysburg, OH 43551, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Leann Wyrick Morgan, Mary Ellen Greenwaldt, Kevin P. Gosselin
The National Office for School Counselor Advocacy stated that secondary students need better support from professional school counselors when making decisions regarding their postsecondary education and career. The present qualitative study explored school counselors’ perceptions of competence in the area of career counseling, and resulted in the following themes: challenges to delivery, opportunity, self-doubt, reliance on colleagues, and the use of technology. Recommendations for college and career readiness best practice were incorporated with the findings from the National Office for School Counselor Advocacy report.
Keywords:school counselor, career counseling, competence, postsecondary education, qualitative study
No step in life, unless it may be the choice of a husband or wife, is more important than the choice of a vocation. . . . These vital problems should be solved in a careful, scientific way, with due regard to each person’s aptitudes, abilities, ambitions, resources, and limitations, and the relations of these elements to the conditions of success in different industries. (Parsons, 1909, p. 3)
Young people exploring career decisions are often left to their own searches to find direction in this complex process. Ninety-five percent of high school seniors expect to attain some form of college education, yet more and more are delaying entry after high school, frequently changing colleges or majors when they do enter, or taking time off throughout their programs (Altbach, Gumport, & Berdahl, 2011). According to The College Board National Office for School Counselor Advocacy (NOSCA), professional school counselors need to better support students during the decision-making process in order to streamline their progress toward postsecondary education and career readiness (Barker & Satcher, 2000; Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014). School counselors must balance this heady task with accountability in other areas, such as academic achievement, social and emotional development, and related administrative duties.
The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) National Model for School Counseling (ASCA Model) was developed and recently updated by the Recognized ASCA Model Program (RAMP), which supports school counselors and counselor educators by standardizing and enhancing the practices of these professionals (ASCA, 2012). With the release of NOSCA’s survey results, a new movement in school counselor reform emerged, which calls for standardization of practices involving college access for all students. According to The College Board (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014), this reform is necessary to highlight the lack of support students receive in their pursuit of higher educational goal attainment.
School counselors have historically lacked a clear identity in role and function (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014; Clemens, Milsom, & Cashwell, 2009; Dodson, 2009; Johnson, Rochkind, & Ott, 2010; Reiner, Colbert, & Pérusse, 2009), and in response, many states have adopted the use of some form of the ASCA Model as a guide for practicing school counselors (Martin & Carey, 2012; Martin, Carey, & DeCoster, 2009). Not all states provide such guidance for their school counselors and, as a result, some school counselors are left with little continuity among schools, even within the same school district. Some counselor educators have called for more support and supervision for school counselors (Brott, 2006; DeVoss & Andrews, 2006; Somody, Henderson, Cook, & Zambrano, 2008); however, a gap between education and professional responsibility, and consequently liability, has remained apparent (Foster, Young, & Hermann, 2005; Pérusse & Goodnough, 2005). It is important to note that the aforementioned reform is linked directly to the roles and functions of school counselors (Clemens, Milsom, & Cashwell, 2009; Pérusse & Goodnough, 2005). According to NOSCA, 71% of school counselors surveyed stated that they believed academic planning related to college and career readiness was important, but only 31% believed their school was successful in fulfilling students’ needs in that area (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014). The gap between what they believe to be important and how they deliver information and assist students in using the information is critical.
To successfully bridge the gap and provide students with a consistent avenue for college and career readiness, more attention must be directed toward training school counselors and clearly defining the roles and functions of school counselors to other school professionals (Dodson, 2009; Mason & McMahon, 2009; McMahon, Mason, & Paisley, 2009; Reiner, Colbert, & Pérusse, 2009). Further inquiry is necessary to determine the possible impact of revised training and practice on the profession as well as on school counselors’ relationships with students, parents and the school community stakeholders. Counselor educators are not solely responsible for the role development of the school counselors they train; however, they have an increased personal responsibility as well (Paisley & Milsom, 2007; Pérusse & Goodnough, 2005). Consistent dialogue between counselor educators and school counselors-in-training regarding role competence in career development may provide an avenue to overall effectiveness.
Currently, professional school counselors are expected to offer comprehensive, well-balanced, developmental, evidence-based school counseling programs that target social and emotional supportive services, educational and academic planning, and vocational education for all students (ASCA, 2003; Campbell & Dahir, 1997; Dugger & Boshoven, 2010; Foster et al., 2005; Martin & Carey, 2012; Martin et al., 2009; Pérusse & Goodnough, 2005). However, high school counselors continue to be scrutinized in light of the poor marks they receive from high school students and graduates regarding the counselors’ involvement in their respective postsecondary planning processes (Gibbons, Borders, Wiles, Stephan, & Davis, 2006; Johnson et al., 2010).
