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In the Nation's Interest

The Troubling Student-to-Counselor Ratio That Doesn’t Add Up

This April, the Secretary of the Department of Education defended the Department’s FY 2019 budget request to Congress. One provision that caught legislators’ attention was a “zeroing out” of a flexible grant program that can be used to support school counseling programs.

Eliminating a program that can help support school counseling programs is a poor choice given that nationwide, public school counselors are already overworked and under-resourced.

The average student-to-school-counselor ratio is 482-to-1 – nearly double the 250-to-1 ratio recommended by The American School Counselor Association. In fact, only three states, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Wyoming, have a statewide average that falls at or below the recommended ratio.

The impact school counselors have on students – or lack thereof – is easiest to understand in the high school context, where students face an increasingly dizzying array of choices about “what comes next” after high school.

On the post-secondary front, there are more types of colleges, with more specialties, than ever before. For students looking for something other than the 4-year college track, apprenticeships are gaining prominence once again, and credential-based or technical skill-focused modules are, according to some, the new ticket to the middle class.

But even if high school students settle on a general path, more questions follow: If they choose college, what kind of college – community or four-year? Is there a scholarship for that? Or this? And does anybody know how to fill out a FAFSA? (That’s “Free Application for Federal Student Aid” – and would a 16-year-old know she needed one without a counselor?)

Without knowing their options, students inadvertently may bypass the best path forward, or simply make no choice at all. School counselors are supposed to help students connect point A to point B – or C, or D, or Z. Unfortunately, some counselors are so overworked that they themselves may struggle to stay abreast of the latest trends and programs available.

Students fortunate enough to have engaged parents, or others, in their lives to help them navigate their school years may not be impacted by a lack of in-school supports. Not every student needs the same level of attention. However, as is too often the case when it comes to school resources, the students who most need assistance often attend schools with the fewest supports. For low-income students or those who are the first in their families to attend college, the availability of good counseling can determine if they understand their options and are prepared to make informed choices.

To top it off, while many believe the school counselor’s core function is to shepherd students into either college or career, counselors are also responsible for helping manage students’ social-emotional health throughout their school years. Yet only a fraction of the up to one in five children who exhibit symptoms of a mental health disorder receive help.

Professionals – such as a school psychologist – dedicated to addressing mental health issues are in short supply in school districts across the nation, and often work across two or more schools. This means that the average school counselor is often the first point of contact for addressing students’ social-emotional, academic readiness, and career and college counseling needs.

From discussing students’ interests and reviewing class schedules, to helping students cope with issues at home, to connecting students in need of long-term mental health support to the appropriate outside resources, counselors help students navigate a laundry list of issues that need to be addressed if students are going to make a successful transition to “what comes next.” 

All of this requires time – which the average school counselor must severely ration. Many school counselors do their best, but no number of early mornings and office nightshifts can fully make up for too little money and a lack of administrative support. The fact is that even the most dedicated, high-quality professionals can’t give every student the necessary attention when juggling an unmanageable workload.

Knowing this, what steps should school leaders and policymakers take to address the challenges created by the understaffing of school counselors?

Starting at the district level, one option is for school leaders to monitor how existing counselors utilize their time. Advocates for school counseling find that some counselors’ time is monopolized by data entry and administrative tasks that could be handled by office personnel. Freeing counselors’ time so they can focus more on providing the counseling they were trained to give might not lessen their workload but would ensure they have more time to devote to students.

At the state level, legislators could mandate manageable caseloads for counselors and ensure a minimum level of access to counselors. Not every state mandates that school counseling be available to students (particularly at the elementary level). Even fewer have instituted a cap on student-to-counselor ratios.

A mandate, of course, requires additional resources. Many schools and school districts are severely resource constrained and simply don’t have the budgetary discretion to support a more robust counselor workforce without making cuts to other essential programs. Ensuring school are fairly and adequately funded has always been largely the responsibility of state and local governments, but we know this doesn’t always happen, especially in states that face larger fiscal battles.

Federal policymakers can (and depending on your view of education, should) help fill resource gaps that lead to an inequitable distribution of crucial student supports, such as access to school counseling and mental health services.

Unfortunately, the current avenue through which federal policymakers can help support school counseling programs is under attack. At present, federal funding for school counseling is funneled through Student Support and Academic Enrichment (SSAE) grants, a flexible block grant program introduced in the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

The SSAE grant replaced several targeted grant programs, including one for elementary and secondary counseling programs. The caveat here is that because the new block grant covers a variety of activities, recipients have a great deal of say over how to use the funds. Thus, it is up to states and school districts to decide if they will prioritize improving school counseling programs.

Under the Education Department’s FY 2019 budget proposal, which eliminates the SSAE, however, there would be no decision to make.

The FY 2018 omnibus spending bill passed by Congress in March included $1.1 billion in funding for SSAE – a drastic improvement from the $400 million appropriated for FY 2017 – although still below the $1.65 billion they could have allocated under current law. Thus, the Department’s own budget request is at odds with Congress – and introduces a degree of uncertainty regarding this revenue stream. Will Congress make the same choice it made for FY 2018, and increase funding whether the Department asks for it or not? Who knows? It could depend on the outcome of the upcoming Congressional elections.

Why does this matter? Well, the stated purpose of the SSAE grants is to increase the capacity of state and local actors to, among other things, improve school conditions for student learning and provide students with a well-rounded education, broad categories under which support services like counseling and mental health programming fall. However, for these funds to effectively increase schools’ capacity, school districts and state education agencies need some level of assurance that the grant program will be funded at comparable levels in future years. Underfunding or unreliably funding the program makes it difficult for states and districts to make meaningful investments, like expanding a school counseling program.

The SSAE grant program isn’t going to solve the problem of most school counselors being spread too thin. Take California for example: Doubling the state’s counselor workforce would bring the statewide student to counselor ratio down to around 380:1 – it would also cost around $450 million, assuming an annual salary of $55,000 per counselor. But just because one grant program by itself can’t reduce Arizona’s student-counselor ratio (924:1) to the level of Vermont’s (202:1) doesn’t mean it won’t have a positive impact.

Threatening to eliminate or otherwise underfund the grant program is, at best, signaling that the Department of Education doesn’t think schools need additional support (which many obviously do). At worst, it strips away an existing funding source to help schools offer more of the programs and support services their students need.

Further, just because the SSAE grant programs exists and can be used to fund school counseling programs, doesn’t preclude the federal government from doing more. In February, a bipartisan-sponsored bill was introduced to establish a new career counseling competitive grant program.  And since 2007, Senator Barbara Lee has reintroduced a bill make federal matching grants available to help local education agencies achieve lower student-to-counselor ratios. Clearly, at least some members of Congress recognize that the federal government can and should do more to help schools develop more robust counseling programs.

These lawmakers, in contrast to the Department of Education, have the right idea; we should be allocating more resources to under-resourced to schools, not less. If you’re looking for evidence of this fact, just ask a school counselor.