The Undervaluing of School Counselors

Their role is crucial to helping more students reach higher education.

A high-school guidance counselor speaks to a student.
Wilfredo Lee / AP

Teenagers make bad choices. Honestly, who doesn’t? For adolescents, however, who are armed with new responsibilities, opportunities, and bodies they are almost inevitably unprepared to deal with, the wrong decision can have serious, life-altering effects. For low-income adolescents who lack the safety net that comes with privilege, the wrong decisions can be catastrophic.

Students who drop out of high school or never graduate from college are, often without knowing it, setting themselves up to earn half as much as a college graduate does. High schools, however, provide counselors who help guide students through a crucial sequence of choices—about whether and where they will go to college and about how they will pay for it—to stave off disaster. College is a powerful engine for mobility, which is why college advising has the potential to transform both individual lives and society.

The significance of counseling is under-recognized by the public. A recent national survey asked what, if taxes were raised to improve local public schools, the money should be spent on first. Just over a third of the respondents said teachers; supplies came next, followed by classes and extracurriculars, infrastructure, and new schools. Counselors came last, with just 6 percent of the sample. David Hawkins of the National Association of College Admissions Counselors identifies counseling as the third and most-neglected component of increasing access to college, alongside financial support and equitable access to a challenging school curriculum.

Thankfully, leaders in the education community are increasingly recognizing the pivotal role of the school counselor in the lives of students, particularly low-income and first-generation ones who might not have any other adult in their lives who applied to and attended college.

The problem, as documented in a 2012 report, is that many high-school counselors are overburdened by huge caseloads, especially at schools where a majority of children are first-generation and low-income students. The American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-student counselor ratio of 250:1. According to the most recent data, only three states meet that recommendation. The national average is 491:1, while in California and Arizona, it’s 822:1 and 941:1, respectively. In far too many schools, security officers outnumber school counselors. A recent survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling revealed that while counselors at private schools spend 55 percent of their time on college counseling, public-school counselors can devote only 22 percent of their time to doing so. And then there are the almost 850,000 students who, according to federal data, have no access to a counselor at all, which is why a growing number of nonprofit organizations dedicated to increasing access to college are working to provide the advice that wealthier students already receive.

Some of these organizations are distinguishing themselves by using innovative, data-driven, and technologically savvy methods that are backed up by the latest research into college access. Significantly, the work they are doing has the potential to be done at a scale that could have a large impact. But will it be large enough? The benefits of these supplemental-advising measures are indubitable—they take some of the onus for college and career planning off overworked school counselors. But their efficacy derives in part from their not having to tackle the entire range of issues facing school counselors, from mental-health concerns and family crises to course planning and disciplinary issues. For all the good that organizations like College Possible, the College Advising Corps, and Strive for College are doing, their efforts cannot replace the work that school counselors do to transform society—a challenge that even representatives of these organizations acknowledge. Public policy and funding play a crucial role in improving the advising and, consequently, the future of millions of students. As it stands, some states and districts are making a serious commitment to redressing the advising gap, but the majority have demonstrated little sense of urgency on this issue.

The nonprofit advising movement was born a little over a decade ago out of the growing recognition that even when some wealthy colleges practice need-blind admissions and cover up to 100 percent of demonstrated need, they still enroll students from the bottom economic quartile at very low rates. According to the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which provides scholarships and support for this demographic, students from the bottom economic quartile compose only 3 percent of enrollment in the most competitive schools; those from the top economic quartile compose 72 percent. Even worse, a recent report from ACT identified nearly 90,000 students in the class of 2015 who met all four ACT college-readiness benchmarks and earned an average ACT composite score of 27.6 (close to the 90th percentile), but did not enroll in college this past year.

Asked what the barriers are to increasing access to college, Catherine Hill, who as the president of Vassar oversaw the rise of the share of low-income students from 7 percent of the incoming class in 2006 to a high of 24 percent in 2014, pointed to three factors: allocating universities’ resources to cover the full need of students, passing public policy that will encourage schools to recruit and enroll low-income and first-generation students, and getting enough qualified students into the college-admissions pipeline.

The third item is where advising comes in. One of the most serious deficits of being a low-income or first-generation student is the lack of guidance. John Gomperts, the CEO of America’s Promise Alliance, an organization started by Colin Powell and dedicated to helping to create the conditions for success for all young people, noted in a discussion that for students whose parents did not go to college, the school counselor operates not just as an advisor but as a champion, an advocate, a guide, and even as an accountability officer. Students whose parents went to college grow up with an in-house adviser, and the benefits redound to them. First-generation students have a greater need for guidance, but the student-to-counselor ratio is against them. As Harold Levy, the CEO of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, put it, many students “get three minutes for a life-changing conversation.” Some do not get even that.

In the past decade, several nonprofit organizations have stepped in to provide supplemental college advising for underserved students. The College Advising Corps and College Possible hire recent graduates, many of them low-income and first-generation applicants themselves. These near-peer mentors provide assistance with test prep, college selection, financial-aid forms, and college applications, but they also serve as models of possibility for their advisees. In New York City this past year, College Advising Corps placed 24 advisers in 21 schools, serving over 6,000 students. On average, college enrollment at these schools grew by 35 percent over two years.