School counselors serve in multiple—and often demanding—educational and counseling roles. In addition, school counselors are asked to further the academic and educational missions of the school, seek teacher and administrator buy-in to an integrated comprehensive guidance program, and act in a proactive manner that will enhance collaboration among all facets of the school and community (Brown, 2006; Dodson, 2009; Green & Keys, 2001; Walsh, Barrett, & DePaul, 2007). Keeping these functions in mind, one can see how critical it is for school counselors to develop particular skills in order to provide services, to promote a strong professional identity, and to obtain regular supervision and consultation (McMahon et al., 2009).
In many cases, school counselors develop competencies in their roles while performing the duties assigned by their administrators or counseling supervisors; however, the basic educational training that occurs preservice can vary dramatically. In the field of counselor education, many issues impact the curriculum and philosophy of school counselor training programs including (a) the accreditation of the program by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) and (b) the degree to which programs offer training in how to utilize the ASCA Model (ASCA, 2003). The CACREP training standards have gained popularity among state certification and licensure boards (such as those in Louisiana and New Jersey), and some boards now require all candidates seeking certification or licensure to have completed CACREP-accredited counseling programs in order to be eligible for professional certification or licensure. Certainly, not all counselor training programs are CACREP-accredited, and those that are CACREP-accredited likely vary in how they address the standards. Yet, many school counselor trainees will encounter similar standards presented in the newly revised ASCA Model as they pursue state certification or become involved in ASCA as a student or professional member (ASCA, 2012).
The ASCA Model provides a tool for school counselors to design, coordinate, implement, manage and evaluate school counseling programs, but the specifics on how school counselors address each area varies (ASCA, 2012). School counselors are expected to demonstrate competency in the areas of academic achievement, social and emotional development, and career counseling. However, career counseling competency is often minimized in relation to other areas because the accountability measures are not fully developed. Also, the results cannot be determined until years after students leave high school (Belasco, 2013; McDonough, 2005), and due to so many commitments falling upon school counselors, their time to provide specific career interventions can be limited (Bryan, Moore-Thomas, Day-Vines, & Holcomb-McCoy, 2011; Deil-Amen & Tevis, 2010).
The leaders of ASCA (2012) have encouraged secondary school counselors to spend at least 40% of their day conducting career assessment, engaging in development and planning postsecondary activities with students (e.g., individual student responsive services, group guidance activities, college and career indirect services); yet, according to Clinedinst, Hurley, and Hawkins (2011), high school counselors devote only 23% of their time to this cause. School counselor education programs minimally address this disparity (Foster et al., 2005). Most programs offer one course in general career development theory, assessment and counseling, which would translate to roughly 6% of students’ training within a 48-hour program, and only 5% for programs requiring 60 credit hours of graduate work. Although CACREP (2009) has called for counselor educators to infuse career development throughout the program curricula, school counselors have reported they did not feel competent in the delivery of career programs (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014).
Given the convergence of an increased number of school counselor education programs seeking accreditation (Urofsky, personal communication, March 28, 2014), increased calls for accountability in school counseling programs (Wilkerson, Pérusse, & Hughes, 2013), and the growing influence of the ASCA Model (Martin et al., 2009), it seems imperative that school counselors be prepared to address the vocational and transitional needs of the secondary student. A gap exists between what is expected and suggested by the national standards for a comprehensive guidance program and what is actually being taught in school counselor preparation programs, specifically in the area of college and career readiness (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014; Clinedinst et al., 2011; Engberg & Gilbert, 2014; McDonough, 2005). School counselors must have an appropriate cache of career counseling techniques in order to be effective leaders, not just possess a basic understanding of career development theories (Zunker, 2012). Osborn and Baggerly (2004) suggested the following:
High school is a crucial time for students to make career and/or postsecondary training decisions. If there were any group of school counselors who needed to have a large proportion of their time devoted to career counseling, it would be high school counselors. (p. 55)
Bridgeland and Bruce (2014) stated in the NOSCA report that “counselors are also largely enthusiastic about supporting college and career readiness initiatives, but here again, do not think they have the support and resources to successfully promote their students’ postsecondary achievement” (p. 12).
Hines & Lemons (2011) proposed refocusing university training programs for school counselors to emphasize educational access, opportunity and equity in college, and career readiness, with an increased focus on interns utilizing college and career readiness curricula with students in their schools. They also recommended the revision of school counselor job descriptions to focus on postsecondary planning, the use of performance evaluations connected to student academic outcomes and college and career readiness standards, and the need for persistent professional development in order to cultivate effective college and career readiness counseling programs.
