A Numbers Game for High School Counselors

Budget cuts are hampering counselors' ability to spend time working with students.

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After graduating as his high school's valedictorian in 2005, Christopher Mayhew majored in molecular and cellular biology at Johns Hopkins University and last year landed a job as an analyst with a Stamford, Conn., investment firm. Ask the native of Boise, Idaho, whose advice helped him transition from high school to college to career and he'll name his parents, friends, and some teachers and coaches. One person he won't mention is his high school guidance counselor. "We never interacted," says Mayhew, 23. "When there are four counselors in a school of 1,200 kids, you become more of a number."

Mayhew isn't the only young adult giving high school guidance counseling poor grades. A recent survey for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that most people who started college called the advice they received "inadequate and often impersonal or perfunctory." Some 48 percent of the 22- to 30-year-olds polled (614 in all) said their counselors saw them as "just another face in the crowd."

[Read about the recession's toll on higher education.]

Students who are poorly counseled in high school are more likely to delay college and make questionable higher education choices, says Jean Johnson, coauthor of the study released by Public Agenda in March. "Counseling does seem to be the weak link," says Johnson.

John Boshoven, a director of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, says the study only confirmed what counselors already know: Budget cuts are forcing them to spend more time on administrative tasks and less time with students. "Our caseloads are large and in many cases they're getting larger," says Boshoven, a counselor at Community High School in Ann Arbor, Mich. In most large public high schools, he says, counselors spend only 10 percent of their time counseling students about college.

Though the American School Counselor Association says a student-counselor ratio of 250 to 1 is "optimal," the average nationally is 460 to 1, and it's much higher in states like California (1,000 to 1).

"The reality is even though we have high ratios in our schools, so many people still want individualized services," says Vanessa Gomez-Lee, a counselor at Valley View High School in Moreno Valley, Calif.

Mayhew's suggestion to high schoolers is to consider the quest for college advice an education in itself. "At some point in life, taking initiative becomes key," he says. "Perhaps independently navigating the college application process is one of these first steps."

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