Brother, can you spare me a college counselor?

For Carlos Perez, going to college seemed out of the question. The Honduran immigrant had a low GPA at Boston's Brighton High School his freshman year, was an illegal resident, and money was a big issue. He was ineligible for college loans because of his illegal status and planned to leave school.

But Mandy Savitz, his high school guidance counselor, saw the situation differently. She steered him toward college-prep programs and even contacted a lawyer to help him become a citizen.

Carlos's grades shot up. And this fall, he'll enter Boston College to start down the path toward becoming a doctor.

"If it hadn't been for Ms. Savitz, I wouldn't be going to college. I would be working illegally," says Carlos, who requested a pseudonym because of his family's immigration status.

To Savitz, it's all part of being a college guidance counselor in an era when a college degree is seen as essential to success. School counselors are stretching the seams of their job. Many aren't trained to help with college admissions. But they're logging more hours on test prep, rounding up college reps, and reviewing applications. They're helping low-income students overcome financial hurdles, and catering to pressures from ambitious parents who want Ivy League acceptances.

Yet in many cases, expanded duties have not been accompanied by greater resources. And booming high school populations and erratic staffing mean that most counselors still face daunting workloads that can prevent them from helping kids who otherwise might have unparalleled opportunities open to them.

"[A better admissions-counseling process] makes a huge difference in the number of students who apply who otherwise wouldn't," says Savitz.

According to the American Counseling Association, the ratio of students to counselors in the United States has grown to 561 to 1, up from 513 to 1 in 1998 - and it's still expanding, It recommends a maximum of 250 to 1. Some high schools have responded by opening career centers. Others have hired college specialists to help kids fill out financial-aid forms and craft winning essays. Yet many schools can't afford to do more.

At Brighton High, the response was to restructure its guidance system. The mostly African-American school has partnered with Boston University and Boston College for help with admissions. The school's new career center is filled with students huddled over tables. They tap computers and peruse Web sites with college rankings and profiles. The shelves overflow with advice on how to apply for a Pell grant or other financial aid.

It can make a difference in a school where college is not necessarily an obvious choice. "Many kids are first-generation collegegoers. Parents don't know how to apply. We can show them ways to lessen the financial burden," Savitz says. "It helps ... to see that obstacles can be overcome and college can become a reality."

But many students are working with counselors who lack a sophisticated understanding of the process. Familiarity with the college-admissions process is low on the list of job requirements for counselors, says Jan Gallagher, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC), an organization of secondary school and college-admissions counselors and financial-aid officers.

"There are many more social issues to deal with, high-stakes testing ..., more parents out of the picture," she says. "[Neglect of college-admissions counseling] is going to hurt those who aren't self-directed or don't have parental support."

Forming a line for help

At Dorchester High School in Boston, where 40 percent of students go on to college, "[Students] line up sometimes. I send them back to class, get their name, and then call them," says Jackie Seda, a counselor who works with seniors.

The counselor-to-teen ratio is 1 to 300, yet Ms. Seda tries to meet with everyone individually. "Some days I have three or four students who need college applications and recommendations ... that will take me all morning."

The dearth of good counsel has sparked some parents to pressure schools to improve. Parents of students at Simsbury High School in Connecticut, a mostly white, suburban school where 90 percent of graduates go to college, were concerned over why their kids kept getting rejection letters from competitive schools like New York University. The school responded by hiring a consultant to revamp its counseling department. It also plans to hire another counselor.

"We decided that in these changing times of more competition, it might be to our students' advantage to do more marketing of our school ..., devoting more time to college admissions," says Joan Ramsay, director of guidance at Simsbury.

That's the approach of many private schools, which have built up a well-oiled machinery that slips into action each year. Many such schools have college specialists who network with colleges and coach students and parents on making a perfect match.

Julia Eells, college counselor at Miss Porter's School, a private girls' prep school in Farmington, Conn., says simply that college prep is at the core of the school's mission. As a result, she adds, "the college counseling office gets the appropriate support." The school has 80 juniors and 80 seniors.

In January of junior year, she shows girls the ropes behind college admissions, meets with them in small groups and individually, and helps them craft college wish lists.

"We have a special junior parents weekend, a college admissions panel comes and talks to juniors," she says. "We bring in a college speaker in the fall to talk to seniors about essay writing. We write the school letter of recommendation for each senior."

After applications are mailed, Ms. Eells calls colleges to make sure students are assessed accurately. "I've known them since freshman year.... I want these girls to have good homes."

She concedes that her meetings have close to 100 percent attendance. Public school counselors deal with many more distractions, she says.

Because of that, many parents in overburdened schools are turning to a new route: hiring private admissions consultants. Erin Horne, a junior at Joseph Case High School in Swansea, Mass., enrolled in a five-week admissions course by Kaplan when she felt lost.

"When I first started looking at different colleges, I didn't know what to do. The high school guidance counselor comes in and explains how to apply, but they don't spend any time on you as a person," she says.

Erin's Kaplan instructor suggested college essay ideas, helped her pick schools, and covered financial aid and interviewing. "It's easier for students ... and parents ... to get frustrated during the preparation process," says Marc Bernstein, president of Kaplan Learning Services. The college-prep class was launched last fall and costs $699 for the traditional course and $299 for an online course.

The importance of time

Spending more quality time with students and parents tops the list of ways to improve the college-counseling process nationwide, but counselors see other possibilities as well.

Ms. Gallagher of NACAC suggests that, in addition to hiring more counselors, schools shift paperwork to support staff. "Guidance counselors can be overworked and get burned out after a while," Savitz says. She maintains rigorous 12-hour days, helps with lunch duty, and coaches track. She gets to paperwork late in the day.

Web sites are also popping up to help students. Kids can log on to the Department of Education's COOL site to investigate some 9,000 colleges, find out about financial aid and scholarships - even apply to college.

At Simsbury, Ms. Ramsay's new role will be to network with colleges to promote her school, an effort that she sees as vital to improving the admissions process. More follow-through with students and parents on scholarships, applications, and financial aid would help as well, she adds.

"The role of guidance counselor is changing. I met with my counselor in high school twice," Savitz says. "It's a much more comprehensive job."

*E-mail cooks@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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