By continuing to examine school counselor training and consequent job competency standards, it may be possible to determine gaps in training and how counselors compensate for their lack of knowledge in serving their students. Career counseling theory and application play a role in how school counselors work with students in postsecondary planning, and where a lack of knowledge exists, a lack of services exists as well (Perrone, Perrone, Chan, & Thomas, 2000). The rising costs of higher education, paired with students’ lack of concise college and career planning, make the school counselor’s role more important than in past decades.
Borders and Drury (1992) determined that “school counseling interventions have a substantial impact on students’ educational and personal development. Individual and small-group counseling, classroom guidance, and consultation activities seem to contribute directly to students’ success in the classroom and beyond” (p. 495). School counselors have shared responsibility for students acquiring knowledge necessary for successful mastery of essential developmental skills at the secondary level (Myrick, 1987; Sears, 1999). The need for appropriate and relevant training of secondary school counselors is critical to ensure that the students they serve receive challenging academic paths that will impact their quality of life long after they leave high school (Erford, 2010).
The CACREP standards for counselor training serve as a guide for counselor education programs to include when determining elements and experiences essential for training competent school counselors. However, the standards were not established to provide any support or structure for the postgraduate professional working in the schools (Campbell & Dahir, 1997; Pérusse, Goodnough, & Noel, 2001). ASCA provides professional school counselors with support through the National Model to administer appropriate programming to students at the secondary level, including career planning. The question remains whether counselors-in-training receive access to the appropriate coursework and relevant experiences to adequately prepare them to fulfill their role in the schools, as suggested by historical perspectives (e.g., the vocational needs of students) and the current national standards for the profession.
The area of career development and postsecondary planning is one in which counselors-in-training may not receive adequate instruction or supervision (Barker & Satcher, 2000; Foster et al., 2005). With the acceptance of the 2016 CACREP standards revisions, counselor education programs would be required to demonstrate how they assess students’ competencies using data “gathered at multiple points and using multiple measures” (CACREP, 2014, p. 6). Counselor educators must determine how to measure competency in career development throughout their programs. Some programs offer one course in career counseling, development or assessment, while other programs may choose to meet the standards in other ways. While students may gain training experience in career counseling through internship hours at the master’s level, career development is not a required part of the internship experience. Through the use of standardized tests that measure students’ knowledge of career counseling theory (e.g., Counselor Preparation Comprehensive Examination, National Counselor Examination), counselor education programs would be partially meeting the requirements for CACREP accreditation under the new standards. Testing graduate students on their knowledge of career counseling theory, however, does not provide an indicator of the students’ ability to provide comprehensive career counseling programs upon graduation. Using multiple measures of competency throughout the program may be a more effective way to accurately measure professional skill and readiness to provide career services to students.
A recent review of the counseling and education literature yielded several articles confirming the deficiencies in school counselor training and the increased need for additional competence among school counselors to provide college and career readiness programming to students, including information on financial literacy and the cost of higher education (Belasco, 2013; Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014; Engberg & Gilbert, 2014). Some educators may argue that the standards have been infused throughout their school counselor training program curriculum, yet there is no evidence within the professional literature of a consistent standard of practice. As a result, the question remains: Can counselor educators provide the necessary curriculum and expect that counselors-in-training will retain enough information to be able to provide services competently to students?
The educational recommendations versus the professional expectations imposed upon the school counselor may seem unrealistic, and at times, inappropriate (Brott, 2006; Clinedinst et al., 2011; Foster et al., 2005). An inconsistency between the amount of preparation and the expectations of school counselors’ work roles is apparent (Dodson, 2009; Reiner, Colbert, & Pérusse, 2009) and is highlighted in the NOSCA report (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014). One might wonder how and where school counselors obtain adequate preparation for their professional roles. The authors in this study attempted to explore and document this information within the context of the schools in which the participants worked. Once again, the need to reform school counselor education programs is evident, and the voices of these counselors may help identify the specific areas in which to begin.
The research questions proposed in this study were addressed using a qualitative research design. A phenomenological research inquiry (Creswell, 2013) was used to assess participants’ experiences, preparedness and perceptions of competency related to career counseling with high school students. The goals of using this approach stem from the core ideals of phenomenological research (Colaizzi, 1978; Osborne, 1990; Wertz, 2005), which seeks to understand “how human beings make sense of experience and transform experience into consciousness, both individually and as shared meaning” (Patton, 1990, p. 104). Based on the premise that human beings by nature strive for a sense of self in the world of work and the knowledge that they have to use in their work (Crotty, 1998), it was imperative to develop an awareness of the relationship between the data and the participants within the context of the study (McCroskey, 1997; Merriam, 1998). With this goal in mind, participant responses were assessed using the methodological processes of grounded theory, and shared meanings grounded in the data were further derived (Corbin & Strauss, 2008).
