Educational Dilemma: School Counselor Caseloads Are Too High

School counselors are the greatest advocates for higher education a high school student can have. They help find resources, review potential schools, explain paperwork, find programs and know about scholarships. That’s particularly true for children from lower-income households or the first in their family to pursue a college degree.

A school counselor’s recommended caseload is 250 kids. But the national average in public school is more like 436:1.

Yikes.

School Counselors Have An Under-Valued Role

When a school district is surveyed on budget priorities, school counselors get a mention barely. It’s a serious gap in understanding how valuable their role is in helping students transition from high school to college. This is particularly true in economically-challenged school districts where the need for college advocacy is most paramount.

School counselors are required to have a Master’s degree in their field. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) has identified over 200 core competencies for the job. In addition to preparation for college, counselors support kids through academic challenges, help them establish relationships, deal with personal or social struggles or handle family problems.

If we assume an annual workload of 1860 hours a year, with 436 students to see, students only get around four hours of face time a year. Parents might consider how helpful they think it would be to have a one-hour meeting with a therapist once every three months.

Imagine how hard would it would be build trust under those circumstances?

School budgets are always going to have many worthy initiatives and conflicting priorities. As interest in higher education rises, administrators may need to consider putting some money toward the mentors who help make college possible.

Public vs. Private Priorities

The scope of work for school counselors can vary from state to state, school to school. But one constant remain – job priorities are defined by the system where they’re employed.

School counselors in private school typically prioritize 55% of their time on advising student for college. Counselors in public schools spend only 22% of their time doing the same.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the students who need support the most are the ones who get shortchanged. When government funding is cut, or property taxes generate low revenue – schools feel the pinch.

It’s a hard sell to cut teachers or programs, but if one student counselor per school is chopped, not too many parents will squawk. But maybe they should.

What’s the Impact?

For Counselors

People who pursue a Master’s Degree to counsel high school students have to be motivated by something bigger than money. The starting salary for school counselors is usually nothing to write home about.

Wealthier communities with a stronger tax base may pay more, even in public schools. But there’s no guarantee that caseload will be lower. Only three states – New Hampshire, Vermont, and Wyoming meet ASCA’s recommended ratio of students to counselors.

The people who fill this role are invested in helping their students achieve the best life plan possible.

The job is rewarding but isn’t easy. It’s stressful, trying to balance multiple job responsibilities and high caseloads in a role that is too often unappreciated. Combined with a salary that isn’t commensurate with their education, school counselors can feel frustrated or unsupported.

For Students

High school kids are expected to make huge life decisions during adolescence – one of the most tumultuous times they will ever experience. Depending on their support system, they may feel like they’re isolated and alone. Even with a supportive family – college is a lot to take in.

School counselors guide students through crucial steps, helping them look at options, consider schools, find resources to cover the costs. Higher education is the opportunity everyone likes to reference when talking about upward mobility.

But without encouragement, resources, and support – they’re just a kid with no real understanding of how the path they choose will affect them later. School counselors have the opportunity to redirect the lives of these kids and put them on a better life path.

Research consistently shows the positive impact of a counselor on the number of successful college applicants. One study –Student Counselors and the High School to College Pipeline reported these outcomes:

“Students in schools with small counselor caseloads enjoy greater success at navigating the high school-to-college pipeline. Controlling for a student- and school-level characteristics, students in schools where counselors are responsible for advising a large number of students, are less likely to speak with a counselor about college, plan to attend college, take the SAT, and enroll in a four-year college. *”

This correlates with other data that indicates a connection between schools with high “college-attending” rates with caseloads of under 250 students.

 

Different Populations, Different Models

Student counselors wear lots of hats. One of their key goals is to encourage, advocate and assist students in attending college. They are often pulled in multiple directions depending on the tasks assigned to their role.

The job description can also include:

  • Identify obstacles to academic achievement and collaborate on solutions
  • Support relationships between students and teachers, student and parents, parents and teachers
  • Help kids overcome social and emotional challenges
  • Encourage self-worth
  • Help students plan their life after high school

The caseload model under our current educational system is a catch-22. The schools with students who need the most services from their counselors have the lowest budgets and higher caseloads too.

Students who live in economically-challenged school districts face unique obstacles, from hunger to aggression, poor technology to unsafe streets or homes. In these circumstances, the demands on a school counselor will intensify across the board.

These students are often the first in their family to attempt college, so there is no legacy information being shared at home. Sometimes there’s little family support at all. This can be related to financial concerns or an inability to conceive that a path to college is possible.

The school counselor may be the student’s only advocate and probably the only cheerleader.

College Coaching Models

Some schools are experimenting with separating job responsibilities among the counselors they can employ. Though this doesn’t resolve the caseload issue, it does create a clear channel for students who want to transition into college. The one to one time between mentor and student may be increased.

It allows the counselor to develop a network of resources and establish a structured process for a student to walk through. Standard educational materials can be created to help families. Simply by establishing a routine, work stress may be reduced, and the quality of student services increased.

Group Coaching Models

Other schools are using a collective approach by conducting groups for students who want to attend college. Counselors can share the workload and take turns conducting the groups. Not only does this increased access to resources for students, ideally it creates a peer-to-peer environment that many students need.

Collectively, groups can be taught on FARSA (financial aid applications), support preparation for SATs and other tests, help students write essays and in general understand what it takes to get accepted to the schools they’re considering. The groups can also be used to identify kids that might need some individual support.

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Supporting What Works

America’s education system tends to move very slowly. It is empirically proven that lower caseloads for school counselors increase the number of students who transition from high school to college.

Lower caseloads for student counselors work when it comes to increasing access to a college education. A college education is key to upward mobility and can be a path out of poverty.

But finding consensus to invest in what works isn’t always an easy sell. Despite the near constant drumbeat to move students toward higher education, there is little understanding of the role these counselors play in the process. Much less on the funding to help them get it done.

Private schools invest school counselor caseloads and task priorities. Students in public schools should merit the same commitment. Many public-school families are daunted by the college process and particularly worried about the cost.

Parents of first-in-family college attendees may need more support, reassurance, and guidance. Non-English-speaking families also have challenges that must be addressed. Honoring every student’s opportunity to attend college is the goal our entire system.

Our school districts need to explore ways to fund ideas that work – proven ideas with measurable results. Sometimes that will require educating parents and taxpayer on what those ideas are and why they work.

It’s simple – school counselors help make college happen for more kids. Let’s fund what works.