College & Workforce Readiness

School Counselors Boost Students’ College, Financial Aid Chances, Study Finds

By Catherine Gewertz — December 07, 2016 3 min read
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Meeting one-on-one with a school counselor to discuss college admission or financial aid makes a big difference in students’ futures, tripling the chance they’ll attend college, doubling the chance that they’ll attend a four-year college, and increasing by nearly seven times the likelihood that they’ll apply for financial aid, according to a study published Wednesday.

The analysis by the National Association for College Admission Counseling is one of the few that measure the impact school counselors have on students’ lives after high school graduation.

David Hawkins, the organization’s executive director for educational content and policy, likened the new study to “the holy grail” for the counseling field: proof of its quantifiable, statistically significant and positive impact on college access for students.

Using a federal database that follows 23,000 students who were in 9th grade in 2009, the organization calculated how likely students were to attend college four years later, and to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, after meeting one-on-one to discuss those issues with a counselor.

The Power of Meeting Individually With Counselors

Students who met with counselors to talk about financial aid were 6.8 times more likely to submit the FAFSA than those who didn’t have those meetings. Students who met individually with a counselor to talk about financial aid or college were twice as likely to attend a bachelor’s degree program after finishing high school. Their odds of attending college—any kind of college—were tripled.

The power of meeting individually with a counselor outstripped the power of many other factors in the study to influence students’ odds of applying for financial aid and attending college.

Those meetings were far better predictors of FAFSA submission than other factors, such as whether schools helped students fill out the FAFSA or sent FAFSA deadline reminders. When it comes to the likelihood of attending college, the one-on-one meetings with counselors were far more likely to boost those odds than holding a college fair or having a counselor in the building whose primary role is college planning.

Other factors, however, such as how much college education parents expect from their children, and parents’ own educational backgrounds, are also powerful predictors of students’ likelihood of attending college, the study showed. The analysis did not examine the role students’ motivation might play in seeking out counselors or being likely to apply for financial aid or attend college.

Impact of Counselors’ Focus on College Planning

What kinds of school counseling programs make it more likely that students will meet individually with counselors? The NACAC study looked at that, too. It found that one key variable was how much time counselors were able to devote to college planning.

As other studies have noted, many counselors don’t have the time—or the training—to serve as college advisers. They must spend large chunks of their days on duties such as monitoring standardized testing and managing students’ class schedules. Fully 54 percent of the students in the study attended schools where counselors were able to spend 20 percent of their time or less on college planning, according to the new NACAC report. Students at schools where counselors spend more than 20 percent of their time on college issues were more likely to meet one-on-one with counselors.

Another variable was whether schools had one or more counselors whose primary responsibility is college planning. Four in 10 high schools enjoy this distinction, according to the NACAC study. Students at those schools were 16 percent more likely to meet individually with counselors to discuss financial aid than students at schools without counselors dedicated to college planning.

The NACAC study also found that other factors also influenced the likelihood that students would meet individually with counselors to discuss financial aid or college. Whether the school hosted or participated in college fairs, or offered informational meetings about financial aid were important predictors. Whether students discussed college with a counselor when they were in 9th grade, or participated in a program about college preparation by the time they reached 11th grade also made it more likely they’d talk one-on-one with a counselor. And whether parents had spoken to a counselor about their child’s college options by the time the student was in 11th grade mattered, too.

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