College & Workforce Readiness

States Beef Up School Counseling Corps

By Catherine Gewertz — December 13, 2016 7 min read
Michelle Willis, an Advise TN college adviser, talks to Northwest High School senior Makayla Litteken in Clarksville, Tenn. To nudge more students to apply to college, Advise TN sent college advisers into 30 schools around the state this fall.

Several states are making investments to build their corps of school counselors in the wake of mounting, quantifiable evidence that counseling support can be a powerful weapon in the battle to get more students through high school and into college.

Minnesota recently announced a $12 million effort to send counselors, social workers, nurses, and school psychologists into 77 schools. College advisers joined the counseling staffs in 30 high schools in Tennessee this fall, thanks to a $7.2 million, three-year pot of money. Colorado is piling millions on top of a $15 million investment because it got such strong results. And the Lilly Endowment in Indiana has pledged up to $30 million to support the design of comprehensive counseling programs there.

The counseling initiatives are far from the biggest-ticket items in states’ budgets. But they’re a significant sign of a renewed commitment to school counseling, which took particularly heavy hits in layoffs driven by the Great Recession eight years ago.

“People are realizing that a school counselor really is essential in a student’s education,” said Richard Wong, the executive director of the American School Counselor Association. Ever more complex social pressures and the drumbeat calls for college readiness make counselors even more important, he said, so “we’re very happy to see states’ response to the need.”

Senior Chance Macias signs a sticker to signify that he's finished his college application. Applicants' stickers are displayed on a wall at Northwest High School.

That need is deep and persistent, though states rarely take major steps to meet it. An Education Week analysis of federal data shows that nearly 3 in 10 pre-K-12 schools have no counselor. In elementary and secondary schools nationally, there are 482 students for each school counselor, although the American School Counselor Association advises a ratio of no more than 250 to 1.

In addition to their heavy caseloads, counselors juggle a raft of unrelated duties, such as test administration. At the middle and high school levels, many are not trained to manage the growing need for career and college advising. But educators know counselors can play a powerful role in shaping students’ choices and trajectories. Anecdotal evidence of that influence abounds, but more recently, researchers have quantified it, too.

A report this month from the National Association for College Admission Counseling shows 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 submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, the financial aid that can make or break their college plans. A 2013 study by the College Board calculated that adding one counselor to a high school’s staff predicts a 10-percentage-point increase in its four-year-college enrollment.

Those are the kinds of gains lawmakers in a cluster of states had in mind when they committed money to expanding school counseling.

Zeroing In: College Advising

Tennessee’s initiative is led by its higher education commission, as part of the state’s drive to produce more college graduates. The idea was to place advisers in 30 high schools with below-average college-going rates, to focus exclusively on getting students into college. They work year-round, in part to battle the “summer melt” that can lead college-accepted students not to show up on campus.

“Our advisers are not mental-health professionals. They’re not doing scheduling. They spend 100 percent of their time on the college transition. This is not a replacement for, but a supplement to, school counselors,” said Troy Grant, who is overseeing the program, called Advise TN, for the higher education commission.

The advisers are college graduates who come mostly from the world of K-12—teachers, principals, counselors—but also include a former park ranger and a college financial-aid director, said Sherica Nelms, Advise TN’s program director. They attend a 2½ week boot camp, where they study financial aid, the college application process, and related subjects. They must be fans of a data-driven approach; they’re expected to track their students’ progress by many metrics, including college and financial aid applications. Each adviser makes a three-year commitment to the project.

Tennessee’s willingness to finance Advise TN was influenced by its experience since 2006 using federal GEAR UP money to put more counselors in needy districts. That focus increased college-going rates in those counties by 22 percent, said Mike Krause, the executive director of the higher education commission.

State leaders also noticed that even though their Tennessee Promise program offers tuition-free scholarships to community colleges and technical colleges, many students could not navigate all the required steps without counseling support. Leaders of Advise TN knew they had to bolster counseling support, but also change and intensify the advisers’ focus.

“The question is, what are those counselors being asked to do?” Krause said. “We’re comfortable with tracking student achievement data, but it’s a new paradigm to track FAFSA and college-admission data, and set goals for those things. But it’s mission-critical.”

Michelle Willis is obsessed with those kinds of data. She’s the new college adviser at Northwest High School in Clarksville, Tenn., and she’s working to raise the school’s college-going rate from 41 percent to 75 percent. Only 67 percent of last year’s graduating class completed the FAFSA, but she’s bound and determined that 100 percent will this year. She’s tracking every student’s college and scholarship applications, ACT scores, and other metrics, and already planning summer college visits for this year’s juniors.

“The main difference between this and my last job [as a high school counselor] is that this is much more focused,” Willis said. “I can deliver expertise in the area of college access. I see my job as being a support for students year-round, through the whole process.”

‘Think A Little Deeper’

Minnesota’s new $12 million investment spans K-12, sending 40 counselors, 21 social workers, six school psychologists, three nurses, and seven chemical dependency specialists into schools. For its work in Indiana, the Lilly Endowment will award up to $30 million in grants for schools to design “comprehensive” counseling programs that will begin next October. The philanthropy’s project deliberately aims at all grades, K-12.

“We want [districts] to think a little deeper than just ‘What am I doing in my high school?’ ” said Judith Cebula, Lilly’s communications director. “Our hope is that [districts] would think about counseling as an arc” that starts in the early grades and extends through high school.

Colorado has chosen to focus its counselor initiative on middle and high school. Its goal is to improve outcomes in low-income high schools: fewer dropouts, more graduates, and more students enrolling in college. The Colorado School Counselor Corps has been in place since 2010, putting 220 counselors in 255 schools, and has produced results good enough to get the program, originally funded at $5 million annually for three years, renewed in 2014 at $10 million per year.

The initiative has reduced the dropout rate in participating high schools by 3.5 percentage points, increased college enrollment by 13 percent, lowered the student-ratio from more than 363 to 1 to 216 to 1, and boosted Advanced Placement participation by 75 percent, said Misti Ruthven, who oversees the program as the executive director of innovation and pathways for the Colorado department of education. A study of the program found that for every $1 invested in counseling, the state saved $20 in potential incarceration expenses, social safety net services, lost tax revenue from earnings, and other costs related to students who would have dropped out of school.

“We’ve seen this as an ever-increasing priority for our state because of the positive outcomes,” Ruthven said.

Even as some states redouble support for school counselors, they should take care not to get stuck in old patterns of thinking, said Mandy Savitz-Romer, a Harvard University researcher who focuses on school counseling. Investing in people and training is good, she said, but states must improve counselor-training programs and revamp counselors’ job descriptions, too.

Counselors need to be freed from tasks that take them away from students, Savitz-Romer said. They need support to learn to work deeply with data to track students’ progress and needs, and to work as key parts of their schools’ leadership teams to collaboratively envision counseling programs. They should also partner with teachers to integrate career- and college-readiness into the curriculum. Principals can play a pivotal role in bringing about those changes, Savitz-Romer said.

“If you put more people into antiquated roles, not much will change,” she said, “but in a repurposed role, a lot can change.”

Analyst Alex Harwin of the Education Week Research Center contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the December 14, 2016 edition of Education Week as States Aim to Bolster School Counselors’ Thinning Ranks

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