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School Counselors Stretched at a Time When Needed Most

What schools need now are more counselors—not fewer—based on experts' recommendations. This is particularly true in high schools, where students are eager for help navigating the transition to college and careers. But the reality is that counselors are stretched, trying to give advice and direction to a larger group of students every year.

Although the American School Counselor Association recommends a 250-to-1 ratio of students to school counselors, the national average is actually 457 (2008-09 school year). Click here to see how the individual states stacks up.

The reason for the gap in the association's recommendations and reality? A combination of financially strapped schools and lack of mandates for counselors, says Jill Cook, assistant director at ASCA . "They are not as a big of a priority," she says. "When the budget gets tight, that's where the cuts are made."

Proper staffing is even more important today as the job of the school counselor has expanded to serve all students, says Cook. Rather just helping those with discipline problems or those headed to college, as was the case 20 years ago, counselors today are expected to work with all students on academic, career, and social issues. The options are now more varied, too, helping students with the transition to community college, four-year institutions, or work, she says. Although the gap has persisted for years, this latest figure represents an all-time low in ratio of students-to-counselors since tracking began in the mid-1980s, according to ASCA.

As I write about the college-completion agenda being pushed by policymakers, I often hear about the importance of the role of high school counselors. Not only are they being expected to properly advise students to be college ready, but increasingly, counselors are being asked to develop relationships with postsecondary educators. They need to be aware of college standards, expectations, and the transition process—such as alerting students to the college-assessment tests, as I wrote about last week here.

This all takes time, which according to the numbers, appears to be something in short supply for school counselors. Getting more students to finish a certificate or college degree will take an investment in good advising. When a counselor is working with 460 students, it's hard to see how there are enough hours in the day to provide adequate support.

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