Participants were chosen using a purposeful and convenience criteria sampling method (Collins, Onwuegbuzie, & Jiao, 2007), and identified from the first author’s community network of school counselor colleagues located in two Midwestern states. These counselors referred other secondary school counselors in their communities to the current authors for potential participation in the study. To select the participants, the authors previewed a convenience sample of 18 secondary school counselors from urban, suburban and rural public schools. They chose specific participants based on differences in age, ethnicity, gender, number of years of experience as a high school counselor, and those who hold master’s degrees from both CACREP and non-CACREP programs. In an effort to diversify the sample, the authors did not select participants with similar characteristics. The authors directly contacted the identified school counselors, and the nine participants agreed to participate in the study (see Table 1 for identifying characteristics). Each participant and school name was changed to protect identity.
School Counselor Participant Information and School Information
Years of Experience
White female in her late 20s
Shermer High School: urban; public; 2000 students; 45% F/R lunch*; 41% White, 31.8% Asian, 18.8% Hispanic, 7.4% Black, .8% American Indian; 6 other counselors
White female in her mid-40s
Shermer High School: urban; public; 2000 students; 45% F/R lunch*; 41% White, 31.8% Asian, 18.8% Hispanic, 7.4% Black, .8% American Indian; 6 other counselors
White male in his late 50s
High Bridge High School: suburban; public; 2301 students; 18.4% F/R lunch*; 65.7% White, 16.3% Hispanic, 10.3% Asian, 5.7% Black, 1.8% Multiracial, .1% American Indian, .1% Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander; 11 other counselors
White female in her early 50s
High Bridge High School: suburban; public; 2301 students; 18.4% F/R lunch*; 65.7% White, 16.3% Hispanic, 10.3% Asian, 5.7% Black, 1.8% Multiracial, .1% American Indian, .1% Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander; 11 other counselors
White male in his early 30s
High Bridge High School: suburban; public; 2301 students; 18.4% F/R lunch*; 65.7% White, 16.3% Hispanic, 10.3% Asian, 5.7% Black, 1.8% Multiracial, .1% American Indian, .1% Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander; 11 other counselors
White male in his early 60s
Mayfield High School: urban; public; 2058 students; 27% F/R lunch*; 45% White, 39% Black, 12% Hispanic, 2% Asian, 2% American Indian; 5 other counselors
Hispanic female in her late 30s
Ridgemont Jr./Sr. High School: rural; public; 222 students; 54% F/R lunch*; 65% Hispanic, 31% White, 3% Asian, 1% American Indian, 0% Black; no other school counselors in building
White female in her early 30s
Bedford High school: rural; public; 645 students; 10% F/R lunch*, 85% White, 12% Hispanic, 2% Asian, 1% American Indian, 0% Black; one other counselor
Hispanic female in her early 30s
Hill Valley High School: rural; public; 401 students; 52% Hispanic, 45% White, 2% American Indian, 1% Black, 0% Asian/Pacific Islander; no other counselor in building
Note. All participant and school information has been changed to protect identities.
*Students receive free or reduced-fee lunch based on household income.
Procedures and Data Collection
As part of the data collection process, a personal audit trail (Merriam, 1998) was utilized to minimize and account for specific feelings or opinions formed by the primary investigator. As a former school counselor, the first author had areas of training, and professional and personal experiences that were similar to, or different from those of the research participants. The journal served as an appropriate place for the primary investigator to document feelings regarding these issues and issues of counselor training.
Merriam (1998) suggested that researchers share a common language with the participants of the study; to that end, in-depth, face-to-face, semi-structured interviews lasting 45–55 minutes were completed. The following nine research questions were asked:
Tell me about your overall experience in your counselor training program.
Tell me about your experiences in that program with regard to instruction you received in career development delivery models with high school students.
How has the training you received in career development prepared you for your work with students?
What type of continuing education training have you received in the area of career development since finishing your degree program?
Describe your level of confidence in your ability to provide students with career development information and guidance.
In what areas, if any, do you feel unsure (or less sure) of the information you are providing?
What would have aided you in attaining competency in career development and postsecondary planning?
How much career counseling did you do during your internship?
How did you see your preparedness in career development in relation to your colleagues’ preparedness?
