Survey: Majority of High School Counselors Feel Unprepared to Help Students Make Financial Decisions About College

By Joelle Fredman, NASFAA Staff Reporter

As prospective college freshmen are beginning to receive acceptances and financial aid award letters in the mail and trying to determine which school is the best fit financially, a new report shows high school counselors might not have the resources or time to assist them.

American Student Assistance (ASA) surveyed more than 1,000 high school counselors nationwide and found that while a majority agreed that their students were concerned about financing their college education, less than 20 percent of counselors felt “extremely comfortable” talking to parents and students about the financial aid process.        

In fact, only 11 percent of counselors admitted that they are “always aware” of students' financial situations when discussing options for college, and just a little more than half said they had received some kind of formal training in the college financial aid process. Meanwhile, 92 percent of counselors said they were responsible for discussing college affordability with their students.    

“Counselors strongly believe that information on the true cost of college is important to convey to their students, but most feel unprepared and have received little training to do so,” according to the study. “Counselors are more likely to recommend schools that are a good academic fit for the student and are less likely to dissuade a student from going to a college that is a bad financial fit.”

In order to better equip counselors with the information they need to help students determine whether they can or should pursue certain programs and what aid they can receive, the study suggested that states begin mandating courses and training on higher education financing as part of school counseling requirements, and encourage counselors to take online webinars and courses on financial aid.  

In addition to lacking the knowledge to assist students, the study also found that counselors have a bias toward traditional four-year institutions, even if encouraging a student to attend a two-year institution may be the best fit financially. In fact, 69 percent of counselors said they are more likely to recommend a four-year institution to a student.

“It would seem the academic goals of planning for college have become so divorced from the economic realities of paying for it that the two conversations are not always happening with students and their families,” the study wrote. “The assumption may be that if you are smart enough, and academically prepared enough, it’s reasonable to borrow above-average amounts to grab that golden ring of a college degree. But the reality is that even high achieving students may be unable to complete a degree if financial hurdles get in the way – and all too often, debt without a degree leads to default.”

The study suggested that states and schools expand their definition of higher education to include less-traditional pathways, and recognize that there are “multiple postsecondary pathways toward economic mobility beyond high school.” One way the study recommends this be done is by creating partnerships with apprenticeships, internships and other skill-building programs that allow students to “explore their education and career options in a different way,” such as putting them on a path to earn an associate degree.

The study also found that another major barrier counselors face is that they are overburdened, and cannot dedicate enough time to assess their students’ individual financial circumstances. The survey results showed that a majority of counselors experience a counselor to student ratio of 300-to-1 or higher. Additionally, students may only be afforded less than one hour of time with their counselor over the course of their four years in high school, according to the study.

The study argued that if states invest in their students today by improving this ratio, they will get their money back and more. For example, after Colorado allocated $16 million to allow for 220 additional counselor positions at 75 high schools, it saw its high school dropout rate decrease from 5.5 percent to 3.5 percent. Using state estimates that each dropout cost the state $321,450 per lifetime in taxes lost and public support resources, Colorado saved $20 for every dollar invested.   

“The national debate about college affordability has ranged from whether the rise in student debt constitutes a crisis to whether the risk of taking on debt is now outweighing the potential rewards of the degree. School counselors are often in the middle of these debates, as they seek to explain how to pay for college without discouraging students from exploring all possibilities regardless of sticker price,” the study’s authors wrote. “...Counselors need the resources to reduce caseloads and have more time with each student; the training to confidently talk with students and families about complex issues of college planning and financial aid; and the flexibility and support from administrators to try new ways of helping students explore all their post-high school options to ensure they can achieve a postsecondary education that is the right academic fit and the right financial fit.”


Publication Date: 4/12/2018

Joseph S | 4/12/2018 12:24:05 PM

It is really sad to read this article, for while it conveys a truthful situation at the high school level for teachers and guidance/college officials, there is NO reason for it to exist. There are ways and means to incorporate such a one hour session per month if need be with a speaker to address the issues of financial aid to students who are preparing to graduate. The likelihood of injecting a permanent class into the senior year is doubtful, although in many cases the senior students have completed all the requirements and are increasing jobs after school or oftentimes "bored." Where is the creativity! And in so far as the personnel are concerned a the high school level, thee are numerous workshops by the financial aid associations and sufficient information by NASFAA to have an overview of what it takes to get the right information to students to assist in making their college financial aid decisions.

Tina C | 4/12/2018 10:3:44 AM

My 18 year old daughter and I were just discussing this topic while I was teaching her how to complete her W-4s and obtain a bank statement for her Direct Deposit form to submit to her new employer. She believes, as I do, that high school did not prepare her to deal with finances as an adult, but students should be required to take at least one course in high school that addresses personal finance. This may be viewed as a parent responsibility, but not all parents are equipped to teach there children on this subject. In my opinion, this would be an excellent option as a required math class, particularly for students who do not excel in the subject and could benefit from this as an option. As important as education is, not all students will excel at math, but all should be knowledgeable of basic finances.

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