A pernicious stigma lies behind the extreme variation between states’ student-to-school-counselor ratios, says the head of the organization representing counselors.
The average California counselor has a caseload of more than a thousand students. The average counselor in Wyoming has 200.
“It really does boil down to budgets,” says Shari Sevier, chair of the American School Counselor Association.
Huge caseloads for counselors mean less help for students – less help for emotional and social issues, less help with academic struggles, less help with career planning.
‘IT’S A CASE OF NOT KNOWING WHAT A SCHOOL COUNSELOR DOES’
At the root of the problem lie historical perspectives on the role of the school counselor, views that determine the level of political pressure in support of counseling programs, Sevier says.
“It’s clearly a case of not knowing what a school counselor does,” Sevier says. “The guidance counselor of yesteryear was very involved with paperwork and scheduling and that was about it. That old stigma still is attached.”
When the public lacks understanding of the importance of counselors’ work – on student personal issues, learning, and career selection – and local superintendents can’t see the connection between effective counseling and student achievement, counseling budgets are threatened, Sevier says.
ONE OF THE FIRST BUDGET CUTS BY SCHOOLS UNDER FINANCIAL PRESSURE
“[Counselors’] roles are misunderstood and therefore easily cut when there are budget problems,” Sevier says.
Whether a state mandates school counseling and has a student-to-counselor-ratio ceiling has a profound effect on the ratios, Sevier says.
In Arizona, home to the second-highest ratios in the nation, counseling is mandated at neither the elementary nor high school levels, according to the ASCA database.
WYOMING HAS THE LOWEST STUDENT-TO-COUNSELOR RATIO IN THE U.S.
Mandated counseling, however, provides no guarantee that counselors will have caseloads small enough to provide effective services. Without mandated ceilings, ratios can climb sky high. California does not mandate elementary school counseling, does mandate high school counseling, but has no mandated ceiling and possesses the highest ratio in the country.
Other factors, particularly per-student spending, can bring low ratios with no ceiling mandate.
Wyoming, which has the lowest ratio in the nation, requires counseling at both levels, but has no mandated ceiling.
“We have a lot of funding for our schools and districts, so we have a high money-spent-per-student amount,” explains Travis Hoff, spokesperson for the Wyoming Department of Education.
A REASONABLE CASELOAD? 250 COUNSELORS TO ONE STUDENT
Vermont, with the second-lowest ratio, mandates counseling at elementary and high school levels, and imposes a maximum ratio of 400 students per counselor in elementary school and 300 in high school.
Counselors working under reasonable caseloads, such as the 250:1 ratio recommended by the ASCA, can exert profound influence on students’ success, particularly in career planning, Sevier says. “When you have that in place, you have a much better chance of having kids walking out and having some very realistic goals,” Sevier says.
Parents would do well to support counseling, or risk having empty nests de-feathered and repopulated because their children end up using college as an “expensive career exploration process.”
“They realize quickly that they’re not cut out for it, then they reach that stage of flailing around,” Sevier says. “A lot of kids end up coming home. It’s that challenge of, ‘What do I do?’ and at that point there’s nobody there to help them out.”
(See following page for best and worst states)