Where Did All the Guidance Counselors Go?

When school counselors are overburdened and undertrained, students pay the price.
A recent survey found that public school counselors had an average caseload of 389 kids, with those in the poorest schools managing an average of 427. (Photo: Getty Images)
Dec 6, 2011· 2 MIN READ

Today’s teens live in a high-pressure digital world filled with stresses unimaginable to previous generations. While teachers have their hands full preparing kids to meet academic standards, it’s up to school counselors to help them navigate the turbulent social and emotional waters of adolescence, and guide them on a path toward future success in college and in life.

That’s a tall order—especially considering the average school counselor has a caseload of about 400 students.

Dr. Patrick O’Connor knows this all too well. A school counselor since 1984, he’s currently the Director of College Counseling at The Roeper School in Michigan. O’Connor also teaches at Oakland Community College, writes a weekly column, and recently published College Is Yours 2.0—a comprehensive guide for parents and students navigating the college application process.

O’Connor recently told TakePart about the impact of heavy caseloads on the relationships between counselors and students.

“Counselors are like teachers,” he began. “When they have too many students, the amount of learning and personal contact goes down, and the quality of the counselor-student relationship suffers. Ideally, the ratio should be 100 to 1, but in this economy, counselors would be happy with 250 to 1, especially since ratios in some states are higher than 600.”

A recent survey of 5,300 counselors by the College Board’s National Office for School Counselor Advocacy found that public school counselors had an average caseload of 389 kids, with those in the poorest schools managing an average of 427.

The disturbing facts about guidance counselors’ job descriptions didn’t end there. The survey revealed that schools were not deploying counselors strategically to help prepare students for good jobs or college.

Counselors have a powerful vantage point from which to advise students about their futures. They observe kids across multiple years, and have access to a complete picture of their grades, academic and non-academic abilities, family circumstances, social and emotional strengths and weaknesses, hopes, dreams, and potential.

The survey revealed that schools were not deploying counselors strategically to help prepare students for good jobs or college.

But despite these advantages, only 42 percent of counselors said schools recognized their unique potential as advocates for teens to achieve post-secondary goals. And a mere 34 percent said their school provided students with academic planning for college and careers.

Instead, 67 percent of counselors complained about spending too much time on administrative tasks.

According to O’Connor, “counselors’ energies are too often weakened by what Dr. Esther Hugo calls the STDs of counseling—scheduling, testing, and discipline. Add in lunch duty, and it’s no wonder counselors feel more like administrators and less like student advocates. Because they care about kids, counselors do the best they can to make room for real counseling—but the odds are stacked against them.”

As with any profession, the first step towards maximizing the potential of school counselors is to ensure they receive proper pre-service training. But among those counselors surveyed, 28 percent believed their training did not prepare them well for their job, while 56 percent felt only somewhat well-trained.

For O’Connor, these results came as no surprise. “Current counselor training programs are completely out of line with what students and parents want and need from a school counselor today,” he observed.

“Training programs are built on accreditation standards that include minimal exposure to college planning and career advising, two areas where families say they need much more assistance and where counselors say they need much more training. I teach one of the few college counseling classes offered in the country, and counselors with 20 years of experience come in and say, ‘I never knew half of this; why didn’t they teach me this in graduate school?’ CACREP (the accrediting body) and counselor educators take turns blaming each other for this deadlock, while counselors and students suffer.”

Four years ago, O’Connor joined a committee in Michigan devoted to incorporating college advising into school counselor training programs. Progress has been almost nonexistent, he said, and expressed his hope that raising awareness about the issue will lead to public outcry and positive change.

In the meantime, O’Connor wished more families would take the time to get involved in the counseling program offered at their child’s school.

“Many people are quick to condemn counselors for being ineffective, when the truth is, few people know what counselors actually do,” he reflected. “Now is the time to end the uncertainty. Contact your school counselor and see all the good they are doing to help students realize their goals and dreams as few other educators can. Then ask them what you can do to help them do more.”