College & Workforce Readiness

College Advising Is in Short Supply in U.S. High Schools, Study Finds

By Catherine Gewertz — November 13, 2018 2 min read
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Only a third of the country’s public high schools have a counselor devoted to helping students get prepared for college, and the problem is even worse in high-poverty schools.

A recent survey of 2,251 high school counselors found that only 33 percent of the nation’s public high schools have a fulltime or part-time counselor focused exclusively on college advising, compared to 68 percent of private schools.

Schools that serve large populations of low-income students are less likely to have a counselor dedicated to college advising, according to the report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

More than half of the schools with the lowest poverty rates have a dedicated college counselor; those with higher poverty rates were less likely to report having such a staff member.

The disparities in college-counseling support aren’t new. But they continue to resonate as policymakers focus, with increasing urgency, on the need to help more minority and low-income students get into college and earn degrees.

Schools are chronically short on counselors. The most recent federal data, for the 2015-16 school year, show that K-12 counselors in public schools have an average caseload of 470 students.

That’s a better number than the year before: 482 to 1. But “the takeaway is that it’s still incredibly high. Higher than we’d want it to be,” said Melissa E. Clinedinst, NACAC’s director of research.

Counselor-to-student ratios are better at the high school level: an average of 268-to-1, according to the NACAC survey. The American School Counselor Association recommends no more than 250 students per counselor.

But large caseloads aren’t the only thing making college advising tough for counselors. How they’re required to use their time is another part of the problem.

The new NACAC survey shows that high school counselors are able to devote less than 30 percent of their time to college advising. Big chunks focus on other important things, like helping students choose courses or supporting their emotional needs. Nearly 20 percent of counselors’ time, however, is spent on non-counseling duties, including helping with testing.

The problem is worse in public and high-poverty schools. Counselors in private schools spend 47 percent of their time on college advising, compared to 21 percent in public schools. And those in the highest-poverty schools spend less than 20 percent of their time helping students plan for college, while their colleagues in the lowest-poverty schools devoted nearly 39 percent of their hours to college planning.

NACAC has been sending up warnings for years about the potential harm of providing thin counseling resources to students, and it echoed that warning in its report on the survey.

“Access to college information and counseling in school is a significant benefit to students in the college application process,” the report said. “For many students, particularly those in public schools, college counseling is limited at best. Counselors are few in number, often have large student caseloads, and have additional constraints on the amount of time they can dedicate to college counseling.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.

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