Barbara Shelly

Cruel inequities in the college counseling process

Applying to college is no simple matter, for students or their counselors.
Applying to college is no simple matter, for students or their counselors. File Photo

One counselor, almost 500 hundred students.

That’s the average ratio nationwide, according to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling. High school students are being told they need education beyond a diploma, but there aren’t enough people to help them figure out how to do that.

The New York Times has a story today documenting the harried lives of two college counselors at Midwood High School in Brooklyn, N.Y. They are responsible for answering questions, writing recommendation letters and giving good advice to 766 students.


A few years ago I followed some students in area high schools as they worked their way through the process of selecting colleges and applying to them.

It quickly became apparent that the students with the greatest advantages also had access to the best resources. Blue Valley Northwest High School, which had trouble identifying a first-generation college applicant among its student body, had a phenomenal college counselor on staff. She had contacts on multiple campuses and was great at helping students obtain scholarships. Importantly, she began meeting with students long before senior year to get a feeling for the kind of school that would be a good fit.

The high schools I visited that served larger numbers of low-income and potential first-generation college students tended not to have college specialists. You’d be more likely to find an overworked general guidance counselor trying to squeeze in a session with a prospective college student while also coping with a teenager contemplating suicide and a family that just had its utilities turned off.

Fortunately, this area has some community resources to help. Some non-profits make staffers and volunteers available to help students navigate the paperwork and deadlines that come with the college application process. A few high schools are partnering with the Missouri College Advising Corps., which places recent college graduates in high schools to help students identify the right college and apply to it.

But there’s no substitute for a skilled college counselor, who has been on campuses to make contacts, and who has a chance to get to know students and work with them and their families.

There resources are most often available to students whose families may already have connections and some knowledge about the college education process. Schools that serve less advantaged students should beef up their college counseling staffs, but most of them have many needs and too little funding to meet them all.

To reach Barbara Shelly, call 816-234-4594 or send email to On Twitter @bshelly.