Students left with little guidance in high schools

High school seniors are expected to ask their guidance counselors where they can find work in Michigan.

Their guidance counselors, though, may be asking the same question.

At a time when Michigan teens are struggling to find their footing in a changing economy, schools are thinning the ranks of guidance counselors.

State schools averaged one guidance counselor per 638 students in the 2008-09 school year – sixth worst in the nation. And it’s likely gotten worse since then.

"The situation is becoming more and more dire," says Harry Clay, Michigan School Counselor Association manager. "With fewer counselors, they'll have less time to produce. If you don't get a chance to see the kids that often, how effective are you going to be?"

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Michigan’s struggles in the first phase of the 21st century are well-known. The shuttered factory. The jobless breadwinner. The foreclosed home. Even more unsettling are the prospects for well-paying jobs in the near future in the state. Bridge Magazine took data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics to analyze what career fields will produce jobs, and which won’t, through 2018.

Previous coverage of Michigan’s economic performance and jobs prospects as part of the “Economic Life in Michigan” project can be found by clicking HERE.

The counseling shortage comes as a Bridge Magazine analysis of job projections concludes that students face very tough competition for jobs for years to come, yet many do not understand the complexities of the job market.

But now, as Michigan school districts contend with statewide cuts, the number of counselors is shrinking even as the state pushes schools to send more graduates on to college.

Each school district decides how to spend its resources, and some have elected to cut a counselor from each middle and high school, or share counselors between schools, while others have cut counselors altogether, Clay said, noting that there is no mandate for a school to hire a single counselor.

"You don't see a math teacher cut as easily as a counselor," he says. "Counselors are less visible on a day-to-day basis, but the job is equally as important."

While the American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor for every 250 students, the ratio in Michigan was one to 638 in the 2008-09 school year, the most recent federal data available via the ASCA.

California was the bottom of the counselor barrel, with one guidance counselor per 814 students; Wyoming was tops with one counselor per 197. (What might make Wyoming's task on counselors easier is the state's sparse population. For example, it had only 88,155 public school students, of all grades, in the 2009-10 school year; just 26,330 in grades 9-12. By contrast, Michigan had just under 1.65 million students in all grades in 2009-10.)

Nationwide, counselor-to-student ratios have been dropping, from an average of 1/588 in 1986-87 to 1/457 in 2008-09.

Recalling a time several years ago when Michigan's student-to-counselor ratio was about 1 for every 450, Clays says the change leaves gaps in service.

"There will be a lot of complaining on the part of parents, and that might be what will bring some counselors back," he says.

Dennis Brunzell knows he’s fortunate to be one of three counselors at Ypsilanti High School, which expects 950 students this year. But although the ratio is much better than the state average, the school two years ago cut a counselor devoted solely to at-risk students -- and the counseling department secretary. Plus he said cuts elsewhere mean counselors are taking on duties once handled by social workers and others.

The district went from two counselors in each of its two middle schools two years ago to one counselor in its one consolidated middle school last year.

Paperwork and scheduling duties, particularly at the beginning of the school year, tend to trump career/college planning, and academic and personal guidance, says Brunzell, who takes great satisfaction helping students prepare for life after high school.

"We are the ones who go kid by kid, saying, 'Tim needs that second semester of biology or he’s not going to graduate; Suzie needs to get Algebra 2 or she’s not going to graduate,'” he says. "There are kids who fall through the cracks who we catch.  If we’re not there, there are so many who will get lost in the system."

In order to ensure success on standardized tests, every emphasis seems to be put on keeping cuts away from the classroom, says Doug Pratt, spokesman for the Michigan Education Association.

"But at what cost?" he asks. "If students don’t have access to a guidance counselor, how can they -- and their families -- navigate the waters of moving on to college? Eliminating positions in all these areas that support student learning and success -- counseling, health, safety, nutrition, transportation, etcetera -- is short-sighted and fails to recognize that student success is influenced in many ways by what happens outside the classroom -- not just within it."

If a guidance counselor has a caseload of 700 students, just slightly above the state average, it would take more than half the school year to see each student for one hour -- if the counselor held back-to-back student meetings every day.

"And in that one hour, it’s almost impossible to develop the relationship and answer the questions needed to help students make these incredibly important life choices," Pratt says.

The Joyce Ivy Foundation published a 2008 Michigan High School Counselor Report, with 22 recommendations for improving the transition from high school to college.

It called for high schools to hire paraprofessionals to absorb the testing and administrative responsibilities currently carried out by professional guidance counselors, freeing these same counselors to devote more time to higher value-added counseling activities with students.

But that was three years before the budget cuts.

