SEPTEMBER 26, 2013

College Counselors Count:
New York City students applying to college need the help of trained counselors--but gigantic caseloads and limited time mean many students miss out.

A simple mistake by a high school college guidance office derailed Alyssa DeFilippo's dream of going away to college. Even now, three years later, Alyssa expresses frustration and incredulity as she recounts her story.

Enrolled at Midwood High School, one of the better public high schools in Brooklyn, she had her heart set on SUNY Albany. With a high GPA, good SAT scores, extracurricular activities and strong references from teachers, she felt sure that her top choice would accept her.

Alyssa, the first in her family to attend college, was diligent about visiting her college guidance office, beginning in the second semester of her junior year. While her school had a large guidance staff, it had only two full-time college counselors for 800 seniors. Alyssa knew she had to take the initiative. "There weren't appointments at the college office, so you had to go yourself," she explains. "You had to approach them with questions, they didn't really approach you." She stayed on top of all her application deadlines and requirements in the fall of her senior year.

As winter of her senior year turned into spring, however, her confidence began to falter. While friends were receiving college acceptance letters, Alyssa was getting nothing but rejections, not only from SUNY Albany but also from her safety school, SUNY Cortland. "Even my mom thought something was weird," she says. "It's not like I was applying to Harvard or anything." Finally, after the third rejection, Alyssa and her mother paid a visit to the college guidance office.

There they discovered what Alyssa describes as a "glitch" in her transcript. Her guidance counselor explained that the grades of another student, with significantly lower grades than Alyssa, were mistakenly entered onto her transcript. To make matters worse, by the time the mistake was discovered, it was too late to apply to other SUNY schools.

"I still don't really know why they never caught it," says Alyssa. Instead of going away to college, she enrolled at the City University of New York, and she bounced around to four different commuter campuses before finding one she liked. Now settled at Brooklyn College, where she is studying early childhood education, she still wonders whether things would have been different had she gone away to SUNY Albany.


Alyssa's experience is not unique. From the smallest high schools with graduating classes of less than 100 to the behemoths with more than 1,000 seniors, New York City public schools are struggling, with mixed results, to provide the college counseling services their students need. Given the gigantic caseloads, the enormous needs of the students--many of whom are poor and the children of immigrants--and multiple responsibilities of guidance counselors, it is easy to see how small but potentially fatal errors slip through. Alyssa doesn't blame her counselor, who has since left Midwood, and she is grateful for the solid education she received there. But she is frustrated by a system that so easily goes awry.

Nationwide, public school guidance counselors provide only an average of 38 minutes of college admissions advice per high school student, according to a recent U.S. Department of Education (U.S. DOE) guidance survey. Huge caseloads are a big part of the reason. The ratio in the nation's 100 largest public school districts is 455 to 1, with Los Angeles coming in at a staggering 612 to 1, according to the 2009 data provided by the U.S. DOE, the most recent data available at the national level. In comparison, New York City's caseloads were estimated at 493 to 1 in this federal dataset.

Looking at more up-to-date data, provided locally, the picture looks a bit better in New York City. The Center for New York City Affairs obtained personnel data provided by the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) for the past 12 years to examine citywide K-12 caseload trends and how caseloads varied between high schools. The ratio of students to licensed guidance counselors is currently 316 to 1 in grades K-12 in New York City's general education public schools, according to an analysis of the UFT data done by the Center. (This number excludes charter school guidance and enrollment numbers. See "Guidance Counselor Caseloads Have Improved," page 32.)

Analyzing 2012 numbers for the city's high schools, Center researchers found that the studentcounselor ratio varied significantly from school to school. The UFT provided a list that included the number and experience level of licensed guidance counselors for the 406 general education high schools listed in the city Department of Education's 2010-11 Progress Report dataset. Interestingly, 36 high schools did not have any licensed guidance counselor on staff. (UFT staff speculated that the schools might still be growing or using licensed teachers to provide guidance services.) More than half, 246 schools, had caseloads between 100 and 300 students per counselor. The caseload numbers were much higher in many places: 68 high schools had student to guidance counselor ratios of more 400 to 1. (See "Guidance Counselor Caseloads Vary Widely," page 31.)

Public high school guidance counselors spend only 22 percent of their time on college guidance, while their counterparts in private schools are able to dedicate 54 percent, according to a national survey by the College Admission Counseling Association. Other responsibilities include counseling students on job and personal needs, advising on high school coursework, testing students and teaching.

Guidance counselors in New York City face an even wider range of responsibilities that include scheduling, tracking attendance and looking out for students with excessive and unexplained absences. In schools without licensed social workers, guidance staff must provide counseling for emotional problems as well.

