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What’s Working: Colorado Saved Millions by Investing in Counselors. Here’s Their Advice to Other States

This article is part of the “What’s Working” series, which highlights promising practices for helping to close the graduation gap in communities and states across the country.

Colorado made headlines recently for the millions of dollars it saved taxpayers by investing in school counselors.

Between 2010 and 2015, Chalkbeat reported, the state-funded Colorado School Counselor Corps gave $16 million in grants to 59 high schools across the state, adding 220 licensed counselors and preventing almost 1,000 students from dropping out.

A report from the Colorado Department of Education found that for every $1 it spends on school counselors, the state saves $20 that would otherwise go to social safety net services. All and all, the education department says, the program has saved taxpayers more than $319 million.

While the economic outcomes are encouraging, the grant program’s coordinator, Eve Pugh, says she’s proudest of the impact it’s having on students.

“It’s the right work,” she said. “[Counselors] really are making a difference in the state of Colorado for our students.”

As the The 74 Million reported, dropout rates for schools participating in the program have gone down while the number of students admitted to college has gone up. Daily attendance is up as well, along with the number of students enrolled in college classes and the number students completing federal financial aid applications for college.

With such impressive gains, should more states consider investing in school counselors?

A National Shortage

The American School Counselor Association recommends that every school have at least one counselor per 250 students. But only three states—New Hampshire, Vermont and Wyoming—are meeting that recommendation.

Nationally, the average student-to-school-counselor ratio is 491 to 1, but counselors in states like Oregon, Utah, Michigan and Minnesota have to meet the needs of more than 600 or 700 students each. In Arizona, the ratio is as high as 941 students for every counselor. In California, it’s 822 to 1.

Take a look at the latest data from the American School Counselor Association for all states here.

Trying to reduce the counselor-to-student ratio was a major goal in Colorado, and so far, one that it has achieved. Before the grant, participating schools had an average ratio of 363:1. By the end of the grant period, it was down to 216:1.

Cory Notestine, who oversees counselors in Colorado Springs School District 11, said that even though the district’s participating schools are only halfway through the grant program, counselors are already reporting more one-on-one time with students and better student outcomes.

Participating schools have also seen more students complete the Free Application for Federal Student AID (FAFSA) forms, earn better grades and enroll in more Career Tech Education courses.

“It would benefit every state to adopt some version [of this program] that works for them,” Notestine said.

Colorado’s Advice to Other States

What truly sets this program apart, Notestine said, is that participating schools align their programs with the American School Counselor Association (ASCA) national model.

“Through that platform and through that model, schools and school counselors are able to deliver services not just to a small group of students or one on one,” Notestine said. “It’s not just random acts of guidance; it truly is programming that supports all students.”

Eve Pugh, the grant program’s coordinator, has one piece of advice for states interested in starting a similar program: Partner with your state school counselor association.

The Colorado School Counselor Association (CSCA) helped convince Colorado’s state legislature that investing in counselors was key to raising graduation rates.

“They can really have a voice not only for counselors but for students,” she said. “That partnership is important for anyone trying to do this, whether it be a district or a state.”

Pugh says the grant program is a competitive process, and that while the state gives priority to high-poverty schools and schools with high dropout rates, interested schools also have to 1) demonstrate they understand where students’ biggest barriers to graduation are, and 2) develop a plan to help students overcome those barriers.

They also have to meet one crucial expectation. “Districts are expected to sustain this program even when the grant is over,” Pugh said.

Once they look at how much money they’ll save, Pugh added, it’s not a problem convincing them that it’s worth the investment.

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