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Caring for College and Career Readiness Advisors After a Year Like No Other

Today, high school advisors have either already completed or are nearing the end of their school year-long contracts. After a year like this, how can we provide additional support for advisors to prevent burnout and compassion fatigue?

Ezequiel Jimenez, Program Intern & Alessandra Cipriani-Detres, Program Associate, National College Attainment Network

Let’s think back to August 2023. High school doors are swung wide open, and the halls are flooded with students after a summer of post-pandemic normalcy. Some students are walking into an entirely new building surrounded by unfamiliar faces while others might not even realize they are living their last first day of their K-12 educational experience.

At the same time, college advisors are preparing to support their high school seniors and juniors in understanding and preparing for their post-secondary endeavors. Little did we know that following this first day of school would come months upon months of waiting for students to be able to successfully submit the FAFSA, let alone for the application to simply open. This time was filled with FAFSA nights where some families in the room drove home for dinner after successfully submitting their FAFSA within 15 minutes. On the other hand, too many others in the same room sat for hours hoping to get an answer to the question “what did I do wrong?” when trying to submit a form that was already broken before they even typed “studentaid.gov” into their computer’s search bar.

Advisors and counselors are already overworked given that the national student to counselor ratio for the 2022-2023 school year was 385:1, much above the recommended ratio of 250:1. This demanding workload coupled with a three-month shortened FAFSA timeline likely led to many high school advisors encountering burnout and, more specifically, compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is a secondary reaction to the stress trauma, or concerning events experienced by students which can show up in counselors as having diminishing sense of hope, changes in work performance, feelings of bitterness towards their jobs, and loss of emotional regulation.

Today, high school advisors have either already completed or are nearing the end of their school year-long contracts. After a year like this, how can we provide additional support for advisors to prevent burnout and compassion fatigue?

Increase capacity

Having one advisor effectively support an average of 385 students per year is not feasible yet is our reality. This is due to a multitude of reasons such as the overall lack of investment on education in the U.S. and the reliance on property taxes to fund local public schools- all contributing to schools that serve higher populations of students from low-income backgrounds and BIPOC students to be under resourced. The following initiatives require a financial commitment to improve advisors’ capacity.

Michigan created Certified FAFSA Specialist Trainings to increase the number of prepared professionals in response to the changes in the FAFSA and new scholarships for Michigan residents. They also recently announced the launch of Michigan Retired Educator FAFSA Specialist (REFS) program to bring back retired educators to advise students on college opportunities. These are just some examples of how states can leverage their workforce and increase field capacity to a degree where not only high school advisors are solely responsible for supporting students.

Moreover, the ability of the field to respond to students’ changing needs has grown. The way in which data and technology is used within education has improved significantly and can be leveraged in schools to alleviate the administrative stress for advisors. For example, training about how to use tools like the National Student Clearinghouse Student Tracker could allow more advisors to better track students who have completed the FAFSA and provide targeted supports to those who have not. States like Michigan and Idaho are creating and using their own FAFSA dashboards to keep track of FAFSA completions in high schools throughout the state. These initiatives can provide key information to counselors to plan their outreach early on and partner with senior leadership in how to effectively fill the gaps presented by the data.

Don’t reinvent the wheel

With extremely high caseloads — time is valuable, and often hard to come by. Creating a culture that encourages the borrowing and sharing of resources among districts, CBOs, and states can save advisors and education professionals time given the abundance of information already exists. For the upcoming year, we recommend checking out some of the resources below:

Make the job easier when possible

When time is limited, schools should look at every opportunity to alleviate the high workload of advisors when possible. Staff appreciation, self-care resources, and trainings are great, but they miss the mark if the volume of work does not allow time for advisors to take care of themselves. Schools should look to invest time and resources to make the job in advising students easier when possible.

One way to do this is to encourage and require effort from all staff – especially teachers to proactively engage with students about postsecondary educational opportunities after high school. This doesn’t mean that teachers need to know the ins and outs of the college application process. However, they should have a general working knowledge of the requirements for local universities and the aid that is available for students to access. For teachers lacking in this knowledge, it presents an opportunity for districts and communities to provide ongoing training for teachers to be more involved in students’ college application process. In a system where students will see their teachers nearly every day during the school year, hearing about the possibility of college from teachers is imperative.

When students meet with advisors, it should not be the first time they are hearing about scholarships or even the requirements needed to go to college. College Access: Research & Action (CARA) lays out in depth the conditions needed for districts to create lower advisor to student ratios. As schools look to redesign how they support students with the well-being of advisors at the center, the recommendations CARA provides are a good starting point.

As we reflect on this past year, there are lessons to be learned and opportunities to jump on. One thing is for sure, our advisors and counselors working with students are essential and pivotal to students obtaining post-secondary education. Communities, districts, and schools need to rethink how advisors are supported day in and day out. The current model is not sustainable and can negatively impact the students that advisors serve. Burnout, high workloads, and lack of satisfaction are only the beginning of issues that need to be addressed. Leaders can begin by increasing field capacity, finding creative solutions to spread the workload throughout the staff, and lean on the abundance of resources that are available locally and nationally.