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Counselor-to-Student Ratios Show Improvement, But Looming Fiscal Cliff May Threaten Gains

The ratio of school counselors to students ticked down for the ninth year in a row, improving by more than 5 percent, according to data published this month by the American School Counselor Association.

The finding comes as a bright spot, as educators deal with behavior problems and a youth mental health crisis. But it’s also happening just as extra pandemic relief money runs dry, and advocates warn that schools could lose their significant investments in counselors, social workers, and school psychologists.

The counselor-to-student ratio nationally stood at 385 students to one counselor in 2022–23, compared with 408 students to one counselor the previous school year, ASCA found through an analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

The national average ratio is still much higher than ASCA’s recommended ratio of 250 students to one counselor. Only in two states—New Hampshire and Vermont—does the ratio fall below ASCA’s recommendation.

Some states saw a more dramatic decrease, including New York state, where the ratio of students to counselors dropped from 460 students to one counselor to 331 students to one counselor, an improvement of 28 percent, ASCA reported. The District of Columbia saw a 26 percent improvement, and Indiana’s ratio improved by 25 percent.

But in Arizona—which already had the highest student-to-counselor ratio—the balance tipped in the other direction. It rose from 651 students to one counselor to 667 students to one counselor, ASCA found.

“There are some school counselors that have the resources they need,” said Angela Hickman, ASCA’s director of research and marketing. “And then there are some who are doing a really good job and keeping their heads above water with a ginormous caseload. But, my gosh, how sustainable is that?”

Mental health was a top priority for pandemic-relief dollars

There’s no comprehensive data about just how many schools hired new counselors—or for that matter, social workers and school psychologists—using temporary federal pandemic funds.

But it is clear districts prioritized mental health services. Mental health was one of the top three spending categories for a significant portion of federal relief funds—just behind academic recovery and technology—according to survey data from school business professionals representing 116 U.S. school districts across 38 states, released recently by the Association of School Business Officials International.

More than sixty percent of districts surveyed used some part of their federal relief funds to finance counselors, social workers, nurses, therapists, and similar personnel, the ASBO report found.

The federal money is about to go away. Districts must decide how they are spending the remainder of their relief funds by September 30, and get the money out the door by Jan. 31, 2025. (Limited extensions may be granted.)

Even if the resulting, expected cuts don’t directly reduce the number of school counselors, they’re likely to impact student mental health services. Counselors might get less professional development or for special activities with students, for example.

Nearly one in six district administrators—14 percent—believe that students with mental health needs will bear the brunt of the loss of federal pandemic funding, according to a separate survey of 650 of those leaders conducted by AASA, the School Superintendents Association in June.

Schools have been directing “significant [pandemic] resources to addressing the mental health epidemic,” said Sasha Pudelski, AASA’s director of advocacy.

But the loss of those dollars, coupled with declining student enrollment in many places, may create a “perfect storm … where district leaders are going to have this moment where they start to think about who they can let go,” she added.

Eliminating a school mental health position likely would come before cutting a reading specialist, for example, Pudelski said.

Hickman agrees schools may lose resources for mental health when the federal relief funds stop flowing. But she’s not expecting the ratio of counselors to students to spike, considering the long-time positive trend.

In recent years “there’s more understanding about what school counselors do and their essential role in school,” Hickman said. “Administrators understand why you need a school counselor on your staff. They’ll help you meet the goals that you have for the school.”

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