The first author for the study recorded the interviews electronically and then transcribed or typed the interviews using a traditional word processing program. The information obtained from the transcripts was compiled into one data set, which represents the voices of all nine participants. This author also obtained official transcripts from the participants’ master’s degree programs in school counseling to track the number of courses they took in career counseling and development. The participants provided information regarding the accreditation status of their training program as CACREP or non-CACREP at the time they obtained their degrees. At the conclusion of each interview, the first author immediately moved to another location in order to write initial thoughts (i.e., field notes) regarding any physical or nonverbal responses of the participants. The first author wrote notes in a research journal regarding any personal researcher biases that emerged (Creswell, 2013). The field notes, transcript and program accreditation status served as additional data that were shared with the research team for triangulation purposes, specifically to enrich the data collected during each interview.
Interview data were subjected to a rigorous phenomenological reduction. Also known as bracketing (Husserl, 1977), this is the process of extracting significant statements from the actual, transcribed interviews with the participants. The authors utilized Denzin’s (1989) suggestions to extract statements, including (a) locating the key phrases and statements that speak directly to the phenomenon in question; (b) interpreting the meanings of these phrases as an informed reader; (c) obtaining the subjects’ interpretations of these phrases; (d) inspecting the meanings for what they reveal about the essential, recurring features of the phenomenon being studied; and (e) offering a tentative statement, or definition, of the phenomenon in terms of the essential recurring features (see Figure 1 for steps in analysis process).
Figure 1. Interview data steps
A total of 543 significant statements were analyzed and coded for inclusion in the theme-building process (Corbin & Strauss, 2008; Curry & Bickmore, 2012). The nine counselors’ statements were then grouped into categories as similarities emerged among them. This process gave each statement equal weight in contributing to the final analysis, regardless of which participant made the statement (Patton, 1990). New categories were formed until each statement had been grouped, totaling 17 in all. At the conclusion, the sample was determined rich enough to reach saturation. According to Creswell (2013), saturation occurs when pieces of information are put into categories and the researcher begins to see repetition among the data being categorized.
Once saturation was reached, the first author’s epoche (journal) was utilized to control for bias, and member checking was used to confirm the trustworthiness of the data. The act of member checking includes obtaining confirmation from the participants that the extracted statements from the interviews were accurate and inclusive (Creswell, 2013). Each of the nine participants reviewed their statements via e-mail and confirmed the accuracy and true representation of their thoughts and feelings. Triangulation of the data (i.e., comparing the researcher’s journal to the participants’ verified statements) further confirmed the results. At that point, imaginative variation and thematic reduction were employed to provide an organized, rich description of the participants’ experiences (Creswell, 2013).
Imaginative variation. The process of imaginative variation (Denzin, 1989) asks the researcher to horizontalize the data, or place the extracted significant statements of each participant side by side to compare, group and organize the statements into comprehensive ideas. The first author collected overall themes by physically cutting the statements out and dividing them into groups of similar statements. This process gave “each statement equal weight” in contributing to the final analysis, regardless of which participant made a particular statement (Patton, 1990). The deconstructed data set made the meanings of the participants’ stories clearer.
Thematic reduction: School counselor themes. The meanings derived from the counselors’ statements were grouped into common themes. The authors read and examined the counselors’ statements until words or phrases surfaced that represented patterns of feelings or thoughts that were repeated consistently throughout. These common words or phrases were grouped into major thematic areas that represented the collective voice of the participants.
Four themes emerged that indicated school counselors experienced feelings of under-preparedness in helping students plan for postsecondary pursuits, including (a) awareness (subtheme: feelings of incompetence), (b) theory versus reality (subtheme: disconnect of formal education), (c) acquiring competence (subthemes: colleague networks and technology), and (d) training needs (counselor education programs).
Awareness: Incompetence versus competence. Positive or desirable characteristics of a competent school counselor, particularly in the area of career development, were compiled to create a textural portrayal that illustrated the picture of a highly competent school counselor. Collectively, the participants indicated that a competent school counselor would have the following characteristics: (a) the ability to secure accurate information and provide it to students quickly, (b) active membership in state or national school counseling organizations, (c) use of professional networks for professional development, (d) well-maintained connections with students in spite of large caseloads, (e) outreach to marginalized student populations, and (f) personal respect and reflection of the role of a professional school counselor.
When the more specific themes were examined, the counselors described characteristics of the competency levels they possessed; however, they believed they were not living up to self-imposed standards. Most of the counselors’ statements referred to their perceived lack of competency in performing their roles in the schools, as opposed to positive feelings of competency. One of the participants, Vivian, stated, “A kid would come in and I would think, please, let’s talk about suicide or something because I am not so hot in this [career counseling] area.” This counselor considered herself more prepared to assess a student’s risk for self-harm than to help guide him or her toward a career path. Vivian believed that her training had inadequately prepared her, and did not remember what she was supposed to do to help students look beyond high school. She expressed frustration and the need for more tailored training, specifically on how to deliver comprehensive career and postsecondary planning curricula. Another participant, Noah, stated, “I am sure those kids know way more what their plans are going to be and what their options are than I do, and that is not the way it is supposed to work. It is something that I should know.” This counselor had become aware that he lacked the skills necessary to work with students, and his perceived helplessness prevented him from being engaged in the process. This school counselor needed resources to fill the gap and help him reach his students.
