First, the good news: The number of students per school counselor in U.S. schools has narrowed slightly to 408, the best ratio on record in more than three decades, according to a recent analysis by the American School Counselor Association.
Now, the bad news: The gradual improvement from 415 in the 2020-21 school year means school counselors are still stretched far too thin. The improved ratio is significantly higher than the 250 students to school counselor recommended by the ASCA, which began tracking student-counselor ratios in 1986.
The pandemic and the mental health crisis among youth that it left in its wake has strained school-based mental health support staff, such as counselors, psychologists, nurses, and social workers.
“School counselors continue to serve large numbers of students, many of whom have increasing mental health needs, while being assigned duties inappropriate to the school counselor role, such as coordinating 504 plans and statewide testing programs,” said Jill Cook, the ASCA’s executive director. “School counselors need the support of their districts and administrators to ensure students learn the tools they need to succeed in school and in life. And that means ensuring every student has access to a school counselor.”
School psychologists, nurses, and social workers are facing many of the same issues: high student need, high caseloads, and, in some cases, getting assigned duties that extend beyond their core responsibilities.
An analysis by Education Weekfound that in 2020-21—the first full school year of the pandemic—only 14 percent of districts met the recommended ratio of students to school counselors. Nearly 40 percent of all school districts did not have a single school psychologist—affecting 5.4 million students.
EdWeek’s analysis also found significant racial disparities. Districts in which the student population was three-quarters or more percent white were more likely to meet the ideal ratios recommended by the ASCA and the National Association of School Psychologists.
Many schools have used federal pandemic relief funding to hire more school counselors and other mental health support staff over the past couple of years. And two newly expanded federal grant programs will make additional money available to address school counselor shortages.
But even with the extra money, schools face challenges in hiring counselors because of labor shortages and high demand for counselors’ services. A survey by the Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, found that in the lead-up to the 2022-23 school year, 40 percent of schools expected or found it “very difficult” to fill mental health positions and 37 percent said the same when it came to filling academic counselor positions.
Variations by grade level and state
However, counselor staffing is drastically different for elementary and middle schools than it is for high schools. In grades K-8, the average ratio ranges from 613 students per counselor to 787 students per counselor. But in grades 9-12, the ratio is much more in line with the ASCA’s recommendation, ranging from 205 to 243 students per counselor.
The situation also varies dramatically by state.
In Indiana, the state with the worst numbers, there are 694 students to one school counselor, whereas in Vermont, there are 186 students per school counselor.
Tennessee experienced the largest increase in its student-counselor ratio between the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years, rising from 301 to 458 students per school counselor.
Illinois, on the other hand, showed the most improvement, lowering the number of students per counselor from 665 to 522.