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While the Rich Hire College Admissions Consultants, Other Students Fight for their Counselors’ Time

Dwight Schmidt, school counselor, talking to student | Still from "Under Pressure"
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If you're a Los Angeles Unified School District student who wants to go to college, chances are you'd like to talk to an adviser for help.

But simple statistics show that it might not be that easy to get an appointment.

According to numbers provided by the district to SoCal Connected, the ratio of students to college counselors is 690 to 1. It's worse in schools with student bodies comprised predominantly with children of color: 750:1.

At some schools, the ratio is far higher. Although LAUSD officials could not provide information on how many college counselors are assigned to each school, SoCall Connected contacted dozens of schools throughout the district, often finding one, two or no full-time college counselors for the student body. Among the findings:

  •  Lincoln High School in Los Angeles, for example, employs one full-time academic counselor for the 1,100 students attending its main campus and two magnet schools.
  • Kennedy High School in Granada Hills, with 2,300 students, has one full-time counselor.
  • Van Nuys High School and its three magnet schools has one counselor devoted only to college advisement for 2,600 students.
  •  Many schools, especially continuation high schools and others with smaller populations, don't have any college advisers. The Daniel Pearl Senior High Journalism and Communications Magnet School in Lake Balboa, has a volunteer come on Thursdays to assist its more than 300 students.

The lack of counselors assigned specifically to help students get into college comes at a time when the competition for spots at the nation’s top universities is so fierce, some wealthy celebrities and business people resorted to paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to bribe college officials and to fake achievement test scores. A number of them, including actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, were indicted last year in a stunning college admissions scandal that cost USC and UCLA officials and coaches their jobs.
Other parents played by the rules, but – those with the funds to do it – gained an edge for their children by hiring college admissions professionals, coaches, and  tutors for the SAT and ACT admissions tests.  The burgeoning college admissions business that includes boot camps, education consultants and national conventions has resulted in what many parents and students consider an unfair playing field.

“All my friends have money and so they all have like super, super expensive SAT and ACT coaches,” one student told SoCal Connected. “It’s like $500 a session.”

Although some students hire private college counselors, for most students, a high school academic adviser is all they have. Lynda McGee, who works at the Downtown Magnets High School in Los Angeles, is the only college counselor for about 1,000 students. She tries her best to help them, including sometimes paying her own way to national college conventions to meet admissions officials.

"We’re 96 to 97 percent students of color, mostly first generation," McGee told SoCal Connected. "My students don’t really feel entitled and something they don’t give themselves the credit they should. So, I need to be their cheerleader and let them know that they are worthy of whatever anyone else can get."

But, McGee works alone and only has so much time. A 2017 UCLA study tracking college enrollment rates in LAUSD, found that although more than 75 percent of college counselors like McGee said they had adequate information to help students with college applications and financial aid processes, less than half said they had enough time to provide them with the individualized college application assistance they needed. Counselors at 75 percent of the schools reported that some students were not getting the help they required.

The study, conducted by the Luskin School of Public Affair found counselors' large caseloads and other demands for their time, got in the way of helping students with college and financial aid applications. Counselors told researchers they spent nearly as much time coordinating academic testing and performing non-counseling activities as they did providing advice on college applications.

The study also found that although schools offered college readiness support, students still required more help with applications, and the financial aid and college enrollment process.

"About one-fifth of 12th graders in the survey said they didn’t feel that adults at their school had helped them learn the details of getting into college," the study said.

The LAUSD’s ratio of college counselors to students was approved in collective bargaining between the teacher’s union and district. The latest budget development process is not underway, a spokeswoman said, so it’s unclear if the ratio will improve or worsen.

Meanwhile, how students get into college may be changing. While students might still need help filling out college and financial aid applications, the need for tutors for admissions tests might no longer be necessary.

Many universities have decided in recent months not to consider their freshmen students’ SAT or ACT scores while admitting them. Research has shown scores are not necessarily tied to students’ aptitude, but their family’s income and race.

In October, lawyers for the Compton Unified School District and other groups threatened a lawsuit against the University of California, alleging the tests discriminated against low-income, disabled and minority students.

ACT and the College Board disagree, saying their tests are indicative of how a student might perform in college, and compare to others. More than 1,000 universities and colleges across the nation have dropped the tests.

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