The ABCs of student financial success are at the heart of everything we do here at CampusLogic. In part one of this four-part series, I shared an overview of our ABCs—Access, Borrowing, and Completion, and the critical roles each plays in the student finance journey. A former Director of Financial Aid and a strong advocate for making higher education more achievable for all students, I’ll share data and connect you to industry research about the importance of accessibility in this, the second installment of the series.
As mentioned in the first installment of the ABCs of Student Financial Success series, higher education is often considered the gateway to the American Dream. But not everyone has the same ability to access higher education—to even get a foot in the door. Increasing accessibility means expanding students’ knowledge of institutional options, expanding access to counseling resources so they are making the right decision, and improving accessibility across at-risk populations where education can truly be life-changing. And while there are many initiatives that can work toward achieving access—or tying back to it—there are two critical focal points: Standardization of Counseling Resources and Implementation of State Reinvestment (which I’ll cover in our next piece).
Standardization of Counseling Resources
There’s a recommended student-to-counselor ratio in k-12 of 250 to 1, according to the American School Counselor Association (ASCA). But in the 2014-15 school year, the nation nearly doubled the recommended ratio. The U.S. averaged a 482 to 1 ratio that year, with several states in excess of 700 to 1.
It’s even more disheartening to note that 1 in 5 students don’t have access to any high school counselors at all—they’re left to make decisions about their future higher education goals on their own. If no one has ever talked to them about higher education or made it a priority—often the case for at-risk students like foster youth—they can be more likely to not view higher education as something that’s meant for them. This puts those students—the majority of whom are from low-income families—at the highest risk of not attending college or a pursuing higher education.
More than one-third of students who enter college are first-generation, and these students and their families need access to resources that offer personalized, impartial, and comprehensive assistance. Increasing student access to independent college counselors who can assist and educate students and their families about the college search and selection process can go a long way in improving access to college for those who can most benefit from it.
Why We Need Standardized Counseling
There’s currently a huge funding gap across the nation in terms of dollars allocated to mandated school counseling for high school students. Currently, 20 states don’t have any type of mandated counseling. As education costs increase and funding continues to decrease, counselors—especially in these non-mandated areas—are less likely to make the cut.
No specific policy exists to make k-12 counseling mandatory—or even available—to students prioritized on socioeconomic background, family income level, or other demographic factors. But consider that nationwide, we spend roughly 7 percent less per student in the country’s most impoverished districts than those in the wealthiest districts. Additionally, districts that serve the most students of color receive 5 percent less funding than districts serving the least. Without standardized counseling resources, the dividing lines draw themselves.
Roadblocks to Standardizing Counseling
If we know the value standardizing counseling can have on access, why isn’t it being fixed? Roadblocks like uninformed buying committees, increases in private or partial counseling, and the attainment gap all factor in.
Uninformed Buying Committees
The National Center for Education Statistics reported family members hold the greatest influence on high school students’ decisions about education after high school. But because 1 in 3 are first-generation college students, this indicates the buying committees for these students consists of people who aren’t familiar with or are overwhelmed by the process of getting into higher education. For Hispanic students, there’s also the idea that debt—of any type—is viewed as bad, making it hard for these students to understand the value and return-on-investment available to them.
We need to ensure students have access to experienced and impartial resources that can inform the buying (and borrowing) decision from start to finish, so students and their families can make better decisions. Without access to those resources, many students are opting out instead of choosing school.
Increases in Private or Partial Counseling
The absence of standardized k-12 counseling has allowed for private and college-sponsored counselors to become the norm. Counseling should be available, without bias toward any particular institution, to all students and their families—not just those who are in a financial position to pay for it.
We have an attainment gap—meaning there’s a significant disparity between different groups of students, like low-income or students of color. Counseling should be about finding a school that’s not only a good fit from a social and academic standpoint, but from a personal and financial standpoint, too. There are many Directors of Financial Aid (DFA) who are trying to fill the gap left by high school counselors, which is why they hold Financial Aid Days and are trying to find better ways to connect with students.
If we streamline the counseling process from high school to college, and address all needs early on, it can alleviate some of the burden that DFAs and enrollment staff are taking on, getting us one step closer to closing the attainment gap.
Standardizing counseling is key to increasing accessibility to the life changing power of higher education. Increasing accessibility is about so much more than making students aware of an institution, it’s about providing and increasing access to funding options that are available to students, increasing access to the knowledge they have about those options—of which mandating counseling is key—and it’s about empowering them with the ability to actually attend college.
In the next installment of this series, I discuss the idea of implementing state reinvestment in higher education.