Theory versus reality. Throughout the dialogue with the participants, one common thread was that the formal instruction and implementation suggestions from their graduate training were inadequate. One participant, Noah, strongly voiced his concern with these training deficiencies by stating, “I don’t feel like I had enough [career training], it goes back to . . . well, they gave us theories. I did not get any specifics on how to use them.” Another counselor, Alan, stated, “We had a very good understanding of the theoretical [career counseling] model. It was very lacking in how to convey it to the kids or how you work with kids. This is where I think it came up short.” The voices of all the participants reflected this type of statement. Some of the participants believed that they had been introduced to career counseling theory and some assessment tools; however, they noted that they had not received sufficient instruction on how to apply these concepts when working with students. In addition, none of the participants were able to recall a particular standard for career assessment or planning for secondary school counseling that they might use as a guide when working in the schools.
Colleague networks. In order to combat the noted deficiencies, participants reported forming both formal and informal networks with other colleagues to gain competence in the area of career development. Noah stated, “Luckily I had a friend or two . . . who were good counselors and . . . I learned a lot from them.” The idea of learning how to create and implement career development programming on the job resonated throughout the participants. Diane stated, “I still know that at any time I can call somebody who will know something,” and Vivian said, “Thank God for other counselors because I wouldn’t know where to start.” The importance of colleague networks to the perceived competency of each counselor was made apparent by all the participants, not just the ones represented here. They seemed to rely on one another most often to supplement the gaps in information, more so than consulting other resources available to them.
Utilizing technology. The school counselors made numerous statements regarding the use of technology at their jobs. They mentioned the use of specific programs, and the consensus seemed to reflect that everyone used computer technology in some capacity. Some counselors believed that particular programs purchased by their districts were not useful to them, while others pointed to the use of computers as a resource for gaining competency in providing career development counseling to their students. Vivian stated, “We finally decided to go with the . . . [career development online program], which now has been probably the most used resource by our kids, by our staff, and by the counseling office simply because it is so easily accessible.” Alan also noted the following:
We got it [the online career development program] not only for the kids . . . but for the parents, the community, PR, and making ourselves a viable part of their development. . . . This has been a big plus for us because it forces contact with every kid in an easy, very positive type conference.
A third participant, Kimberly, recalled, “I can point them in the right direction now. The computer is so much easier and the students respond to it.”
The technology-based career development programs appeared to be used more readily by the counselors than any other counseling tool. Some of the benefits of technology-based programs include the following: Students can access information independently (autonomy), students can access career information from any computer at the school or from their homes (accessibility), and counselors can provide answers to students’ questions quickly (time-sensitivity). The computer-based, Internet programs gave confidence to the counselors that the information was up-to-date and accurate. They used the computer and Internet-based programs to work more efficiently and provide students with consistent, research-based career development programming. This resource provided school counselors with confidence where they lacked it prior to using these tools.
Training needs. Participants were forthcoming about what they needed; for example, they would have benefited from specialized training prior to starting their roles as professional school counselors. Throughout the interviews, the counselors interjected their dissatisfaction with their preparedness upon completing their master’s degree programs, to varying degrees. Interestingly, the statements grouped into the training needs category were not gathered in response to a particular question, but rather as they naturally occurred throughout the interviews. Even the participants who stated they were satisfied with their training overall offered suggestions for improving school counselor training programs based on their unique experiences in the field.
Vanessa stated the following:
I think as school counselors, the counseling part one-on-one we see once [in] awhile, but it is geared more towards career and preparing the kids. . . . I think one thing that would have helped me a lot was maybe having college recruiters or admission counselors come into the class and talk about what they look for on an application or in essay questions. I think that would have helped me help my seniors this year.
Similarly, Diane said that it would have been helpful to know “just the day-to-day what does a career counseling program look like or what does a career counseling program in a high school look like?” Other participants did not identify specific training areas that would have helped them; but they acknowledged that continuing education was necessary based on what was provided in their graduate programs. Kimberly reflected, “I would say that out of the 75 kids that we have [grades] 9–12, I would say maybe 20% have a skill that they can use if they were to drop out of school. It is one area that I am really not comfortable in right now.” School counselors carry the responsibility to prepare students for post-graduation, but how they accomplish this task is left to the specific counselor, school or school district.