"That includes any of the behavioral issues, maybe meetings with parents, which you can imagine takes a lot of time and paperwork," says Omar Morris, a long-time college and career pathways program officer for New Visions for Public Schools, who is now at CollegeBound Initiative.

"It could include lunch duty. I kid you not. Some guidance counselors serve almost as APs [assistant principals] in their schools. It's not like there's one job. Schools have to be very creative in how they use their staff. It's quite possible that you can walk into any college advisors meeting and ask the counselors what their day-to-day jobs are, and you will get 20 different answers. But the one thing that would be clear is that each person wears 10 different hats."

College counselors interviewed over the last three years by Center researchers describe a long list of responsibilities that routinely take precedence over college-related duties. For example, designated college counselors teach classes (at Flushing International and the Academy of Urban Planning), record attendance (at Cypress Hills College Prep), create student schedules (at Pan American International), serve as social workers (at Bushwick School for Social Justice) and carry out miscellaneous administrative duties (at the Academy for Environmental Leadership).

"You go to bed with lists, and wake up with lists, on what needs to be submitted to colleges for each student," one counselor on the Bushwick campus explained. "You can make or break a kid's future by failing to turn in a piece of paper, or forgetting to submit a form online."

Compounding the difficulties is the fact that poor students, new immigrants, and those who are the first in their families to attend college need much more help than their middle-class peers.

"Students often feel that the process is so overwhelming and so stressful that they end up shutting down," says Carmen Pena, a former CollegeBound Initiative college counselor at East Side Community High School in Manhattan. "You have to reinforce it so many times for them to actually get it."

Many students don't have even a basic understanding of what it means to be prepared for college. The large majority of 10th graders responding to a survey conducted by the Center for New York City Affairs believed that simply graduating from high school--whatever their grades or coursework-- would be sufficient preparation for college. Of the 468 students polled, nearly half thought their grades from ninth and 10th grade classes wouldn't be included in their college applications. Eighty percent of the students surveyed do not have an immediate family member who graduated from college--and therefore cannot rely on their relatives' experience to help them. (See a summary of key survey results on pages 21, 22 and 28.)

In middle-income communities, the student's parents typically guide him or her through that process, and other relatives or family friends offer the benefit of their own experience. But poor students must take the responsibility on their own shoulders--or rely on their school's guidance counselors. This can be arduous, particularly if a student needs help applying to more competitive colleges, signing up for tests like the SAT or seeking financial aid. (See "Fearing the Federal FAFSA Form," page 36.)

"We do a lot of the heavy lifting," says Monique Darrisaw, who joined the Department of Education's school support structure two years ago after serving for years as principal of Academy of Urban Planning in Bushwick. "The teachers and the counselor pretty much register all the kids for the SAT. We give fee waivers for them. My teachers, sometimes they make baggies for them that have their ID cards, their pens, their TI-83 calculators. Some teachers have gone so far as to arrange cab rides, because sometimes when the kids register later they can't get to a closer school. Some teachers meet them here and travel with them. You can't always get 80 kids into Grover Cleveland, which is down the block, so some kids are going to other sites in neighborhoods they've never been to."

In many schools, the college application process typically begins--and at some schools, ends--by sitting a classroom of students down at a bank of computers and overseeing their online application to CUNY. Students need to input a Social Security number, which may involve a delay as they try to get that information from home. (It's at that point that some discover they're undocumented.) They can list six colleges within CUNY on their application, but may not know the difference between the schools or, for that matter, appreciate the distinction between a twoyear and four-year college. If they are low-income, they may qualify as SEEK (at CUNY) or EOP (Educational Opportunity Program, at SUNY) candidates, which improves their chances of being admitted with subpar GPAs and SATs, but the counselor needs to ensure they check the appropriate box on the form.

"Some kids are completely perfect candidates for HEOP [Higher Education Opportunity Program, for other colleges] or EOP," says Dion Reid, director of college counseling at the Young Women's Leadership School of East Harlem and a veteran counselor affiliated with CollegeBound Initiative, a college access group affiliated with Young Women's Leadership Academy. "But they won't ever know about it because they don't stumble upon it when they're going through this process by themselves and no one takes their hand and says, ‘Hey, did you know about this? Did you know if you went here, you could do that?' And they end up at a school that's a school and a financial aid package that's a package, but it's not what it could be." Some students run out of steam after completing the college application and never get around to applying for financial aid.

