School counselors, achievement gaps and the Student Support Act

CongressThe Student Support Act was introduced to Congress on January 18, 2013. The legislation would require the Department of Education to send matching state grants of at least $1 million to increase the number of counselors and psychologists in K-12 public schools. While this policy was designed to benefit all students, it also presents an opportunity to alleviate a troubling achievement gap fact: most high-achieving, low-income students don’t apply to the quality of college they’re eligible for.  Most settle for something less and many don’t apply at all. This trend is usually attributed to a lack of guidance and knowledge regarding available resources. If the number of counselors increased in poor communities both of these barriers could diminish. Furthermore, as CPE’s High School Rigor and Good Advise found, counselors not only help students get into college, but for those students to succeed in college as well.

Before examining the impact of school counselors, a closer look at the Student Support Act is in order. Support for the bill stemmed from a glut of studies showing that counselor-to-student ratios were out of control in American schools. As described in a recent U.S. News article, the national average ratio is 470 students for every one counselor—almost twice the 250-to-1 ratio that the American Counseling Association recommends. The article goes on to describe the 1,000-2,000 student caseloads that some California schools face and relay the fact that not all states regulate these dynamics.

The consequences of overworked counselors are dire for academically successful, low-income public school students. Reports from the Brookings Institute and Stanford University demonstrate that when these students are eligible for selective colleges, they rarely apply. The reports state that the majority of students don’t seize the opportunity because they are unaware of their eligibility, fear they cannot afford tuition, or aren’t pushed to explore rigorous universities. In essence, opportunities to defy historical education disparities are lost due to misinformation and insufficient encouragement.

Counselors can alleviate these barriers in a number of ways. First, they can help establish a schedule for completing components of college applications. While some students don’t need guidance, the aforementioned reports suggest that many would benefit from a predetermined structure that sets early deadlines for admissions essays, school transcripts, college entrance exams, teacher recommendations and other important deliverables. With deadlines in place, counselors can check in on progress, ask parents to help monitor from home and ensure that students are applying to schools that match their qualifications. They can also explain the numerous and, often times, complex financial-aid options that are available for impoverished families.

None of the necessary support or encouragement is feasible with an average counselor caseload that doubles the recommended amount. The Student Support Act addresses these concerns by empowering schools to hire more counselors and better support their students. Last April, Congress referred the bill to the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education where it currently awaits a vote. With overwhelmed counselors and high-achieving public school students hanging in the balance, education leaders would be wise to encourage that a vote takes place sooner rather than later.

~Jordan Belton

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