The heavy caseloads of school counselors haven’t gotten much lighter in the past decade, even as schools are under pressure to deliver quality advice and guidance on a growing range of issues.
A report issued Thursday by two groups that represent school counselors shows that the national average student-counselor ratio was 482 to 1 in 2014-15, the most recent year for which data are available. In 2004-05, the average ratio was 479 to 1.
The National Association for College Admission Counseling and the American School Counselor Association conducted the study, drawing from information that states submit to the National Center for Education Statistics.
“Our intention in producing this data is to shed light on the often unmanageable caseloads public school counselors must serve,” their report says.
The most recent numbers represented an improvement over the previous year: In 2013-14, there were 491 students for every counselor, the highest ratio in the 10-year period that’s the focus of the report.
The two organizations pointed to research showing that counseling can influence students’ postsecondary aspirations and improve the chances that they’ll go to college.
A 2013 study by the College Board, for instance, calculated that adding one counselor to a high school’s staff predicted a 10-percentage-point increase in its four-year-college enrollment. A separate report by NACAC showed that meeting one-on-one with a counselor to discuss financial aid or college triples students’ chances of going to college and increases by sevenfold the likelihood that they’ll apply for federal financial aid.
But to produce results like that, the report says, counselors must “operate in an environment free of overwhelmingly large student caseloads.”
The study calls for stepped-up state and federal funding to support hiring more counselors. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of no more than 250 students for each counselor, but only three states—New Hampshire, Vermont, and Wyoming—reported that level of staffing in the new study.
The report lands at a time of rising pressure to provide students with good career and college advising. Many counselors struggle to get enough time to do that in addition to their other duties, such as scheduling, helping students with course planning, and providing social and emotional support. Their administrators also often deploy them on tasks unrelated to their training, such as lunchroom duty or test proctoring.
“The fact that the student-to-school-counselor ratio has effectively not budged on the national level suggests the need to invest in these professionals, particularly when they are being asked to cover such a wide swath of student experiences and outcomes,” David Hawkins, NACAC’s executive director for educational content and policy, said in an email.
Elementary schools are an important part of the picture of high student-counselor ratios, said Amanda Fitzgerald, ASCA’s director of public policy. Only half the states require schools to have counselors in elementary schools, she said, so counselor-to-student ratios are much higher in those states. An Education Week analysis of federal data in 2016 showed that nearly 3 in 10 pre-K-12 schools have no counselor.
Activists who push for counselors at that level often face a steeper climb, Fitzgerald said.
“Most people see the relevance of a high school counselor, for college admission, scheduling, and other things. It’s those elementary services that are really falling behind,” she said. “But those are our prevention services. That ounce of prevention in the elementary years could really ward off some of the issues older adolescents face.”
Some states have launched big initiatives to expand counseling support in schools. Colorado’s “School Counselor Corps” grants began at the high school level, but expanded downward into middle schools, and is now making its way into some elementary schools, Fitzgerald said.
A report on that program found that schools with additional counselors saw higher graduation rates, lower dropout rates, and increased college enrollment. Another study calculated that Colorado’s $16 million investment saved the state $300 million in safety-net services.
That program has a limited reach, however. Colorado’s student-counselor ratio showed a 30 percent decline in the ten-year period that’s the focus of the new study. Some other states saw big drops, too: The ratio in the District of Columbia dropped 53 percent, and in New Jersey, it declined 37 percent.
Other states saw big gains: Louisiana’s student-to-counselor ratio went up 114 percent in the last decade. Idaho and New York each saw improvements of more than 40 percent. The report didn’t include details of what drove those changes, however.
Fitzgerald said she is hopeful that the Every Student Succeeds Act will encourage schools to beef up their counselor ranks. She noted that many states are using college and career readiness as their required “fifth indicator” for accountability, and others are factoring social and emotional learning into their accountability metrics. Counselors can play key roles in improving schools’ performance in those areas, Fitzgerald said.
For more stories on school counseling, see:
Get High School & Beyond posts delivered to your inbox as soon as they’re published. Sign up here. Also, for news and analysis of issues that shape adolescents’ preparation for work and higher education.
Photo: Getty Images
A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.