Jane’s statement reflects her desire for more specific training curricula:
I think that training programs hopefully will evolve and will begin to become more specialized . . . it [career development] is definitely an area that needs more than one class. Three credit hours when 55 are required? It is probably one of the most important things for school counselors to know.
Few counselors echoed this call for more coursework, but specialized training in and out of the classroom was seen as a necessary part of gaining competency for all participants. While a number of the participants were passionate about the idea of increasing training in career development within counseling training programs, the collective voice of the counselors’ statements demonstrated the variety of struggles and frustrations the participants encountered, and still encounter, along the way.
The purpose of this study was to understand how school counselors view their roles, and how they understand and deliver career counseling curricula to students. Nine counselors made statements consistent with feelings of inadequacy and incompetence in their ability to provide adequate career development programming to their students, as well as unpreparedness upon completion of their counselor education programs. The findings are consistent with the reviewed literature, given that even those counselors who made positive statements regarding their overall experiences in their programs clearly reflected uncertainty regarding their competence level in career development in general (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014; McDonough, 2005), but especially in how to deliver useful career programs to students (Clinedinst et al., 2011; Johnson et al., 2010). The particular training programs that these counselors completed to obtain licensure differed. Additionally, the secondary data collected from participants (i.e., CACREP vs. non-CACREP degree programs) indicate that accreditation and the completion of a course in career theory and application appear irrelevant regarding the participants’ perceptions of overall competency.
The authors noticed that the agitation in the counselors’ voices subsided when they discussed the steps they took to gain competency in this area. For some participants, it was a friendly colleague who showed them the way it had always been done, or the discovery of a new online resource that helped them quickly provide answers to their students’ questions. The counselors identified specific strategies that they used to improve their competency, but said that they relied heavily on their professional networks for support.
The three urban counselors reported that they were more prepared than their colleagues were in terms of providing career development programming that utilized technology. The three rural and three suburban counselors believed that they were close to or at the same level of competency as their colleagues. Additionally, all three urban counselors believed that funding or political obstacles within their respective districts prevented their success. Some participants also noted that they relied on technology because it had been purchased by their schools and was the only resource available. For a number of the participants, the isolation and lack of connection to other counselors furthered their sense of frustration and disconnectedness.
Participants employed professional mentoring and consultation in some cases; however, these counselors reported that they utilized informal, personal networking extensively. They described these relationships as casual, question-and-answer partnerships. These relationships were not formally structured with specific goals as in mentoring relationships, but rather were formed out of necessity for team building and information sharing among colleagues. The counselors valued these contacts more than any other resource they had acquired since completion of their degree programs.
The big picture of what it means to be a competent school counselor resonated loudly through the voices of the participants. They uniformly reported that despite their struggle to achieve competency, there was an overarching sense that their efforts were not enough. The counselors’ feelings of incompetence in the area of career development significantly impacted their ability to address the needs of students. The quiet desperation resonating in their statements magnified their perceptions of how they lacked what they needed to help prepare students for life after high school. School counselors have an understanding of who they would like to be in the schools, but oftentimes they believe they fall short (Scarborough & Culbreth, 2008). Many school counselors lack the confidence or competence to navigate the college counseling process effectively, thus leading to overall perceptions of incompetence in career development (Clinedinst et al., 2011; Engberg & Gilbert 2014).
The lack of competency in career development that these school counselors expressed may imply that a certain degree of insecurity and real or perceived incompetence are expected when one starts out in the field. However, if the degree of preparedness among these participants is at all representative, it may indicate that more focus on career development practice is needed in counselor education programs. According to Hill (2012), it is important to emphasize counselor-initiated strategies for college and career readiness interventions—something this group of school counselors found challenging. Addressing this need is a critical issue for school counselor educators as they design training curricula and experiences. Again, participants stated that they had received valuable information in their programs regarding the specifics of what career development is, but not how to use it with students. The missing link between knowledge and know-how for these counselors is palpable. School counselor educators and supervisors must take note and develop career counseling curricula that address the needs of their counselors-in-training, as well as the needs of the future students they will serve.
As a result of the information obtained from this study and with the support of the NOSCA report and other studies published in recent years, a need clearly exists for career development training standards to be integrated into graduate programs for school counselors (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014; Clinedinst et al., 2011; Engberg & Gilbert, 2014). Specifically, counselor educators may adequately identify deficiencies in the overall training model by isolating the differences between anticipated transitions, role adoption and professional development. Participants in the present study believe that they and future school counselors would benefit from a more applied, community-based experience, much like the professional development schools model suggested by Clark and Horton-Parker (2002), and a standard of practice to better serve their students.