As powerful as the in-person advising these groups provide is, they recognize that it also limits their ability to scale to the size and range of the problem, which is why they are participating in a new CollegePoint initiative using online advising to reach students in rural and other underserved locations. Strive for College is a volunteer organization that exclusively uses virtual advising and its reach will be expanded this year by its new partnership with the Common Application, which almost a million students used to apply to college last year. Scott Anderson, a senior director at the Common Application, acknowledged that the organization had been a “passive” player in promoting college access, so it has partnered with Strive to provide a mentor at no cost to any student who indicates he wants a fee waiver for the Common Application.

Even the testing companies ACT and the College Board, which have sometimes been taken to task for creating tests whose results reflect nothing better than wealth, have, in the past few years, assumed greater responsibility for getting more low-income and first-generation students into the applicant pool. The CEO of the College Board, David Coleman, acknowledged the SAT had not delivered on its “great promise,” which was that it “would find diamonds in the rough.” One explanation is counseling: Too many students who do well on the test are not provided the guidance they need to capitalize on their performance. The College Board is hoping to fix that by sending informational packets, modeled after work done by the economists Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner, which contain personalized advice for students, including what Coleman described as a starter list of reach, fit, and safety schools to apply to. ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning is partnering with the American Council on Education on the American College Application Campaign, which encourages first-generation students to apply to college.

The idea behind all this is to ensure that students are getting what they deserve. Nicole Hurd of the College Advising Corps compares the situation of the thousands of talented, low-income students who apply to one or fewer colleges to someone holding a winning lottery ticket and not cashing it in. Only the plight of these students is actually much worse, she said, since the lottery is merely a game of chance. These students have earned their places in college.

To get there, however, they will likely need more support than nonprofit organizations can provide. Altogether, College Possible, the College Advising Corps, and Strive for College served about 187,000 students last year (with CAC serving much more than half of that total), which leaves a substantial number of students unserved or underserved. Even though the advising gap tends to be most acute in hot spots of inequity rather than across the board in all schools, providing enough resources to cover the advising gap will almost certainly require significant public investments, which is one reason many of these access organizations have joined together in a coalition to advocate for policy changes. Schools counselors, after all, provide much more than application support. They often double as social workers, personal mentors, and advocates for students lacking the support that wealthy people take for granted.

Colorado is leading the way among the states with its School Counselor Corps Grant Program, which provided $16 million to 59 schools between 2010 and 2015 to add 220 school counselors, cutting the student-to-counselor ratio down from 363:1 to 216 :1. In three years, dropout rates declined from 5.5 percent to 3.5 percent, saving the state hundreds of millions of dollars, according to its 2016 report. Tennessee launched a program to train new school counselors for 30 schools. Some school districts are also placing a new emphasis on counseling. New York City has recently initiated the Single Shepherd program, which will pair 16,000 students in Brooklyn and the South Bronx with individual counselors from sixth through 12th grade.

Ratios are not the only problem, however. Julie Ajinkya, the vice president of research at the Institute of Higher Education Policy, pointed out in conversation that counselors are not just overburdened; they are often under informed because their districts have provided them neither the funding nor the opportunity for professional development. This past year alone has seen the introduction of a new SAT, revisions to the ACT, changes in the federal financial-aid application (FAFSA), and the rise of new application services. Amanda Fitzgerald, the director of public policy at the American School Counselor Association, points out that “counselors are spending their days putting out fires” in students’ lives, and yet they are expected to be state of the art on their field as well. In 2011, New York City’s Department of Education partnered with the Options Institute at the Goddard Riverside Community Center to create a free six-day program that runs counselors through all the components of the college application and financial-aid processes, and advises them on building a college-going culture at their schools. In its first three years, 80 percent of the city’s 544 public schools sent at least one counselor to the training. The Texas legislature passed a bill last year that will increase counselors’ access to training

It is looking increasingly unlikely that Washington will provide the level of support required to effect a revolution in counseling for public-school students. According to a White House spokesperson, “The president and First Lady know that well-trained counselors are essential” if the United States is going to increase the proportion of young people with college degrees. Michelle Obama focused on school counselors as part of her Reach Higher Initiative, and, in 2015, began recognizing a school counselor of the year. She also initiated a program to use text messaging to inform and remind student about important aspects and deadlines in the college-application process. The administration’s commitment to college access is admirable, but public relations and apps will not be enough to create equity. Students still need in-person school counselors, and that takes funding.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed last December to replace No Child Left Behind as the nation’s education law, has the potential to allow states and districts greater latitude in supporting school counselors. ESSA contains a major new provision under Title IV that’s designed to provide grants for all school districts to cover a broad range of educational supports beyond classroom instruction, including college and career counseling.

The law authorizes $1.65 billion for these so-called Student Support and Academic Enrichment grants, but it looks like Congress is not going to provide anything close to the funding authorized by the law. The House of Representatives proposed only $1 billion for the grants, but that looks positively generous in comparison to President Obama’s budget request, which allocates only $500 million and calls for the grants to be competitive. Meanwhile, the Senate’s budget proposal allocates just $300 million for the grants. No budget will be approved before the 2016 elections, but it looks like the federal government will be leaving college counseling off its agenda. One can only hope it will receive some wise guidance of its own before it makes a bad choice.