When it comes to preparing students for college, the research is clear: The support of in-school college counselors during the high school years is vital. Students who receive personalized guidance from a school-based college counselor, including help filling out applications and providing financial aid resources, are more likely to enroll in a four-year college. This support is particularly important for low-income students and other groups with a lower incidence of attaining college degrees.

Well-rounded and effective college counseling support has many components, including access to counselors beginning in 9th grade, school-wide promotion of a college-going culture, encouraging students to take rigorous academic classes, help with selecting colleges to apply to, finding relevant scholarships and other sources of financial aid, and ACT or SAT preparation classes.

Adequate staffing of dedicated college counselors and academic guidance counselors is key to providing this support. Not all high schools have counselors, and fewer have enough to provide each student the individual attention they need. While the American School Counselor Association recommends a student-to-school-counselor ratio of 250-to-1, the national average is nearly double, with just one school counselor for every 464 students.

GreatSchools’ 2018 College Success Award survey found that eighty-one percent of award-winners report having two or more academic guidance counselors who monitor student progress toward graduation and advise students on course selection, compared to 49% of non-winners. The results were similar for college counselors; 33% of award-winners report having one college counselor and 47% report having two or more, while 33% of non-winners have one counselor and only 24% have two or more.

Award-winning Denver School of Science and Technology: Stapleton, a Denver-based charter school where 53% of students come from low-income families, offers a glimpse of what staffing looks like in a school dedicated to college support. In addition to two college counselors for 523 students, there is another part-time college support staff member and a counselor who helps students find internships. Each student is also paired with a staff advisor throughout their four years.

Creating a college-going culture

Robust college counseling support is one component of creating a school-wide college-going culture. As high schools strive to prepare students for a changing job market that increasingly demands college degrees, many are focused on creating an environment where support for a college path is integral to all staff-student interactions.

T.C. Gruber, a science teacher at Cass City Junior/Senior High School in Cass City, Michigan, a recipient of GreatSchools’ College Success Award, says the school’s strong emphasis on college opportunities has generated numerous in-class conversations with students about their college and career aspirations. “The culture here allows students to feel comfortable asking postsecondary questions anywhere and anytime,” he says.

Cass City Jr./Sr. High School has another tool to help students develop personalized college plans: One of the district’s graduation requirements is that every student enrolls in Senior Seminar, a class that helps students set postsecondary goals and build thoughtful strategies to reach them. While not every Cass City student chooses a college path, all must identify and plan to achieve the postsecondary certification or degree they’ll need to succeed.

This article is part of a series exploring best-practice approaches used by recipients of GreatSchools’ College Success Award. The College Success Award honors public high schools in nine states that are doing a great job of preparing students for postsecondary success. Learn more about the award, see the list of winners, and read about more best practices here.