The plan outlined by NOSCA includes implementing a process by which all secondary school counselors follow a set of standards while working with students on college readiness from academic, social and career perspectives (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014). Ideally, these standards would be consistent among school counselors across the country to ensure all students access to adequate college preparation and postsecondary planning. Graduate-level courses offered in the form of additional electives, such as counseling the college-bound student or career and technical education, would provide opportunities for growth in areas not currently available in most graduate counseling programs. In response to the growing need for high school counselor competency in postsecondary planning, some states are now offering an additional licensure endorsement for school counselors; for example, in Colorado, school counselors complete two graduate-level courses already offered within CACREP programs (i.e., individual counseling, career development) and one additional two-credit course in career and technical education, offered through the Colorado Community College System. Upon completion of the three courses, school counselors may then apply for the additional endorsement in career and technical education (Colorado Department of Education, 2014). This effort supports the Common Core Curriculum implementation in Colorado and many other states where school counselors are now expected to provide academic advising to directly reflect their students’ career cluster interests.
With the recent passing of the Langevin-Thompson Amendment to the Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act (H.R. 10, 2014), school counselors working in charter schools will now be asked to provide documentation of their comprehensive career counseling programs in order for schools to obtain priority status when applying for federal funding. This movement, which currently applies only to charter schools, may begin to find its way into all public school funding requests, thus making career counseling curriculum development and implementation a priority for all school counselors. With the support of ASCA, the Association for Career and Technical Education, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, this movement will continue to grow, and the need for well-trained school counselors who are able to provide comprehensive career counseling programs will increase.
In this study, the authors used several measures in order to preserve the internal validity of the study, such as researcher epoche, triangulation and member checking. In keeping with the tradition of qualitative research, the participants were not studied in isolation but in environments in which the studied phenomenon continues to occur. It is safe to assume that the participants’ statements were not without bias, because few inquiries involving human interactions and perceptions are without bias. The authors selected nine participants from a convenience sample of high school counselors from rural, suburban and urban areas within two Midwestern states in the United States. The relationship of the counselors to the first author, although limited, may have reflected a need to please or demonstrate competency where little may have existed. Despite the limitations of the study, the findings contribute to the literature regarding school counselors’ perceptions of their abilities to effectively deliver career counseling programs. Also, the findings further emphasize the need to reform the training methods through which school counselors provide college and career readiness services to students.
Given the results of this study, it would be negligent to ignore the possibility that school counselors may be placed in positions with less than adequate training in career development. Counselor education programs have an obligation to prepare school counselors in more role-specific areas (e.g., college and career readiness), given that the national average ratio of students to school counselor is 471:1, which is well above ASCA’s recommended ratio of 250:1 (http://www.schoolcounselor.org/asca/media/asca/home/ratios10-11.pdf). Doing more with less has always been a challenge for school leaders, and preparing school counselors more effectively to meet the needs of their students may empower a new generation of counselors to lead students into the 21st century workforce.
The authors acknowledge that this particular study includes only the voices of nine school counselors; however, their voices loudly echo NOSCA’s findings and support the need for school counselor standardization of practice in promoting, teaching and facilitating career and postsecondary planning for all students (Bridgeland & Bruce, 2014). Currently, most school counselor education programs do not highlight this area, yet this area represents the very heart of school counseling services at the secondary level. ASCA (2012) has deemed this area important enough to provide school counselors with standards with which to guide their daily activities, but training programs offer limited exposure to actual planning and implementation of career services. This study exposes a disconnection between training and practice standards in school counselor education, which has led to feelings of incompetence and discouragement in these nine school counselors. Regardless of how the counselors compensate for this lack of training, this phenomenon exists. Whether they graduated from CACREP or non-CACREP programs, all of the participants in this study believed that they were equally incompetent in providing career development programming to students. Therefore, future CACREP standards and ASCA Model revisions, as well as state credentialing boards, must include guidelines by which school counselors are trained, specifically reflecting their appropriate job duties and responsibilities in college and career readiness programming. Future school counselors may be better equipped to address the needs of their students, parents and communities if this area of training is expanded and integrated as an essential component of counselor education programs.
Conflict of Interest and Funding Disclosure
The authors reported no conflict of interest or funding contributions for the development of this manuscript.
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Leann Wyrick Morgan is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Mary Ellen Greenwaldt is a family case worker for Licking County Job and Family Services, Children Services Division, in Newark, OH. Kevin P. Gosselin is an associate professor and assistant dean of research at Texas A&M Health Sciences Center. Correspondence can be addressed to Leann Wyrick Morgan, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, College of Education, 1420 Austin Bluffs Parkway, Colorado Springs, CO 80918, email@example.com.