Campbell High School counselor Jamie Ryder’s determined cheer interrupts the half-asleep, early morning silence of a dozen ninth-graders crammed into a small classroom as she launches into a 90-minute talk about their future.
The challenges facing Ryder soon become clear. When she asks about her students’ goals, one hand goes up. Then a low voice in the back of the room wisecracks, “Be a drug dealer.” A while later, when the students sit at computers and fill out a questionnaire to help determine what courses of study and careers would be good for them, several struggle with the words on the screen. This is probably the only time that many of these students will see her or any other counselor for at least a year.
Campbell High, in Smyrna, Georgia, a fast-growing city about 20 miles northeast of Atlanta where one in five children under 18 lives in poverty, is trying to counteract a vexing but largely unseen problem facing public schools across the country: There is a shortage of competent counselors at a time when getting into college is more expensive, more confusing and more important than ever.
A public school counselor in the U.S. now has an average caseload of 471 students, according to the American School Counselor Association, or ASCA. And the situation is getting worse. In California, for example, the ratio has increased from 1-to-810 before the 2008 economic downturn to 1-to-1,016 today. That’s for all grades. In high schools, where counselors are often the primary source of information about college, each one is responsible for a nationwide average of 239 students, the ASCA says. In California, it’s 1-to-500, and in Georgia, according to a Georgia School Counselors Association survey, it’s 1-to-512.
In addition to huge caseloads, budget cuts have forced to counselors to increasingly contend with duties unrelated to their traditional roles, such as monitoring the school cafeteria or proctoring exams, says Eric Sparks, the ASCA’s assistant director. And few get more than scant training before taking on the job, says Alexandria Walton Radford, a former U.S. Department of Education official who has studied the issue. Many degree programs for school counselors don’t offer coursework on helping students make the best college choices, or getting financial aid, according to a national survey of counselors.
The result is an overtaxed system in which many students either never go to college, go to institutions that are the wrong for them, or never learn about financial aid for which they may qualify. According to Radford’s research, low-income, ethnic minority valedictorians and first-generation college applicants shy away from elite schools, unaware of scholarship opportunities; freshmen over-rely on friends and relatives for advice about college.
The complexity of information coming from colleges makes matters even worse, says Barmak Nassirian, director of policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. There are 4,000 universities and colleges, Nassirian says. And when the huge variety of prices and financial-aid programs are taken into account, “That’s cacophony. It might as well be a random process.”
It’s revealing that three out of four private high schools, which parents expect to get their children into good colleges, have counselors who specialize in advising students about their higher educations, Radford says. And counselors in private schools have a median caseload of only 106.
At public Campbell High, where Ryder counsels up to 400 students, school officials are trying to adopt measures suggested by the ASCA, including giving students some information every year, requiring seniors to apply to at least one college, and reduce the counseling staff’s other responsibilities.
The state is also trying to help. A new Georgia law aims to lower the ratio of counselors to students to 1-to-450. Sparks, of the ASCA, says other states, including North Carolina, have passed laws to stop counselors from being assigned to non-counseling duties. But at a time of stretched resources, money to lower the caseloads “has been limited.”
“If caseloads were smaller,” says Ryder, “I could do a lot more.”
It was only at the end of her junior year that Alejandra Tapia, a 17-year-old Campbell senior, learned that she might be eligible for financial aid to go to college. Tapia had dreamed for nearly two years of becoming a researcher at the Centers for Disease Control, but told only close friends. As the daughter of undocumented immigrants, she figured college was beyond her reach.
After finally meeting with Ryder, Tapia said she “felt motivated.” Still, she wishes she had met with a counselor earlier and made different decisions about what courses she needed to take.
“We can help them,” Ryder says. “We just don’t know what their issues are because we don’t see them.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.