Student Access to College Counseling

Counseling Effects

Secondary school counselors are among the primary sources of information for students about college planning and financial aid, and interactions with school counselors have a positive effect on postsecondary enrollment (George-Jackson & Gast, 2015; Owen, 2012; LaManque, 2009).

Several academic studies based on nationally representative longitudinal samples of successive cohorts of ninth graders (1988, 2002, 2009) have consistently documented the predictive relationship between contact with a counselor and important outcomes, including:

  • perceptions of college affordability
  • completion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
  • applying to college
  • college enrollment and persistence
  • four-year college enrollment

(Plank & Jordan, 2001; Rowen-Kenyon, 2007; Bryan, Moore-Thomas, & Day-Vines, 2011; Walton Radford & Ilfill, 2012; Belasco, 2013; Engbert & Gilbert, 2014)

A study of the most recent cohort (Dunlop, 2016) documented the importance of individual guidance. Juniors who talked one-on-one with a school counselor were: 

  • 6.8 times more likely to complete a FAFSA
  • 3.2 times more likely to attend college; and
  • 2 times more likely to attend a bachelor's degree program

Counseling-related effects on college enrollment are greatest for students with low socioeconomic status (Belasco, 2013; Bryan, Moore-Thomas, & Day-Vines, 2011).


Unfortunately, the students who most need assistance often have the least access to it. The ability of public school counselors to assist students is limited due to several factors, including:

  • High student to counselor ratios. In 2014-15, the average student caseload nationally was 482, with some states surpassing an average of 600 students per counselor (US Department of Education, 2016).
  • Diffuse responsibilities, including, for example, course scheduling, personal needs counseling, and test administration. On average, public school counseling staff spend only 21 percent of their time on postsecondary planning (PwC/NACAC Study).

A recent study of 2009 ninth-graders found that counselors at low-income public schools were less likely to offer financial aid assistance (Walton Radford, Ilfill, Lew, 2014).

Even students who apply to college and are accepted face difficulties from the lack of access to support during the summer, when many tasks still remain to successfully matriculate, a phenomenon referred to as summer melt. Students can struggle with evaluating financial aid offers and completing necessary administrative requirements to enroll. Several studies documented summer melt rates as high as 20 to 25 percent, and rates of matriculation failure tend to be higher among the lowest-income students and students planning to enroll in community college (Castleman & Page, 2014; Roderick, Coca, & Nagaoka, 2011).

And a series of studies examining more intensive counseling or outreach efforts, particularly during the summer after high school graduation, further demonstrate the importance of individualized counseling (Castleman, Arnold, & Wartman, 2012; Castleman, Page, & Schooley, 2014; Castleman & Goodman, 2017).


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