Because money will continue to be an issue in Michigan, Executive Director Michael Boulus of the Presidents Council State Universities of Michigan believes secondary education majors should study college counseling.

"I think if we’re going to really do serious college counseling, we may have to push it into the classroom itself and arm our teachers with the information," said Boulus, who worries that many students, particularly in urban and rural areas, don’t have the guidance they need to secure financial aid for college.

Noting that a vast majority of the new jobs created during the next decade will require a college degree, Boulus said Michigan must greatly increase the number of graduates.

That’s part of the reason Boulus is excited about the new Michigan College Access Network. This fall, 32 recent college graduates will be placed in 40 rural and urban Michigan high schools with the sole task of helping juniors and seniors prepare to go on to college.

Eight recent University of Michigan graduates took part in the pilot program last year, working in eight urban Michigan high schools.

The effects were "wildly successful," said Brandy Johnson, the program's executive director.

"We don't have nearly enough high school counselors, and how they have time to do college advising is a huge issue in Michigan," says Johnson. "Counselors are admittedly expensive for high schools to hire because counselors all have master's degrees and often many years of experience. The second issue is that there's little to no coursework dedicated to training counselors in how to be highly qualified college advisers. So often they're relying on their experience when they went to college, which could have been 20 years ago in circumstances that are much different than the young people they're working with."

A principal at one of the eight schools estimated that the number of college applications tripled, Johnson said.

"It's a real game-changer when you have one person whose only job is college advising," says Johnson, explaining that the advisers are not licensed to handle any counseling, nor do they perform administrative tasks.

The U-M program hired more advisers for this year, and Johnson helped start a similar program at Michigan State University, which hired 17 advisers to be placed throughout the state in mostly rural schools this fall. Their salaries will be funded with $255,000 raised in those communities. The Kresge Foundation also is a significant funder.

Following a five-week boot camp, the advisers know pretty much everything there is to know about college admissions and financial aid, says Johnson.

"I'm a first generation college student, and just navigating your way through the informational, logistical and bureaucratic things related to college is a nightmare,” says Johnson. “There's really no one better to help students navigate the process than 22-year-old who just did it themselves four years earlier.”

“We're thrilled that we'll be quadrupling the impact of this corps program within one year."

Bridge Senior Writer Ron French contributed to this report.

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Thu, 09/29/2011 - 2:36pm
I just read the article on Facebook and I am so happy that someone is finally taking a look at the real picture. The comment about a counselor not being visible and therefore not needed is absolutely true. Even some teachers think we just sit here at our desks all day because that is where we are a lot of the time. Nobody has a clue how busy we are and that we really are the go to for everything. I have 323 in my inbox, 7 phone calls to return today and 25 Common Applications that need letters of recommendations written by November 1st. We write personal letters for all of our students. If you ever are interested in following a counselor for a week, I am very much interested. A documentary about this job is exactly what we need, or most will never understand the importance of what we do. It is also a crime that we never get to spend the time needed for college/career preparations. Ok my lunch is over, I just spent it eating a salad over my keyboard. Thanks for letting me rant and thanks for the article.
Jeffrey L Salisbury
Thu, 09/29/2011 - 3:11pm
Of the top 20 occupations with largest numerical growth through 2018: 13 will require only on-the-job training; 2 will require Associate degree or certificate; 4 will require a 4 yr degree; and 1 will require a doctoral degree The question for educators and especially career guidance counselors ... what should be the response to these data projections? Increase graduation requirements? Increase cut scores? Increase annual high-stakes student testing? Increase college prep courses? Increase training for specific occupations in high growth areas? SOURCE: BLS Occupational Employment Statistics and Division of Occupational Outlook
Allan Blackburn
Thu, 09/29/2011 - 4:55pm
This is taken directly from the link that is provided from the previous post: In general, occupations in a category with some postsecondary education are expected to experience higher rates of growth than those in an on-the-job training category. Occupations in the associate degree category are projected to grow the fastest, at about 19 percent. In addition, occupations in the master’s and first professional degree categories are anticipated to grow by about 18 percent each, and occupations in the bachelor’s and doctoral degree categories are expected to grow by about 17 percent each. However, occupations in the on-the-job training categories are expected to grow by 8 percent each (Chart 7). The claim that on-the-job training is more valuable is not true. We do need to be smarter in matching students to the right education that is going to lead to needed skills for employment.
Thu, 10/06/2011 - 12:02pm
950 students divided by 3 counselors sounds pretty good to me. We have 1350 and 3 counselors... that being said, we must do more to keep competent and valuable staff available for our kids. After all, they ARE our future leaders and I for one, want them prepared for those roles.