What’s Driving the Change in Student-to-Counselor Ratios in Schools?

What’s Driving the Change in Student-to-Counselor Ratios in Schools?

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The ratio of students to school counselors in the United States continues to narrow, with data released this month showing it has reached the lowest point since 1986, the year the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) began tracking student-to-counselor ratios.

The new data reflects the 2021-2022 school year and reveals that, nationwide, there was an average of 408 students for every one school counselor. The year prior, the ratio was at 415-to-1, and indeed, the margin has been closing every consecutive year since 2013-14, when it was at 491-to-1.

Research shows that school counselors are linked to improved student outcomes. And the smaller their caseloads are, the more time they can spend with the students in their care. ASCA recommends a ratio of 250-to-1, still a long way off from the current reality.

This progress toward lower ratios is necessary, says Jill Cook, executive director of ASCA. And it didn’t happen overnight. It took decades of changing public sentiment and redefining the role of counselors to allow for this shift — plus a pandemic that supercharged the direction things were already heading by raising awareness of the youth mental health crisis and delivering a windfall of funding for districts.

EdSurge recently spoke with Cook to find out what’s driving this year-over-year improvement and to understand the work that lies ahead. The conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

EdSurge: Could you start by framing the importance of lowering the ratio of students to school counselors?

Jill Cook: So today’s school counselor works with all students in a school around academic, career and social-emotional development, as opposed to the guidance counselor of old that many of us may have had experience with that perhaps just worked on the college admissions process at a high school or on disciplinary issues. And since today’s school counselors work with all students in a school — through classroom instruction, small group, individual counseling and individual consultation — having those smaller ratios gives school counselors an opportunity to deliver information and curricula and … to address gaps around opportunity, equity and access.

So a lower ratio gives students more access to their school counselor. It may not be individually, but knowing that the task is to reach all students, lower ratios give optimal opportunity for school counselors to do that.

The latest data shows that we’re at 408 students for every one counselor nationally, so moving in the right direction. Does this feel like a cause for celebration to you and your colleagues?

Oh my gosh, I love that question so much. Absolutely, there is cause for celebration. The lower ratio is in part due to the increased number of school counselors. This report shows that there are almost 121,000 K-12 school counselors in the country — the most ever since we began tracking this in 1986. So there’s huge cause for celebration, given that we know having school counselors does impact student outcomes.

That said, the caveat is that for the first time ever, in many places, there are not enough qualified, certified, licensed school counselors to fill existing positions. Part of that is individuals leaving the profession, but it is also that we’ve seen [a growing] need for school counselors and there is increased federal funding available and state funding available. So we know more positions have been and are being created. The issue we have to address now is ensuring that there are enough individuals to fill these positions to serve students.

What is behind the recent years-long trend of lowering this ratio? How are districts and states getting this done?

Well, we’ve been fortunate in that there has been federal money available since the start of the pandemic and, especially, as we’ve seen the increase in student mental health needs, as well as mental health needs for staff and families. The president has acknowledged in his platform and in the State of the Union address the mental health crisis and the student mental health crisis. The Surgeon General released a report a year ago about the mental health crisis, specifically what schools can do to help address it, and the importance of school counselors in that process.

That attention, at such a national level, and knowing that there’s been federal money that has gone to states to use it, if warranted, to hire school counselors, school psychologists, school social workers — I do think that is part of it.

I also think part of it is due to the shift in the profession in the last 20 years from reactive to proactive, from [counselors being] just sort of ancillary to really being integrated in a school, and using data to drive a school counseling program. And as a result, we do have research that shows that having school counselors, having lower ratios, does contribute to [higher] standardized test scores and attendance, and lower disciplinary rates. So I think as administrators and decision-makers see that impact, they’re willing to allocate money to ensure these positions are in schools.

So there was already a shift underway in the profession, but that shift was accelerated by pandemic funding?

Yeah. And for us as an association, specifically, two things happened. One was the change in language from “guidance counselor” to “school counselor” in the 1990s. And then our association released a document that is the guiding document for school counseling programs, on what school counselors should do to impact student outcomes. And that came out actually 20 years ago next month.

It’s not like when I was a school counselor. I didn’t base what I did on student data or school data. I just did things that felt [right] to me. Today’s school counselors don’t operate that way. They look at student data and school data and develop their goals and programs based on what the needs are in the school and how the school counseling program can address that. And I think that shift, coupled with this opportunity of funding and awareness about the positions, has contributed to the increase in the number of school counselors and hence the lowering of the ratio.

Are there any specific states you want to call attention to?

I can speak to California. If you go back and look at the ratios, even from five or 10 years ago, there was a point in time when California’s ratio was well over 1,100-to-1. It was the highest in the country and had been that way for a very long time. And then some things happened in that state.

One was when Arnold Schwarzenegger was the governor of California, he allocated funding for middle school counselors. But when the funding ran out, there were many districts that cut school counseling positions and many that cut their counseling programs all together. And that was sort of at the peak of their ratio. Once that happened and they saw the negative impact [that the cuts] had on students and student outcomes and school culture, they reinstated school counselors, hired more school counselors. I think it’s just a prime example where they realized the important role these professionals play in the school. And they’ve just done a really incredible job of ensuring that there’s state and local funding to hire for these positions.

The California ratio is 509-to-1 now. That’s major progress.

How are you thinking about the role of pandemic funding, currently and as it expires?

That’s the million-dollar question — literally and figuratively — for a lot of education professionals in school districts, I’m sure.

We’re hoping that schools and districts have seen the benefit of having these professionals in schools [in the last few years], especially at this time when we know student mental health concerns are so significant — and that they’ll make it a priority at the school district and state levels to ensure that funding is available to keep these professionals in schools.

If you were to give this newly released ratio a grade, where an A+ is 250-to-1, how would you grade 408-to-1?

Wow. I’ve never been asked that question before. It’s always been “needs improvement” in the ratio category, and while this is a wonderful ratio, we do know that it’s not at the 250-to-1 that we recommend. So I will give it a solid C+ or B-. We’re making progress, and we’re fortunate that states and the federal government have provided funding to ensure these professionals can be in schools.

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