Added October 8, 2018
This study sought to answer the following research questions:
The short answer to each of these four research questions is yes. Graduating 12th graders attending schools with lower counselor-to-student ratios and more complete implementation of the ASCA National Model were more engaged in higher quality college counseling learning activities. These activities helped students to make more informed college decisions. The most provocative finding was that lower ratios and higher ASCA National Model implementation were much better predictors of the number of colleges students considered, applied to, and were accepted into than level of parent education. For example, the explained variance in our multiple regression model in predicting college acceptances was 2% for parent education level. After removing the effects for level of parent education, lower ratios and higher levels of Model implementation explained an additional 11% of the variance. These graduating high school seniors considered, applied to, and were accepted into more colleges. Their numbers closely approximated optimal numbers of colleges high school seniors should consider, apply to, and be accepted into as recommended by The College Board (see Table 1). Further, lower ratios and more complete ASCA National Model implementation were associated with making more informed college decisions. These findings are discussed in more detail below.
This online research study had over 300 participating 12th graders, attending 10 different high schools across the United States. This was a highly diverse sample in relation to: minority status (nearly half of the students are minority students), socioeconomic status and parent education level, First Generation college goers, gender, region of the country where their high school is located, and type of high school attended. All participating students were at least 18 years of age, on track and within one to two months of graduating from high school, had been accepted into either a 2 or 4-year college, and were planning to attend that college for the upcoming Fall Semester 2018. All student data were collected after the 2018 National College Decision Day (May 1), except for 1 high school where data were collected in late April. All college-going students participating in this study had already made their college decisions before providing any data to researchers. School level data (e.g., ratios and Model implementation) were collected from school counselors of these students. Schools were divided into two groups based on the student-to-counselor ratio. Five high schools had 265 or fewer students per counselor (the “Low Ratio” group) while the remaining five high schools had more than 265 students per counselor (the “High Ratio” group). This division closely approximated ASCA’s recommended ratio of 250 students per school counselor. A more complete discussion of methods and analyses used in this study is available from the first author upon request. All IRB guidelines for conducting Research with Human Subjects were followed.
The following summary of findings extends the discussion presented at the beginning of this report. Lower student-to-counselor ratios and higher Model implementation are strongly associated with students having better relationships with their school counselors. Students met more often with their counselors for college and career counseling activities (e.g., completing their FAFSA and developing a plan for how they will pay for college) and felt that their counselors know them on a more personal, individualized level. They were not just another face in the crowd (Public Agenda, 2010). Students with these advantages demonstrated that they had more college knowledge, aspired to achieve higher levels of postsecondary education, and were making a stronger personal commitment to graduate from the college they will be entering in the upcoming Fall Semester. These activities and developmental accomplishments have been identified in many prior studies as protective factors important in the prediction of success in college (e.g., avoiding Summer Melt and enrolling in the Fall, retention, and persistence to graduation).
Informed college decision making has at least two major components. One is a planful exploratory part. The second part has to do with the emotional subjective part of decision making and is influenced by the kinds of judgment heuristics discovered through the Nobel Award winning research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Our research study found that lower ratios and more complete ASCA National Model implementation were clearly related to students going through a more in-depth and complete college exploration and decision making process. Students felt that their counselors were an important part of these planful activities that led to their college choice. However, ratios and Model implementation were not related to helping students moderate the influence of biasing judgement heuristics that promote vulnerability in the college decision making process. Results suggest that 12th graders may indeed use judgement heuristics (e.g., representativeness, anchoring, and availability) when making a college decision. For example, how information is framed to students about a particular college may be enough to turn them from risk avoiders to risk takers. Encouragingly, results support the idea that students may be able to use objective data (e.g., retention and graduation rates) to offset emotionally charged information (e.g., how attractive a school looks to them in a brochure or how engaging the college representative was on their college tour) that capitalize on judgement heuristics likely to bias college decisions.
This study has notable implications for theory, research, and practice. Results support the underlying theoretical idea that a more complete implementation of the ASCA National Model, with its call for student-to-counselor ratios of 250 to 1, will lead to measurable benefits for students (e.g., Lapan, Gysbers, & Sun, 1997). Schools fortunate enough to have taken seriously the job of implementing the ASCA National Model, with recommended lower ratios, enable school counselors to act as critical protective factors for students. College and career readiness is enhanced through the establishment of more personalized relationships that promote success both in the present and future (e.g., Lapan et al., 2014; Public Agenda, 2010). Future research is needed to replicate and extend this work to a national sample. A randomized control study could examine more closely the causal linkages between the ASCA National Model and the effects, as well as effect sizes, for students. Further, the subject of judgment heuristics emerges as very important ground for future research on college decision making. Choosing a college is done under extreme conditions of uncertainty. Helping students learn and use more effective decision making strategies could be a very powerful intervention. And lastly, practitioners need to be supported to more deeply engage with their students in the college planning and decision making process. There are clear evidence-supported activities to be undertaken and relationships to be built that empower students and their families to make more informed college decisions.
Richard Lapan, Ph.D., University of Massachusetts—Amherst, Timothy Poynton, Ph.D., UMass-Boston, Rick Balkin, Ph.D., University of Louisville, and Robert Nakosteen, Ph.D., UMass-Amherst
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