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My Hechinger Report colleagues have written many stories about how low-income students don’t get nearly as much help as wealthy students do when it comes time to apply to college. The gap in college counseling is yet another example of how students who need more tend to get less in the United States. So it caught my attention when the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) issued a press release in April 2020, heralding a surprising increase in the number of school counselors, whose jobs include college counseling and career planning as well as student discipline, social-emotional development and addressing students’ individual academic needs and learning problems.
According to the most recent federal data from the 2018-19 school year, there are now almost 118,000 school counselors in U.S. public schools and, more importantly, just 430 students, from kindergarten through 12th grade, for each school counselor. That marks the fifth straight year of growth in the number of school counselors, bringing the student-to-counselor ratio down to the lowest level since the federal government began counting counselors more than 30 years ago. Today’s ratio represents a 27 percent improvement in national caseloads since 1986, when there was only one counselor for every 588 students.
School counselors are funded through local and state budgets. Some of the recent hiring merely recouped all the school counselors laid off between 2009 and 2014 in the aftermath of the great recession. But there have also been initiatives to hire more counselors in reaction to school shootings, to prevent bullying and to generally address students’ emotional and mental health, according to the association.
“We’re seeing more hiring by states and districts because school leaders are understanding the impact that school counseling programs can have on student outcomes,” said Jill Cook, the association’s assistant director. Cook explained that the profession has shifted to a data-driven approach, documenting improvements in achievement, attendance and behavior from school counseling programs, to persuade policymakers.
Despite the dramatic increases in counselors, the current 430-to-1 ratio falls far short of the association’s recommendation of 250-to-1.
The National Center for Education Statistics defines school counselor very broadly and includes unlicensed staff who are doing counseling-like work so this report could overstate how much high quality counseling U.S. schoolchildren receive.
“These numbers need to be taken with a grain of salt,” said Mandy Savitz-Romer, faculty director of the prevention science and practice program at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. There is a long-term trend of more counselors at schools, she confirms. But Savitz-Romer said she is finding that the federal data are reporting student-to-counselor ratios that can be nearly 100 students lower than the ratios reported to Savitz-Romer by local school districts.
It’s unclear from this data whether lower income students are getting more access to counseling than in years past because there are no breakdowns by zip code or school district. But the state-by-state data reveal that a student’s access to counseling depends greatly on where he or she happens to live in America. Arizona has the fewest counselors in the nation with one counselor for every 905 students. (Reducing counselor caseloads was one of the issues that the Arizona teachers pressed for in their 2018 statewide strike.) Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois and California each operate schools with ratios above 600 students per counselor.
On the other end of the spectrum, Vermont and New Hampshire maintain lower ratios than the 250-to-1 that the counselors association recommends with 191 and 219 students per counselor, respectively. The low New England caseloads are due not so much to extra investment in counseling as much as declining student populations. Generally, rural areas tend to have lower ratios because their schools often retain counselors even when the number of students dwindles.
California used to be an outlier with almost 1,100 students per counselor throughout the 1990s but it has since hired thousands of counselors and now has a ratio of 612-to-1 in the most recent data. The biggest one-year increase in student counseling was documented in Washington, D.C., which decreased its student-to-school-counselor ratio 15 percent from 560-to-1 in 2017–18 to 474-to-1 in 2018–19. Nevada bucked the national trend. Its student-to-school-counselor increased 14 percent from 478-to-1 in 2017–18 to 544-to-1 in 2018–19.
Counting school counselors and estimating just how much counseling students are actually getting is complicated. In addition to the debate over whether unlicensed professionals should be counted, it is difficult to understand how much or what kinds of counseling the school counselors provide. Cook admits that some school leaders may use school counselors to administer annual state tests, handle lunchroom and bus duties and fill in as substitute teachers. Some schools, especially many elementary and middle schools, have no counselors at all. So the ratios, while mathematically accurate across a state, sometimes don’t reflect the reality inside a particular school.
“We have no idea what the counselors are doing,” said Harvard’s Savitz-Romer. “If they’re spending all their time on lunchroom duties or proctoring tests, if they’re not spending their time counseling students, having a lower caseload doesn’t amount to anything.”
On the other hand, many outside organizations are involved in assisting schools with college and career planning or anti-bullying programs. These non-staff consultants and volunteers are not counted in the federal counseling data and so this data can also underestimate actual counseling on the ground.
Regardless of these numerical debates, it’s clear that students get more counseling when local budgets are flush. When the economy falters, counseling is one of the first things that gets cut. Now that the coronavirus pandemic is triggering another recession, it seems likely that school counselors will once again fall to budget cuts just as the need for their guidance becomes even more critical.
This story about the school counselor to student ratio was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.