Starting the college talk as early as 9th grade can make a big difference in students' likelihood of enrolling, yet just 18 percent of high school freshmen had spoken to a counselor about college, a new report by the National Association for College Admission Counseling shows.
The Arlington, Va.-based professional group of high school and college counselors discovered a strong connection between the percentage of time that counselors spent on college-readiness activities and students' belief that their family can afford college, even when controlling for several other factors. Students were also more inclined to take the SAT or ACT if they had talked about it with a counselor.
The influence of a counselor was especially critical in influencing the behaviors of first-generation college students, the NACAC report found.
A family member talking to a counselor or teacher about postsecondary admission requirements was positively related to first-generation college students' plans to enroll in a bachelor's degree program, as well.
The report is based on analysis of new, nationally representative data from the 2009 High School Longitudinal Study of 24,000 9th graders at 944 public and private high schools that year, along with their parents, math and science teachers, school administrators, and lead school counselors.
Outreach is often a matter of time and personnel. Half of all high schools reported a student-to-counselor ratio of 250-to-1. Counselors were stretched more at public high schools. While 39 percent of public high schools reported this relatively low ratio, 89 percent of private high schools did.
Counselors also have a range of responsibilities. NACAC found that about 13 percent spent more than half their time counseling students on college readiness, and 38 percent spent between one-fifth and half their time preparing them for college. Another 20 percent of all counselors spent no more than 10 percent of their time and 30 percent spent no more than a one-fifth of their time on college readiness with students, the report found.
Nearly half (48 percent) of counselors reported that helping students "prepare for postsecondary schooling" was their counseling program's primary goal. Other goals included helping students improve their achievement in high school (23 percent), work on personal growth and development (21 percent) and prepare for work goals after high school (7 percent).
Another way to boost college enrollment is by offering rigorous courses in high school. NACAC reports that 86 percent of high schools had dual-enrollment programs, where students can earn college credit in high school; 67 percent offered Advanced Placement classes on site; and 3 percent had an International Baccalaureate program.
To improve college-going rates, the NACAC report recommends that counselors devote more time to college-readiness efforts and the application process. The report encourages counselors to initiate discussions with 9th graders and their parents about college.
"We recognize that high schools and counselors do not only serve ninth graders and that the actions of high schools and counselors may have different effects on students' attitudes, aspirations, plans, and steps actually taken later on in their transition to college," the report says, noting the need for further research on these relationships. A better educated workforce is critical to the economy, it says. "Perhaps never before in our nation's history has helping Americans successfully transition into and complete postsecondary credentials been more important."