Even in non-pandemic times, K-12 schools tend to be under resourced, especially in low wealth areas, but now during the COVID-19 pandemic when government leaders face difficult decisions about how to allocate diminishing funds, K-12 education will face even greater budget constraints. While teachers’ salaries and funds for capital investment are critical, another equally important but sometimes overlooked priority is funding for school counselors. Counselors serve an important role in lessening inequalities in student opportunities and increasing future economic mobility by helping students successfully navigate the path to postsecondary education and address social/emotional struggles that could become barriers to academic success.
Statewide in Virginia public schools, each school guidance counselor is responsible, on average, for about 348 students. Prior to the pandemic, Virginia approved a budget earlier this year that would have increased funding for counselors setting a 325-to-1 student-to-counselor ratio standard. This was one step towards the 250-to-1 ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association and supported by the Virginia Board of Education in their Comprehensive Plan. However, in April (as a result of COVID-19) budget amendments were approved that virtually eliminate this additional funding for school counselors. Only five school districts in Virginia currently meet the Virginia Board of Education adopted 250-to-1 student-to-counselor ratio. As students manage their academic careers, especially amid a pandemic, they need more support.
Duties of School Counselors
School counselors face many demands on a daily basis. They split their time between students’ academic and personal problems, course scheduling, academic testing, career planning, and college preparation. The duties of guidance counselors are broad, but all of them directly impact a student’s preparation and ability to apply and attend college. Multiple studies show that students who accessed college information and postsecondary planning assistance from their school counselors were more likely to apply and then enroll in college. According to the Virginia Standards of Quality*, schools are required to provide the following services through guidance counselors:
- Academic counseling, which assists students and their parents to acquire knowledge of the curricula choices available to students, to plan a program of studies, to arrange and interpret academic testing, and to seek post-secondary academic opportunities;
- Career counseling, which helps students to acquire information and plan action about work, jobs, apprenticeships, and post-secondary educational, and career opportunities;
- Personal/social counseling, which assists students to develop an understanding of themselves, the rights and needs of others, how to resolve conflict and to define individual goals, reflecting their interests, abilities and aptitudes.
Counselor duties also typically have expanded to include non-counseling roles that include overseeing testing, providing clerical assistance, and disciplining students. With the recent implementation of Virginia’s Profile of a Graduate, which redesigns diploma requirements, individual student planning time will be critical, placing more burden on counselors. These increasing pressures and responsibilities further spread thin the available counselors and increase the need for lower student-to-counselor ratios.
Virginia Compared to other States
Most states have significantly higher student-to-counselor ratios than the American School Counselor Association recommended 250-to-1 (figure 1).
Over 90 percent of students in the U.S. attend schools with higher student-to-counselor ratios than recommended with only three states meeting the guideline. The national student-to-counselor ratio of 444:1 in 2016 indicates counselors have student caseloads 78 percent greater than what is recommended by experts. Montana and Vermont had the lowest student-to-counselor ratio with each counselor assigned to 207 students. Arizona (758-to1), Michigan (693-to-1), and California (682-to-1) had the three highest counselor caseloads in the country.
Students per Guidance Counselor in Virginia
Statewide in Virginia public schools, each school guidance counselor is responsible, on average, for about 348 students—40 percent higher than advised. This student-to-counselor ratio varies across school districts within the state as shown in figure 2.
Under 4 percent of school districts in Virginia met the 250-to-1 student-to-counselor ratio recommendation in 2018 (figure 3). School divisions that meet the requirement are small and include Madison County, Bath County, Sussex County, Lancaster County, and Buena Vista City school systems. Madison County has the lowest ratio at 85 and Manassas City Public Schools has the highest at 1287 students for each of their 6 guidance counselors.
Although the number has remained steady recently, each school counselor in Virginia has 40 more students than he/she did ten years ago. In 2006, prior to the great recession, Virginia had a low of 288 students per counselor. Since then, enrollment has increased but the number of guidance counselors has not kept pace.
School Counselors are Essential Employees
School guidance counselors are essential to school reopening plans, and any state or federal rescue funding for schools would be smart to include school counselors as one of their priorities. Counselors are overworked and insufficient in number; yet their importance is heightened during the pandemic. Counselors are uniquely situated to help students navigate course arrangement with online or hybrid modes, provide psychological and mental health guidance, and provide college information or navigate other career paths in a highly uncertain time. This guidance is imperative to help low-income and first-generation students succeed after graduation, especially in the current high unemployment economy.
*The Constitution of Virginia requires the Board of Education to prescribe standards of quality for the public schools of Virginia, subject to revision only by the General Assembly. These standards are known as the Standards of Quality (SOQ) and encompass the requirements that must be met by all Virginia public schools and school divisions. Every two years, as required by the Code, the Board of Education reviews the SOQ for necessary revisions