SMYRMA, Georgia — 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 the future, with a focus on careers and college.
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 are told to sit at computers and go through a questionnaire to help determine what courses of studies and careers would be good fits for them, several struggle with the words on the screen, English still foreign to them.
In spite of all these warning signs, Ryder’s caseload and those of her colleagues are so big that this may be the only time for at least a year that many of these students will ever see her or any other counselor. The best she can do is reach out each fall to Campbell’s 800 first-year students in groups like these, to try to give them an idea of what life might be like beyond their early teens.
Campbell High, in Smyrna, a fast-growing city about 20 miles northwest of Atlanta where one in five children under 18 lives in poverty, began holding the group meetings this year. They’re among several attempts the school is making to counteract a vexing but largely unseen problem nationwide: a critical shortage of competent counselors capable of giving advice to college-going high school students, precisely when the country needs more Americans to get degrees — and when getting into college is more expensive and more confusing than ever.
A single public school counselor in the United States has a caseload of 471 students, on average, according to the American School Counselor Association, or ASCA. In high schools, where counselors are often the primary source of information about college — especially as increasing numbers of students become the first in their families to consider it — each one is responsible for an average of 239 students, the ASCA says. In California, the ratio is an even more unwieldy 1-to-500. A Georgia School Counselors Association survey puts the number in that state at 1-to-512.
To make matters worse, budget cuts are forcing counselors to perform more duties unrelated to their traditional roles, such as monitoring the school cafeteria or proctoring exams, says Eric Sparks, the ASCA’s assistant director.
And if that wasn’t cause enough for concern, what little time counselors have to advise students about college is not as productive as it could be, since most get scant training in the subject before taking on the job, reports Alexandria Walton Radford, a consultant to the U.S. Department of Education who has studied the issue.
The result is an overtaxed system in which many students fall through the cracks and either never go to college, go to institutions that are the wrong matches for them, or never learn about financial aid for which they may qualify.
Examples range from low-income, nonwhite, and ethnic minority valedictorians and first-generation college applicants who shy away from elite schools to freshmen who rely more on friends and relatives than counselors for advice about college.
Those are among the findings of Radford’s research. She says many high school counselors have no choice but to “talk about the average student,” leaving higher-performing classmates to fend for themselves. And if the parents or other relatives of those students happen to have little knowledge of college — as is the case with many immigrants and nonwhites — they may never learn that elite schools are likely to not only accept them, but offer them financial aid.
“Counselors want to do well, but they’re constricted by caseload and the other duties assigned to them,” says Radford, author of Top Student, Top School: How Social Class Shapes Where Valedictorians Go to College.
This problem arises at precisely a time when the economic downturn has made clearer than ever the link between a college education and jobs, leading to a push at the federal and state levels for more people to get degrees.
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.”
Counseling should be a source of help in this cacophony. But, he says, “Counseling is time-consuming and labor-intensive. It is perceived … as an administrative add-on and not funded adequately. With overcrowded classrooms, we’re robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
It’s revealing that three out of four private high schools, where 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.
Back at public Campbell High, counselor Jamie Ryder knows these issues firsthand. She has up to 400 students — so many that she can’t see all of them individually even once a year. This means that the “intense engagement” by a “careful, competent adult” Nassirian says is the “ideal version of counseling” is impossible for her.
Ryder’s school has adopted measures suggested by the ASCA, including reaching every student every year with at least some information. To do this she often has to meet with students in groups, rather than individually, as in those ninth-grade sessions, or in visits to English classes. Also, all seniors are required to apply to at least one college. And the school’s administration has promised to reduce the counseling staff’s other responsibilities, such as supervising lunch or tests.
Still, Ryder says, “If caseloads were smaller, I could do a lot more.”
The 34-year-old has graduate degrees in counseling from Teachers College, Columbia University and Georgia State, yet “had no coursework focused entirely on college preparation,” she says.
Ryder’s experience is not uncommon. Many degree programs for school counselors don’t even offer coursework on helping students make the best college choices, or get financial aid, according to a national survey of counselors.
Ryder did some of her own research, as a student, on minorities and college access. “I learned that most counselors don’t know about the barriers facing these students, so they can’t address them,” she says.
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 carried around a dream for nearly two years of becoming a researcher at the Centers for Disease Control, but told only close friends, since as the daughter of undocumented immigrants, she figured college was beyond her reach.
After finally meeting with Ryder, she says, “I felt motivated.” Still, she wishes she had met with a counselor earlier and made different decisions about what courses she needed to take.
A new Georgia law will require schools to factor in previously unaccounted-for student populations when assigning budgets for counselors — students who are classified as gifted, have learning disabilities, or are learning English as a second language. The goal is to lower the statewide ratio of counselors to students to a still-high ratio of 1-to-450. Sparks, of the ASCA, says other states, including North Carolina, have passed laws to stop counselors from being assigned to other duties. But at a time of stretched resources, money to lower the caseloads “has been limited.”
Until that changes, when it comes to many students, even the most well-intentioned counselors will face the same situation as Jamie Ryder.
“We can help them,” she says. “We just don’t know what their issues are because we don’t see them.”
This story about was more counselors in schools produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.