Time Magazine painfully quantified what many of us know intuitively: the number of guidance counselors in public schools is woefully inadequate and getting worse. Due to radically contracting budgets, counseling jobs are being cut and those remaining must assume additional, often unrelated tasks.
The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommends one counselor for every 250 students, yet public school counselors in the U.S. have an average caseload of 471 students, and the situation is getting worse.
Philadelphia is an extreme example of challenges facing school counselors, as the district, which this year faced a shortfall of over $300 million, laid off a vast number of school counselors leaving 115 of 212 public schools without a full-time guidance counselor at the start of the school year. Through the first six weeks of school, 16 “itinerant” (or traveling) counselors were responsible for 48,000 students in 115 of the district’s schools, that’s a ratio of 1 to 3,000. Tatiana Olmedo, is one of only two counselors for Central High School’s 2,400 students – 577 of whom are seniors attempting to navigate the college admission and financial aid processes. “We are barely making it, if not drowning, on certain days.” Olmedo said she has a two-week waiting list for students wanting to meet with her to discuss the college application process.
Philadelphia is not alone. In California, the counselor to student ratio has increased from 1-to-810 before the 2008 economic downturn to 1-to-1,016 across all grades k-12. In high schools, where counselors are the primary source of college admission and financial aid information, each counselor is responsible for an average of 500 students. In Georgia, it’s 1-to-512 ratio.
The complexity of the college admissions and financial aid processes further complicates matters, according to 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.’”
The result is an overburdened 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. Low-income, talented ethnic minority students 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.
Even counselors in the most optimal circumstances don’t receive coursework or training in helping students through the college selection and financial aid processes, according to a national survey of counselors.
What’s a student to do?
When you cannot get the help you need at the most logical and obvious place, it’s time to use the other resources that are available to you. The problem is that not all resources are created equal. So, how is a 17 year old to know where to turn?
These overwhelming counselor to student ratios are, no doubt, at least partially responsible for the increase in student use of independent college counselors. College admission and high school guidance professionals often frown upon the concept of families paying independent counselors for help to which students could ideally avail themselves at no cost. Between over-burdened counselors and the exorbitant cost of a college education, many families believe that a little bit of an investment up front ensures maximum efficiency and effectiveness throughout the admissions process and in finding a school that is a best fit given the substantial investment. If you are in the market for an independent counselor to help guide you through this process, seek recommendations, and see who is available in your area at
(these websites show counselors who have paid membership to these organizations)
For low income students (often defined as those who qualify for the federal free or reduced lunch program), there are community based organizations (CBO’s) established to meet your needs in the college going realm. Ask your school counselor for programs in your area. You can also do an internet search on “college access” and the name of your city. These programs do tremendous work with promising young people.
Tools for the Do-It-Yourselfer
Not everyone can afford the sometimes steep cost of an independent counselor or fit the criteria to avail themselves of the services offered by a community based organization, but rest assured, there are ways to DIY this process, thanks mostly to the internet. The challenge here, is where to start and what sites to use.
The best advice is to use the most objective measures you can find, leaving subjectivity to only the most important opinion…yours!
Only you will be able to tell what schools “fit” you best; however, you can go to a number of websites to find schools that meet certain objective criteria such as whether they offer a particular major or have a specific musical ensemble or sport. Less reliable are the opinion websites that offer musings from current or prospective students. Be aware of the student who is airing a grief or who may have an ax to grind. They may be the people who are the most motivated to take the time to comment.
While this is not a comprehensive list, here are some good sites:
College Navigator – http://nces.ed.gov/collegenavigator/
The college search tool from the US Department of Education that reflects data that the colleges themselves report to the feds.
College Factual – http://www.collegefactual.com
This newcomer to the crowded college search arena indicates they seek to help students and parents make better decisions during the college selection process by “analyzing and simplifying complex data, and providing an insightful, fact-based site.”
Finaid – http://www.finaid.org
Without a doubt, the single best repository of financial aid information for newcomers and seasoned pros.
College Application Wizard – http://collegeappwizard.com
While it may be a bit self serving to list my own site, the issues laid out in this article are precisely the reason this tool was created. Not only do we identify each requirement for every school to which you will apply, but we give you an actionable plan to get all of the work done on time.
The Bottom Line
For college bound students, particularly those in large public schools, the only way to ensure your success on the road to college is to take matters into your own hands and seek out the resources available to you. These words of advice are pertinent whether or not you have a school counselor available to assist you, but because counselors available for college planning are an increasingly scarce resource, it is more imperative than ever to be proactive and be the one person who is in the driver seat to ensure your success.