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Education Lab is a project to spark meaningful conversations about education solutions in the Pacific Northwest.

January 13, 2015 at 5:00 AM

Want more kids in college? Check school counselor caseloads

College Advising Corps adviser Jennifer Alcaraz helps Marcus Jackson through the complicated college application process at De Anza High School in El Sobrante, Calif. Photo by Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times 2014.

College Advising Corps adviser Jennifer Alcaraz helps Marcus Jackson through the complicated college application process at De Anza High School in El Sobrante, Calif. Photo by Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times 2014.

The job of high school guidance counselor is a catch-all: Part graduation-credits overseer, testing administrator, shrink and higher-education shepherd. Seem like too much to do well? New research agrees.

So while President Obama talks about getting more students into community college, and Washington state does its part with College Bound Scholarships, the people actually tasked with guiding kids in this direction — high school counselors — are spread much too thin. The result: Many states essentially expect students to “just figure it out,” says the Education Commission of the States, a think tank tracking education policy.

But that is not happening.

Data presented by the Education Commission shows that high school counselors’ time, attitudes and priorities make a huge difference in whether kids actually enroll in college. Among schools with high college-going rates, counselors spend the majority of their time on this, and say that their number one goal is helping students attain a postsecondary education.

Yet the work load for counselors is often impossibly high, particularly in Washington. Despite a recommended rate of 250 students per counselor, the national average hovers around 470 students. In Washington, it’s 510 to 1.

This matters. Of those schools with high college-going rates, 66 percent had counselor caseloads of 250 or fewer students. But only 39 percent of public schools could boast such ratios.

Screen shot from Education Commission of the States that shows how counselors at schools with various college-going rates divide their time. Rates are for four-year colleges; low is 0-33 percent, middle is 34-67 percent, and high is 68 percent and above. Details may not sum to totals due to rounding.

Screen shot from Education Commission of the States that shows how counselors at schools with various college-going rates divide their time. Rates are for four-year colleges; low is 0-33 percent, middle is 34-67 percent, and high is 68 percent and above. Details may not sum to totals due to rounding.

That begs the question: In an era of constant budget-tightening, what works?

College coaches like those described in an Education Lab story last year, the research says.

Coaches differ from counselors in significant ways: They devote all of their time to helping students navigate the higher education gauntlet, do proactive outreach and work to establish trust with advisees.

A Chicago study of 44,000 graduating seniors, cited by the Education Commission, found that students who attended a college-coach school were 24 percent more likely to enroll in a four-year degree program.

Comments | More in News | Topics: college counseling, guidance counselors

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