A Big Gift for an Overlooked K-12 Niche: School Counselors

photo; Monkey Business Images/shutterstock

photo; Monkey Business Images/shutterstock

A $12.2 million grant to Indiana schools from the Lilly Endowment is meant to bolster the counseling kids get in schools. The demands on school counselors have increased in the last few years because of the urgent social and emotional needs left in the wake of the opioid crisis, the funder said. Applicants for the grants also reported that tasks like administering state tests or Advanced Placement exams are often left to school counselors.

Those demands mean that much of counselors’ traditional functions, like advising students on academics and their college and career options, fall by the wayside, the endowment said. The grants serve also as a reminder that the opioid epidemic has consequences stretching far beyond the immediate strains on the country’s public health systems.

The Lilly Endowment does some national work, usually around higher education, business, early childhood education and religion, but most of its support is focused on its home state, Indiana, where its local grantmaking—which totaled over $300 million in a recent year—looms large. With more than $10 billion in assets, the endowment is big by any standard, but its resources are especially outsized in a state of only 6.6 million. Lilly has its fingers in a lot of pots in Indiana, as we often report. Earlier this year, for example, the endowment pledged nearly $40 million to use tech to bolster the economic outlook for 10 counties in northwest Indiana. Back in 2015, Lilly gave $100 million to the state’s art and culture institutions.

Related: From Indiana, a Case Study of an Ambitious Foundation-Backed Push to Spur New Prosperity

As part of the recent counseling gift, 39 districts and charter schools will receive support to collaborate with mental healthcare providers and implement a model set by the American School Counselor Association. To address student well-being, teachers, counselors and school administrators will have professional development opportunities to learn how to identify and address kids’ social and emotional needs.

To prepare kids for future employment, schools will get funding to connect with local businesses. Those partnerships should lead to developing internship and mentorship opportunities, industry information sessions and site visits.

Schools will also partner with colleges and universities as part of the grant to provide college counseling, help students understand financial aid options, and set up campus visits. The gift also provides for redesigning curriculum to include opportunities for kids to explore and prepare for college and careers. 

The gift builds on a growing interest among funders in the social and emotional well-being of students, as well as the role counselors can play helping low-income kids choose careers and navigate the opaque world of college admissions.

Social-emotional learning emphasizes teaching children soft skills like handling their emotions, feeling empathy for others, forming relationships and making responsible decisions. The theory is that these soft skills translate into better outcomes in both education and life. 

The field is still in early stages, but has found a deep-pocketed patron in the form of the Buffett-backed NoVo Foundation. Just last year, the foundation put up $1 million in grants to teachers and schools interested in using social and emotional learning strategies in the classroom.

The Lilly Endowment grants also bear some resemblance to the education strategy Michael Bloomberg recently laid out for the $375 million he plans to invest in K-12 efforts over the next five years. Bloomberg plans to focus a great deal of his efforts and money on bolstering career and college readiness—a growing focus of education funders, lately.

Bloomberg believes that too many kids who graduate from either high school or college leave with skills that don’t match what employers are looking for. As a solution, he cited several nonprofits around the country that match employers with students to provide education and skills training. In return, employers gain access to a talent pipeline. The programs sound similar to the partnerships between schools and local businesses that the Lilly Endowment plans to promote. Meanwhile, the foundation's economic development work in Indiana also has an eye on better syncing education systems and the needs of business, as we've reported—grantmaking that parallels what a lot of other efforts funders are doing around the country.

Support for college counseling also addresses another issue that's been rising on philanthropy's agenda lately, which is ensuring that high-achieving, low-income students can attend schools that match their skills and potential. Too often, that doesn't happen and college counselors are one way to combat these lost opportunities. The Lilly Endowment grants tackle the problem by engaging colleges to provide some of the counseling. Bloomberg plans to connect students to counselors virtually.

We wouldn't be surprised to see other funders entering this promising but overlooked niche in an otherwise crowded education funding landscape.