Guidance counselors in New York State have a lot of important duties. State law requires that they support students who exhibit attendance, academic, behavioral or adjustment problems; support academic intervention and response to intervention services; provide a safe and orderly climate for learning; help elementary school students and their families select middle schools (and middle school students and their families select high schools); undertake annual reviews of each student’s educational program and develop individual high school or postsecondary education and career plans; provide (individually or in cooperation with classroom teachers) grade-level instruction about academic and career planning; facilitate the college application process; and encourage parental awareness and involvement.
Yet in our study of high-needs schools around the state, more than two-thirds (25 of 33) lacked a sufficient number of guidance counselors to provide all of these basic supports for all students. Part of the reason is that New York has no required student-to-counselor ratios, so when school budgets are cut, guidance counselors jobs are on chopping block.
The Center for New York City Affairs reported in its September 2013 publication “Creating College Ready Communities” that over 60% of NYC guidance counselors manage caseloads ranging from 100 to 300 students, with many counselors struggling to singlehandedly meet the needs of over 300 students. In our own study, we saw caseloads of up to 600 high school students to a single guidance counselor. And, sadly, 11 of the 12 high schools we studied lacked sufficient staffing to provide college-related counseling to all the students who needed it.
Policymakers were also alerted to the depth and urgency of this problem in October 2012, when NYC Comptroller John Liu released a report calling upon the city to more than double the number of guidance counselors in public schools. Adding 1,600 counselors to the existing 1,300 counselors, Liu calculated, would allow each counselor to manage a caseload of roughly 100 (down from a student-to-counselor ratio of 259 to 1) and better address the needs of the 78% of public-school students whom the NYC DOE had deemed not ready for college.
In communities where few family members or neighbors have completed college, guidance counselors play a vital role in helping students understand which high-school classes colleges want to see on a transcript, how to research colleges and prepare applications for admission, how to apply for financial aid and scholarships and so on. Given the importance of that type of information as well as many students’ unfamiliarity with the college-admissions process, student-to-counselor ratios must be small in order to provide the personalized attention that each young person needs.
The Center describes this lack of adequate guidance counselors as a significant factor contributing to what it calls the “aspirations gap” and, noting that many schools do not provide students proper college-related guidance until they reach 11th grade, recommends that students receive these types of supports starting in middle school.