Guidance Counselor vs. School Counselor: What’s the Difference?

Guidance Counselor vs. School Counselor: What’s the Difference?

guidance counselor vs school counselor terminology
guidance counselor vs school counselor terminology

It’s easy to think that “guidance counselor” and “school counselor” are interchangeable names for the same role. However, they actually have critical distinctions and histories to understand. The terms have shifted with time and there are insightful reasons why.

When it comes to answering the question “guidance counselor vs. school counselor: what’s the difference?” it’s important to look at the history of counseling within schools, the way terms were established and have evolved, and what counseling in academic settings looks like today.

We should also look into how education is keeping up with the changes, and the benefits of doing an online Master of Science in Education School Counseling program like St Bonaventure's.

Where Did the “Guidance Counselors” Go?

Not long ago, the term “guidance counselor” was the common title used to describe counselors within school settings. But now, the appropriate term is “school counselor.” While there are still some schools that use “guidance counselor,” the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) views the title as outdated and recommends “school counselor.”

Understanding the history of counseling in schools can illuminate the reasons for the evolving terminology. The first term used to describe counseling in the school setting was “vocational guidance.” In the 1930s, pupil personnel services brought guidance into its programming, offering students information, assessment, counseling, placement, and follow-up. Counseling became the most in-demand service, and the common terms became “guidance” and “counseling.”

Information and assessment remained as elements of guidance and counseling, but the placement and follow-up services have effectively been eliminated from the school counseling role. Over time, as school counseling grew to be a more comprehensive role that did not merely focus on vocation, the term “school counselor” became preferred. In 1990, the ASCA officially requested that the profession adopt the term “school counselor” as the term “guidance counselor” no longer accurately reflected the role. 

school counselor with student

The Differences Between a Guidance Counselor and a School Counselor

The primary reason that the ASCA, as well as many counselors, prefer the term “school counselor” is simple: it more accurately reflects the role counselors play within school settings. “Guidance counselor” implies a narrow role in which the counselor only provides vocational advice. But the role of the modern school counselor is much more substantial and comprehensive than that.

The ASCA highlights the differences between the concept of the guidance counselor and the concept of the school counselor as follows.

Guidance counselor:

  • Reactive
  • Services to some
  • Impact measured via feelings and perceptions
  • Ancillary role to school improvement process 
  • Work in isolation

School counselor:

  • Proactive/data-driven
  • Program for all
  • Impact measured via achievement, attendance, and behavior data
  • Essential role in the school improvement process
  • School counselors as school leaders
  • Develop, manage and evaluate a comprehensive school counseling program

school counselor and student

Why Does the Term Matter So Much?

While it may feel important to school counselors to be given a title that accurately reflects their role, does it really affect their work, impact, or the perception of the job by others? The data says yes.

In 2018, researchers conducted a study entitled “Guidance Counselors or School Counselors: How the Name of the Profession Influences Perceptions of Competence.” The researchers worked with a sample of 276 participants (school counselors) who completed research surveys. Half of the participants took a research survey that used the term “guidance counselor,” while the other half were given surveys that used the term “school counselor.”

The researchers found that participants whose surveys used “guidance counselor” were statistically significantly less likely to believe that individuals with that job title were capable of completing the 25 tasks listed on the survey.

For example, survey participants were less likely to indicate that a “guidance counselor” could fulfill the role of implementing a data-informed comprehensive school counseling program. The participants indicated that the term “guidance counselor” did not lead them to believe that a person with the title would be competent to complete the job roles or tasks of a “school counselor.”

A similar survey of the general public regarding “guidance counselor” vs. “school counselor” had similar results. Participants who took a survey that used the term “guidance counselor” were statistically less likely to believe that the 25 tasks assessed on the survey could be performed properly by someone with such a role.

The results of these studies indicate that both counselors and the general public perceived guidance counselors as less competent to complete the roles and tasks described within the ASCA professional standards and competencies and CACREP standards.

One of These Counselors Is Not Like the Other

The American Counseling Association provides an especially helpful “then vs. now” comparison that highlights the differences in the guidance counselor vs. school counselor debate. As the descriptions above have demonstrated and this comparison highlights, the difference is not at all just a title discrepancy. Instead, it makes a meaningful difference when it comes to the role of a counselor within a school setting and the way that students experience the role of a counselor at school.

The American Counseling Association asks “How does the school counselor of 20 years ago compare to the school counselor of today?” Their response is the following comparison, which can be found in infographic form.

Then Now

Title was “Guidance Counselor.”

Title is “Professional School Counselor.”

School counseling programs revolved around the interests/expertise of the individual counselor.

School counseling programs are developed from a foundation of data.

School counselors graduated from various programs that required 36–39 credit hours and usually one clinical experience of 100–150 hours.

Almost all counseling took place individually in the counselor’s office.

Most school counselors hold a Master’s Degree in School Counseling, requiring 48–60 credits and have clinical experience of 150–700 hours.

Counselors are fully integrated into the natural flow of the school day. 

Most school counselors in high schools and middle schools.

Today’s model recommends multiple counselors in every middle school and high school, and at least one counselor in every elementary school.

A small percentage of students were identified as having special needs and acute mental health issues.

Counselors address the needs of all students and are responsible for assisting with increasingly complex social challenges.

School counselors at the secondary level were involved in postsecondary planning.

All school counseling programs address equity and access issues—counselors help students with career planning and beyond.

Become a School Counselor Who Holistically Impacts Students

Sadly, the nation’s youth are being hit hard, with a growing percentage living with major depression. According to the latest Mental Health America report, over 60% struggle without treatment, mainly due to a lack of health insurance and access to counseling services.

School Counselors play a vital role in helping students become well-adjusted adults, and quite frankly, we need more of them. The ASCA recommends a 250-1 ratio of students to school counselors, and currently, the national average is almost double that.

St. Bonaventure University’s online Master of Science in Education School Counseling will prepare you to support students in the most vital areas of development. Engaging coursework, experienced faculty, and in-field practice will teach you to support primary, middle, and high school students in ways that last for a lifetime.

school counseling program

Our online Master’s in School Counseling program is CACREP accredited and features complimentary clinical placement services. Our curriculum includes education in timely topics like abnormal psychology and multicultural counseling.

Learn more about our MS in Education – School Counseling and take the steps toward supporting the emotional well-being of children and improving outcomes.