"I've seen three types of students," he says. "There are the students that will never leave your office because they care so much. These top-tier kids are not going to be discouraged by the fact that they have to stand on line at CUNY with their income tax returns in order to have verification. There are the students in the middle. Their friends are going, they know they're going to go, they're just going to do things in their own time."

"And then there are the kids that want nothing to do with you," he continues. "They'll complain to their parents that their college advisor is bothering them too much. They'll turn and run the other way when you try to get them in a hallway. You might manage to get them to apply to college, to give you information, to do all the stuff while you have them in school, and then you say, 'Now, all you have to do is deal with this long line at John Jay and then go to school in September.' You'll have prepped them as much as possible and they'll get there and they'll be frustrated, they'll lack confidence. 'I'm not even going to do well in school anyway, why am I even standing on this line? Why am I fighting to get this from welfare when my mom is going to make me babysit anyway?'"

Claire Sylvan, executive director of the Internationals Network for Public Schools, which educate recent immigrants, agrees that when "kids show up, nobody is going to turn them down. It's the kids who don't show up that are more troubled. The kid who gets something in the mail and looks at it and freaks and just says, 'Ah, I'm going to get a job.' Or, 'I don't know how to do this, and I can't, and I am overwhelmed.'"


Even if a guidance counselor had the luxury of concentrating on college advising full time, it would still be a big job. According to a Department of Education "college action plan outline" recommended to all students considering college, a college application has six basic components: the application itself, including the application fee; a personal essay (if required); test scores like the SAT or ACT (if required); the high school transcript; teacher recommendations (if required); and the financial aid application, generally the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and, for those going to school in New York State, the TAP. In addition to these components, would-be college-bound seniors must gather documentation such as parent or guardian tax income forms, learn about student loans and investigate other scholarship sources.

The outline also suggests that New York City students apply to about five colleges each. Multiply this by a caseload of 200 or more students per counselor, and it becomes clear how mistakes are made-- and Alyssa DiFilippo's transcript fell through the cracks.

Faced with the endless onslaught of needs, many college counselors focus on what absolutely must happen. Like overwhelmed physicians in an ER, they practice triage, helping those students who are the highest achieving or simply the most demanding. "The guidance counselor would pick and choose who they knew would do well in college," said Reggie Leveille, who graduated from Midwood and went on to Brooklyn College. "I don't blame the college counselors, there just weren't enough of them. Too many kids and not enough of them to help us all."

Of course, the best college counselors don't just help students fill out the forms. They also forge relationships with college admissions offices--and advocate for their students individually. Sometimes a student seems unqualified on paper for a particular school, yet school staff know that he or she would excel there if given a chance. This is frequently the case with immigrant students, for example, who may have a high school transcript coded with many English as a Second Language classes and low English Regents scores, yet are entirely capable of handling the curriculum of a four-year college.

"A computer only looks at grades, transcripts and SAT/Regents scores," says Joanna Yip, a teacher and former counselor at one of the schools in the Internationals Network. "You need a college counselor who can advocate for students." College counselors can do this most effectively if they have good relationships with colleges and their admissions offices, and that requires years of networking. Such relationships can be cultivated by organizing college fairs at the school, arranging visits from individual representatives or going to the campuses to meet with admissions officers--trips for which few counselors have the free time.

Josh Steckel of the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies (BCS), a small school that serves students in grades 6-12, has assiduously courted college admissions officers, bringing them to his school for visits and, in turn, sending seniors to their campuses. His students have led tours of the school for the college officials, demonstrating both what makes them compelling applicants and what's special about BCS. "These visits have gone extremely well," he says. "Skidmore was so impressed by the students who gave the tour that their rep immediately invited the four guides on an in-depth, 'day in the life' program on the campus in November, travel expenses paid."

Hampshire College conducted student interviews on site, in BCS's library, and subsequently paid the way for three students to make an overnight visit. The Wheaton College rep covered the cost of train tickets for a group of students to stay overnight on the Massachusetts campus. Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania agreed to host an overnight for 15 seniors, all expenses paid.

But many counselors, scrambling to complete applications and meet deadlines, simply don't have the time to cultivate those good relationships. Furthermore, Angela Reformato, a retired guidance counselor and a longtime UFT guidance leader, divides counselors into two camps--those who concentrate on processing paperwork and meeting deadlines, and those who "really follow a student throughout the application process, who will help students with the whole college process and write essay drafts with them and help them find recommendations."

In most cases, experts say, the distinction is a matter of time, not intention. "For the most part, I would say that the school counselors in New York City do a phenomenal job with what they've got," says Richard Alvarez, director of admissions for CUNY. "It's just that they don't have enough to do the level of counseling that needs to be done, particularly for this generation of college students."