Student Access to College Counseling

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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).


Belasco, A. (2013). Creating College Opportunity: School Counselors and Their Influence on Postsecondary Enrollment. Research in Higher Education, Vol. 54, No. 7.

Bryan, J., Moore-Thomas, C., Day-Vines, N.L, & Holcomb-McCoy, C. (2011). School counselors as social capital: The effects of high school college counseling on college application rates. Journal of Counseling & Development, 89(2), 190-199.

Castleman, B.L., Arnold, K., Wartman, K.L. (2012). Stemming the Tide of Summer Melt: An Experimental Study of the Effects of Post-High School Summer Intervention on Low-Income Students’ College Enrollment. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness. Volume 5, Issue 1.

Castleman, B. L., & Goodman, J. (2017). Intensive College Counseling and the Enrollment and Persistence of Low-Income Students.

Castleman, B.L., Page, L. & Schooley, K. (2014) The Forgotten Summer: Does the Offer of College Counseling After High School Mitigate Summer Melt Among College-Intending, Low-Income High School Graduates?. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 33:2, pages 320-344.

Castleman, B.L., & Page, C. (2014) A Trickle or a Torrent? Understanding the Extent of Summer Melt Among College-Intending High School Graduates. Social Science Quarterly 95:1, pages 202-220.

Engberg, M. E., & Gilbert, A. J. (2014). The counseling opportunity structure: Examining correlates of four-year college-going rates. Research in Higher Education, 55(3), 219-244.

George-Jackson, C. & Gast, M.J. (2015). Addressing information gaps: Disparities in financial awareness and preparedness on the road to college. Journal of Student Financial Aid, 44(3), Article 3.

LaManque, A. (2009). Factors associated with delayed submission of the free application for federal financial aid. Journal of Applied Research in the Community College, 17(1), 6-12.

Owen, L. (2012). Narrowing the college opportunity gap: Helping students and families navigate the financial aid process. Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global.

Plank, S. B., & Jordan, W. J. (2001). Effects of information, guidance, and actions on postsecondary destinations: A study of talent loss. American Educational Research Journal, 38(4), 947-979.

Roderick, M., Coca, V., & Nagaoka, J. (2011). Potholes on the road to college: High school effects in shaping urban students’ participation in college application, four-year college enrollment, and college match. Sociology of Education, Vol. 84, No. 3.

Rowan-Kenyon, H.T. (2007). ”Predictors of delayed college enrollment and the impact of socioeconomic status.” The Journal of Higher Education, 78(2), 188-214.

US Department of Education. (2016). Common Core of Data State Nonfiscal Survey Public Elementary/Secondary Education Survey: School Year, 2014–15 Version 1a. Washington, DC: NCES.

Walton Radford, A, Ilfill, N. & Lew, T. (2014). A national look at the high school counseling office: what is it doing and what role can it play in facilitating students’ paths to college? Arlington, VA: National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Walton Radford, A. & Ilfill, N. (2012). Preparing students for college: What high schools are doing and how their actions influence ninth graders’ college attitudes, aspirations and plans. Arlington, VA: National Association for College Admission Counseling.