Oct 25, 2010

High School Counselors Spend Little Time on College Counseling

Judging by complaints from both students and counselors, it’s no surprise that the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) finds that the average public school guidance counselor spends less than a quarter of his or her time on college counseling.

And sadder still, counselors at high-income and private schools appear to have the luxury of spending more time on postsecondary counseling than those in schools serving low-income communities.

In the 2010 State of College Admissions, an annual report from NACAC based on surveys of college admissions offices and high school guidance counselors, the wealth gap in the availability of in-school college admissions counseling could not be clearer.

While counselors in public high schools spend about 22 percent of their time on college counseling, private school counselors report spending more than double or 54 percent of their time on postsecondary admissions counseling. And in schools where more than 50 percent of all students receive free or reduced lunch, counselors spend more like 20 percent of their time on college counseling.

According to the US Department of Education, in 2008-09 public secondary school counselors had average caseloads of 434 students. Probing the availability of college counseling resources in both private and public schools, NACAC found the average student-to-college counselor ratio was 320:1, including part time counselors.

Public school counselors were responsible, on average, for 75 more students than those in private schools. In addition, more than three-quarters of private schools reported that they had at least on counselor whose sole responsibility was to provide college counseling, compared to 34 percent of public schools.

Student-to-counselor ratios also vary widely from state to state, with California (814:1), Minnesota (759:1), Arizona (743:1), and Utah (733:1) posting the highest, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Locally, Maryland (348:1), Virginia (308:1), and DC (275:1) come in lower than the national average.

NACAC surveys also found an interesting variation in counseling priorities between public and private schools. Public schools ranked “helping students with their academic achievement in high school” as the number one priority for counseling department goals, while private schools ranked “helping students plan and prepare for postsecondary education” as most important.

The differences between public and private school emphases on college counseling are even more evident in the availability and support for specialized professional development and compensation.

In 2009, 31 percent of high schools reported that counselors responsible for college counseling were required to participate in professional development related to postsecondary counseling, with private schools much more likely than publics to make this kind of specialized training a requirement (51 percent vs. 29 percent). And they were more than twice as likely to cover all of the costs related to this professional development—67 vs. 28 percent.

Is it any wonder that independent college consulting is a growth industry among middleclass families with students in the public schools?


  1. A number of public schools in California have NO college counselor. My son's school has an administrative assistant but no counselor. The responsibilities for sending the school reports are split up amongst the senior admin staff (including the principal). No individual counseling.

  2. I go to a private school, and each college counselor has about 50 students. All of the college counselors also teach other subjects, so they can't devote all their time to counseling, but they still do an amazing job. I love mine and she has been so helpful. So I guess my point is even if the counselors have other duties, they can be great at what they do!