Part Two: Counselor Realities

Because accurate, effective mentorship is so critical to establishing college readiness for first generation students, the National Association of College Admissions Counselors recommends a ratio of no more than 250 students to 1 counselor (NACAC, 2018). Many public high schools would have to double or even triple the amount of on-site support to attain that proportion, the budgetary impact of which would be unsustainable. The national average of 482-to-1, compounded by the fact that the 20% of lowest income school districts allocate little or no budget to this line item, constitutes a primary reason American students face such an alarmingly un-level playing field. Reports in public school districts in Chicago of a 700-to-1 ratio, and up to 1000-to-1 in Los Angeles make clear that the time for a new paradigm has arrived. New solutions must interrupt narratives of generational poverty. Those will fall into one of two paradigms, or a hybrid of both: live and/or digital mentorship. Future American generations will be impacted by how U.S. decision makers reconcile the age of digital disruption and pathways to higher education.

Figure 1: Median Caseload Per School Counselor, by High School Type. Source U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics.

The percentage of students enrolling in college in fall 2016 immediately following high school completion was 69.8%, and only 46% were heading to 4-year institutions. Others attended 2-year community colleges, in many cases due to financial concerns since costs are significantly more affordable for most families (National Center for Education Statistics, 2018). While attendance at a community college can in some cases provide a necessary bridge to the four-year degrees that can solidify future opportunities and income, data referenced in the Chronicle for Higher Education (Strikwerda) show that only 15 percent of community-college students earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. Whether this is due to lack of financial aid literacy, under-developed skill levels, or “the cultural gulf between community-college students and the colleges and universities that do little to welcome them”, a current trend in large urban districts to shuffle large numbers of students into community college pathways comes with concerns for some experts. In TX, for example, the Dallas County Promise program has ushered in a 40 percent growth in enrollment at DCCCD from 31 high schools by having students sign pledges and assuring every graduating senior they could attend community college for free, thanks to a partnership between Dallas County Community College District and education nonprofit Commit.

This alliance, as emblematic of others in the public and private sectors across America, is an interesting one to watch. The program’s goal is to boost post-secondary attainment across the board, but national statistics simply don’t support the tactic of sending a majority of disadvantaged students into community colleges, assuming this will result in four-year degrees on the back end within six years. By then, of course, the K-12 system will have graduated the students onward and be focused on the evergreen renewable crop of rising 9th-12thgraders looking for guidance. Longitudinal studies will be required to determine impact in student lives, but the central question raised by programs of this sort is whether it is fair to send a message to already marginalized students that they should hope and aim for attendance at 2-year colleges. If all students could be effectively and economically coached in attaining sufficient merit-based financial aid and scholarships, would it not be better for many of these young men and women to move directly into B.A., B.S., or B.F.A. programs?

In another example to watch, a model currently being piloted in seven states is GATE College System (founded 2015) offering digital college access support to increase confidence and competence for disadvantaged students through a live-mentorship model with national non-profit partner Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG). This partnership leverages the digital GATE tool in JAG’s work with students in order to improve forward momentum and optimize each minute the in-person mentor is able to attain with each student. Some speculate that the GATE model may provide a scalable solution for impact to help as many students as possible without untenable hiring requirements (Accelerating, 2018).

For-profit tech companies offer digital support for counselors and student upgrades for a fee, but costs are prohibitive for many public schools. In terms of student-facing support, access has remained static or diminished over the past 10-15 years for students who are first generation. Without in-person or digital intervention, each year millions of new young adults launch into the future without critical information and guidance to chart an optimal course for their futures. Compounding this, every year more than 1.2 million students drop out of high school in the United States. That’s a student every 26 seconds–or 7,000 a day. When high school is not directly tethered to real world outcomes that students believe are attainable for their lives, lack of engagement is the result. First generation students require specific kickstarts starting no later than the beginning of ninth grade to optimize their futures: inspiration, motivation, information and preparation.

As new college and career readiness solutions begin to arise, district superintendents bear the ultimate responsibility to effectively provide requirements needed to inspire and motivate the students under their direct care. The challenge comes in that these well-educated professionals cannot operate autonomously. It’s been said an average of at least half a dozen individuals at any district must sign off on solutions being put into place. From CTOs and CIOs to heads of departments and even teachers’ unions, it’s incredibly challenging for innovation to reach the students it’s been designed to support. Will this support live “between the bells”? Finding that coveted time proves problematic. Will it be an after-school program? Unfortunately, this disqualifies the majority of students with economic disadvantages, who rely on making the bus to make it home, or have to rush to jobs and sibling care to help their families function. For first generation students, the right solution has to be mobile-friendly, easily accessible on or out of school, and strike the right balance between the head and the heart—because both will make the journey. Factoring in the resistance to change and inherent territoriality of some stakeholders, including counselors themselves, who may rightly be concerned about EdTech replacing or augmenting their services, the hybrid model of in-person mentorship + digital solution for scale presents a potentially viable way forward. In this “both/and” not “either/or” approach, first generation students can use the precious 38 minutes annually they average with their counselors in a targeted fashion following a proven process in a step-by-step manner, with accountability and transparency.

Without a coalesced process for students that can mimic the in-person mentorship paradigm, currently available support will primarily benefit students who already have the social capital at home to be motivated to self-advocate. Sadly, this is insufficient for the needs of students whose parents have never attended college, and who could benefit most from a solution catering to their particular requirements.

