Laws governing school counseling vary from state to state, but there’s no shortage of schools recognizing the critical role counselors play in helping students with social and emotional issues, academics, and future plans. While progress still needs to be made, the counselor-to-student ratio is the best it’s been in decades, partly as a result of state-level pushes to prioritize student well-being.
To learn more, check out the infographic below, created by Bradley University’s Master of Arts in Counseling.
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<p style="clear:both;margin-bottom:20px;"><a href="https://onlinedegrees.bradley.edu/blog/school-counselor-laws-by-state/" rel="noreferrer" target="_blank"><img src="https://s3.amazonaws.com/utep-uploads/wp-content/uploads/bradley/2023/03/24065340/BDU-MAC-2022-Q3-Infographic-120922-JG-1-1.png" alt="An overview of the school counseling profession, including what school counselors do to help students and a breakdown of state laws governing school counseling." style="max-width:100%;" /></a></p><p style="clear:both;margin-bottom:20px;"><a href="https://onlinedegrees.bradley.edu" rel="noreferrer" target="_blank">Bradley University </a></p>
School Counselor Job Outlook
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has projected 10% employment growth for school counselors between 2021 and 2031. The median annual salary for school and career counselors was $60,510 in 2021.
The top five best-paying cities for school counselors in 2021 were Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario, California ($91,540); Napa, California ($90,530); San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, California, ($87,860); Hanford-Corcoran, California ($86,680); and Bremerton-Silverdale, Washington ($85,770).
The top five best-paying states for school counselors in 2021 were California ($81,590), New Jersey ($76,040), Massachusetts ($75,660), Washington ($75,160), and Maryland ($72,730).
Why School Counselors Are in High Demand
Counselors play a key role in helping students apply what they’ve learned in the classroom to the wider world after graduating. They help students consider career options, acquire the skills for their future occupation, and identify which postsecondary pathways can lead to their intended career.
Counselors help students figure out how they can reach their full potential by assessing their needs and behaviors; identifying factors affecting their performance; helping them find effective ways to learn, study, and manage their time; helping them figure out what they like and why; and bringing them and their teachers and guardians together to plan.
The American School Counselor Association recommends a counselor-to-student ratio of 1:250. The national average is 1:415, and in general the ratio is higher in elementary schools and lower in high schools.
In the 2020-21 school year, Arizona had the highest counselor-to-student ratio at 1:716 and Illinois had the second-highest ratio at 1:665. Meanwhile, Vermont had the lowest ratio at 1:186 and New Hampshire had the second-lowest ratio at 1:208.
Smaller ratio sizes are tied to more planning conversations between students and counselors about post-high school plans, better marks on standardized tests, and higher graduation rates.
School Counselor Shortage
Students are increasingly struggling with mental health as a result of the pandemic and other societal pressures, resulting in shifting school counseling priorities. However, it’s a struggle to keep up. Almost 40% of school districts lack a school psychologist. More than 90% of those districts aren’t meeting the recommended ratios.
Those psychologists who are employed face growing caseloads that make it hard to adequately meet student needs. Part of the shortage problem is funding. Funding is primarily temporary, which doesn’t allow for stability or consistency. This is particularly true in lower-income areas.
Counseling Mandates Across the U.S.
In recognition of the importance of counseling youth in schools and its positive impact, 25 states (including the District of Columbia) currently require school counselors for schools with grades K-8 and 9-12, while 31 states (including the District of Columbia) currently require school counselors for schools with grades 9-12.
The states that require school counselors for grades K-8 are Alabama, Arkansas, District of Columbia, Georgia, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
The states that require school counselors for grades 9-12 are Alabama, Arkansas, District of Columbia, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
Meanwhile, the states that don’t require school counselors for grades K-12 are Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, and Texas.
States That Recognize the Positive Impact of Counseling
Several states, recognizing the positive impact school counseling can have on students’ lives, have taken steps to enhance school counseling.
Counseling is mandated at all grade levels in the state. In 2020-21, the counselor-to-student ratio was 1:186. During that period, state counseling leaders recognized the disparities in approaches to counseling and created the Vermont Comprehensive School Counselor Framework. The framework focuses on developing counseling that’s consistent and comprehensive but flexible, equitable, and based on approaches that take a data-driven look at student needs. These approaches are divided into three tiers:
- Tier 1 – counseling curriculum for all students
- Tier 2 – targeted curriculum for some students
- Tier 3 – intensive curriculum for select students
Counseling isn’t mandated at any grade level in the state. In 2020-21, the counselor-to-student ratio was 1:572. However, school districts are looking to turn around decades of underfunding in this area with an increased emphasis on improving mental health. To date, districts have done it using funds from the Local Control Funding Formula and a total of $20 billion for education in the 2021 state budget.
In 2022, the California State Superintendent of Public Instruction announced a plan to hire 10,000 new counselors. This will partially be accomplished via $20,000 scholarships for mental health students who agree to spend two years in a school counselor role.
State law doesn’t mandate counseling, but education regulations do require a counseling plan consistent with the standards of the American School Counselor Association. In 2020-21, the counselor-to-student ratio was 1:381. However, that’s improving. In 2021, state legislators passed House Bill 100 to increase student counselors, social workers, and psychologists in elementary schools.
Counseling is mandated at all grade levels in the state. In 2020-21, the counselor-to-student ratio was 1:361. The state provides funding, although additional support comes through grants, and the state uses policies to incentivize schools to help with the funding. Arkansas has comprehensive policies for high school counseling standards, including guidelines for monitoring at-risk students and trying to prevent them from dropping out, training for suicide and bullying, and ways to engage parents and guardians in student education.
The yearslong push to improve school counselor-to-student ratios is resulting in some real gains. While the national ratio in 2020-21 was still well above the recommendations from the American School Counselor Association, the numbers are moving in the right direction. Ratios have been shrinking by 1% on average every year for more than three decades. That’s critical given the key role counselors play in maintaining student mental health and well-being and preparing students for the future.
American School Counselor Association, School Counselor Roles & Ratios
American School Counselor Association, State School Counseling Mandates & Legislation
American School Counselor Association, Student-to-School-Counselor Ratio 2020-2021
Arkansas Democrat- Gazette, “Arkansas Safe School Projects to Receive Nearly $9.4M in Federal Grant Money”
Education Week, “School Counselors and Psychologists Remain Scarce Even as Needs Rise”
Forbes, “Stimulate This: How School Counselors Will Help Save Our Post-Pandemic Future”
K-12 Dive, “California Plans to Double School Counselors Amid Shortage”
National Education Association, “How Delaware Educators Won Mental Health Supports for Students”
Recordnet.com, “California Made a Historic Investment in School Counselors. Is It Enough?”
State Policy Database, School Counseling Secondary Grade Levels—9-12
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2021, Educational, Guidance, and Career Counselors and Advisors
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, School and Career Counselors and Advisors
Vermont School Counselor Association, Vermont School Counselor Comprehensive Model