July 27, 2020
Exiting high school is one of the most stressful moments for young people. As a high school senior, I noticed some challenges with understanding post-high school plans early in the year. These challenges included finding the right school to go to, possible programs/majors for me or even opportunities to meet with representatives of the school. Some of my fellow students had plans to go to community college, technical school, start jobs, or prepare for a trade.
Fast forward to March. The post-high school plans my friends and I had made were now up in the air. Because of COVID-19, our families’ situations were constantly changing, students were scared about going on campus so soon, scholarship groups did not have enough funding or they may have cut their funding to give other students an opportunity, and we lost connection with our counselors and teachers for some time. The ultimate goal was to figure out, “If our family situation is changing, how are we supposed to pay for college?”
A huge problem for many students like me is that there were not enough people working as college counselors to support us even before the pandemic hit. For every 482 American K-12 students there is only one school counselor to help us figure out what comes next. That’s almost double the recommended caseload of one counselor to every 255 students, and counselors are responsible for much more than college and career advising. Now, our counselors are taking on even more work to support students--counseling through difficult life situations, academic challenges, as well as post-graduation plans--than they were before. Many schools do not have the resources to pay for more school counselors.
This shortage can create challenges for students who need to outline paths they can take towards their career, list their financial need to the school of their choice, answer questionnaires for the college, or send official transcripts to colleges. Especially without counselors to provide advice, many students are afraid to attend college, do not understand financial aid offers, and are weighed down by so much more that affects students emotionally, physically, and mentally.
Despite such high caseloads and the enormous importance of college and career guidance, many schools do not have the resources to pay for enough school counselors. While the federal government has funding streams to help support these positions, the funding has been constantly under threat. The Student Support and Academic Enrichment (SSAE) program, which often helps school districts pay for college counseling, along with mental health support and other services, was funded at nearly $1.2 billion in FY 2020. The White House proposed eliminating the program in its FY 2021 budget request for the fourth year in a row. Simply put, there is not enough money to support counseling, and the federal resources we do have, like SSAE, are always on the chopping block. During this pandemic, it is even more important for schools to have sufficient counselors to provide students with proper care and assistance as they transition to their upcoming year, especially if schools decide to stick with remote learning in the fall.
If federal funding for counselors is cut from schools, students may not have access to information, guidance, and support preparing transcripts, financial aid applications, college essays, and other materials to apply to college or any other postsecondary opportunities. For example, the College Access Challenge Grant Program (CACGP) was only funded to last from 2010-2014. This four-year program gave grants to states which allowed low-income students the opportunity to prepare for postsecondary education and training. These and other programs, like the TRIO and GEAR UP programs, offer resources to support counseling around the transition from high school and play an important part in making sure that students are gaining access to and awareness of postsecondary opportunities. If we sunset or short-change programs that ensure students who want a postsecondary education have guidance, we eliminate the benefits of school counseling all around the nation.
States can and should also rise to the occasion and invest in counseling. For instance, Colorado provides funding for college and career counseling. The Colorado School Counselor Corps is a competitive grant program to school districts that provides advising to help close the college-going gap for students between high school and other postsecondary programs students wish to do. Funding for the Corps has allowed Colorado school districts to hire an additional 270 counselors since 2008 to better serve students in low-income middle and high schools. In addition to Colorado’s statewide Corps, the College Advising Corps (CAC), funded by foundations and philanthropies, assists students nationally in an effort to increase the number of low-income and first generation students and students of color who plan on pursuing higher education. For 2018-2019 CAC helped over 200,000 high school students with college admission, FAFSA completion, and even scholarships, running a $20 million grant program for institutional aid and scholarship awards. Just like Colorado’s Advising Corps and other college advising groups across the country like CAC, states should work to ensure that students receive substantial access to counseling in order to be prepared for post-high school life, especially in this trying, uncertain time.
That can’t happen without funding. Congress and state governments should provide enough dollars for every school to have enough school counselors to meet the recommended ratio. In addition to urgently needed mental health and personal support due to the stress of COVID-19, such funding would ensure adequate college and career counseling for each high school student no matter their racial or ethnic group. Funding shortages and high counselor caseloads mean that students might struggle to understand all their options after high school, and those options are evolving as we speak. We need support to make the best choices we can. Counselors enhance students’ ability to go to college or pursue other career training options. If our policymakers want each student to be college- and career-ready, they should ensure policies surrounding our educational system include equitable resources across school type, state, and school population; that includes the people who will help guide students to college and beyond.