Some argue that free support is readily available for various college-preparatory needs. Commonly cited is Khan Academy, which notably launched its no-cost SAT prep and other academic videos online in 2007. The reality is that students growing up in homes without adult role models who can encourage and lead them tactically toward college readiness need actual mentors to guide them in a systematic manner. The fact that 60 full-time employees of Khan’s non-profit in Mountain View CA work on Calculus, Biology, and other videos doesn’t fill America’s gaps as pertains to college access. Disjointed SAT trainings without mentorship will never bridge the gap, and anyone who remembers being a teenager knows why. Inspiration is king. The labyrinth of everything needed to solve the information gap and catapult disadvantaged students out of generational poverty requires not only preparation, but also the breath of human motivation. This requires a roadmap, not fragmented clues with a mandate for 14- to 17-year olds to somehow personally figure out how to navigate the actual terrain.

Human behavioral components, now trending in the edtech world under the broad category of SEL (social-emotional learning) have led to new startups seeking to solve that piece of the puzzle in an increasingly fragmented market. Stephen Smith, the co-founder of Naviance, is one such leader currently incubating a solution called Intellispark on the basis that “I feel like there’s a lot of unfinished work to be done. We are looking at those student experiences more holistically.” With the perspective of a seasoned professional in the industry, he goes on to say, “It’s not just about college knowledge or exploration. When you stop and think about what really makes the difference between somebody who’s successful and satisfied in a kind of important, deep way in their life, it’s not just about that kind of academic preparation that might show them as eligible for college. It’s something more in terms of the social capital that we create, the social emotional development, mental health and welfare of each of the children that we’re responsible for. And so thinking about how schools can operate in a more systematic way around those issues is very important” (S. Smith interview, October 31, 2018).

Because of this growing awareness, private companies increasingly offer digital support as partners with non-profits espousing a live-mentorship model in order to provide a scalable solution for impact to as many students as possible without untenable hiring requirements. Even more mature human-capital-centered college readiness models are beginning to change with the times; for example, AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination, founded 1986) began building out its own student-facing digital curriculum in recent years. AVID’s success has been built upon teacher trainings and paid support built into the school infrastructure. “Among the most visible supports in the AVID program is a special academic elective class that meets for one academic period a day, 180 days a year, for the duration of the student’s middle or high school experience. In addition to a classroom teacher, students are assisted by college tutors on a 7:1 tutor-student ratio,” according to Ed.Gov. The AVID model, like Naviance, requires schools to dig into their often strained budgets to afford this support.  The future is coming, and its digital access may bring good news for those in need, but should the keys to college access only be available for sale? If not, who should be footing the bill?

Ideally, the U.S. federal government would fund vehicles for requisite college access information so that every public high school student would receive equitable opportunities. Disadvantaged students will benefit when more substantial, systemic change trickles down from Washington D.C. not only onto their phones but into their public school lives. Despite the improvements of FAFSA access due to the laudable mobile app project launched in October 2018 by the team led by Dr. A. Wayne Johnson at the U.S. Department of Education, there is much more to be done to increase access as impacted by federal policy makers.

The FAFSA acts as a primary way millions of students each academic year access higher education. However, the FAFSA’s complexities have resulted in significant underutilization of federal aid. Only 61 percent of high school seniors complete the application, and many procrastinate timely submissions. This leaves $24 billion in federal aid unclaimed. Many other students initially file the application, but then don’t persist to actually enroll at a higher education institution. With just 31 percent of low-income students leveraging the assistance of a Pell Grant to afford college, it’s clear this issue disproportionately affect students who are already disadvantaged (Smith-Barrow). Imagine the benefits for public school students if homerooms or other “between the bells” time were dedicated to ensuring this wasn’t the case, through leveraging digital solutions offered by transformative leaders offering scalable digital solutions.

Figure 2: Source National College Access Network

Spiraling student debt presents another major impediment for students’ upward mobility. According to Traci Kirtley, Chief Program Officer at College Possible: In the mid-2000s, I often said with confidence that if we did our job right, and our students followed our guidance, they could find a college pathway where finances did not have to be a barrier to success. A decade later, I can no longer say the same thing. In 2018, we can do everything right, our students can follow all our best advice, and they can still find themselves without an affordable college option that gives them a good chance of earning their degree within six years (DeBaun, 2017).

With current cumulative student debt in the United States above the $1.5 trillion-dollar mark, there can be little doubt fiscal feasibility constitutes a major barrier for aspiration. Offsetting the panic students feel due to media coverage and misinformation related to these concerns is necessary in order to increase equitable access to higher education. Public school students who are able to think critically about the options for federal, state, institutional and private aid such as scholarships in a data-driven manner will be able to leverage a decided advantage in their work to improve their future opportunities. Transformative leaders seek to bring those opportunities to all students within the public school system, moving the old paradigm of access-for-sale to a new one of access-for-all.


Accelerating College and Career Readiness (2018, July 10). GATE White Paper. Retrieved from

DeBaun, Bill. Infographic: The Leaky FAFSA Pipeline.14 December 2017. Retrieved from

Ed.Gov. (1998, April). Tools for schools: Advancement via individual determination. Retrieved from

11 Facts About High School Dropout Rates. Retrieved from

NACAC (2018). “State-By-State Student-Counselor Ratio Report” National Association of College Admissions Counselors. Retrieved from–publications/Research/state-by-state-student-tocounselor-ratio-report2/.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2018). Fast facts: Back to school statistics.

Retrieved from

Radford, Alexandria Walton, Nicole Ifill and Terry Lew. 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? Retrieved from

Smith-Barrow, D. (2018, July 20). Are too few students asking for federal student aid? Retrieved from

Smith, Corbett. Free college-for-all program sees ‘phenomenal’ results for Dallas County. Retrieved from

Smith, S. (2018). Interview with Pamela M. Donnelly. 31 October 2018.

Strikwerda, Carl J. Why Community Colleges Are Good for You.28 January 2018. Retrieved from

Positionality Acknowledgement: the author is founder and CEO of GATE College System.

Coming Soon—Part Three: Putting It All Together