Surprising Data: High School Counselors Uncomfortable Discussing Financial Aid

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Just how comfortable are high school counselors with discussing the financial aid process with their students? It turns out the answer amounts to “not very”.

And that’s a problem…for both counselors and their students.

A survey released by the American Student Association gave us great insight into the kind of advice students can expect when discussing their college options with their school counselor. Counselors are doing their best to give students the right advice when it comes to financial aid, but they’re faced with many challenges.

Here are the key takeaways:

1. Only 19% of counselors say they are extremely comfortable discussing the financial aid process with students and parents

More than just an education, college is one of the biggest investments many people will make in their lives.

What we’re learning, though, is that key individuals tasked with guiding students through the college application process is unlikely to be comfortable discussing the financial realities of going to college.

You wouldn’t buy a home for $300,000 from a real estate broker who couldn’t tell you much about mortgages and property tax, and it’s hardly fair that high school students and high school counselors are both in this position.

Photo credit: Angelina Litvin on Unsplash

2. 92% of counselors believe they have a responsibility to talk about college affordability (even if it’s not the easiest or most comfortable part of the job)

School counselors have a lot on their plate: helping students manage their school schedules, offering career advice and solving personal issues of angsty teens. Being fully fluent in the financial aid process is just another burden, and one that not all counselors are getting the appropriate help with. Still, the effort is being made.

More than half of the counselors surveyed reported attending webinar sessions to learn more about the financial aid process, while 79% indicated they picked up information at conferences.

Even though they shouldn’t be the final authority on the subject, many counselors are going the extra mile to help their students make informed decisions about college.

3. Counselors believe that academics are more important than the cost of attendance

No one can make a blanket statement about what students should prioritize when choosing a college. But what’s concerning here is that there appears to be a gap between what students feel is important and what their guidance counselors think is important.

According to the study, counselors “are more likely to dissuade a student from attending a school that is a poor academic fit than one that is a poor financial fit.”

Meanwhile, the 2017 International Student Survey indicates that the availability of scholarships is at least as important across the board as academics. A separate study conducted by Royall & Co found that 40% of students who chose not to attend their first-choice college did so for financial reasons.

4. 89% of counselors are very or extremely comfortable discussing the college application process with students

The problem isn’t that high school counselors are shirking from their responsibilities when it comes go college guidance, there’s just a giant red flag once the topic turns to college affordability.

College admissions standards and whether a student fits into a school’s population align more with a guidance counselor’s typical role, so they’re more comfortable discussing those pieces of the equation. They’re basically part of the high school vernacular — as well as literally what being a “counselor” would imply.

The FAFSA®? 529 plans? Not so much.

5. The financial aid conversation needs to be simpler

We know three things:

1. Most counselors feel they have some level of responsibility to discuss financial aid with their students,

2. Many counselors are making the effort to educate themselves on the topic, and

3. Financial aid is a really big deal.

How do we get the important information to both counselors and students, factoring in all the other noise they have in their lives?

Right now, the expectation is that high school students will go to their school counselor, who will then seek out the salient points from a third party, or direct the students themselves to the third party. Paying for college is already challenging enough, learning about all the options shouldn’t itself be a challenge.

Frank is here to help, but there still needs to be a fundamental change in how academic institutions view the discussion. There are simply too many individuals in too much debt for this not to be a greater focal point.

The American School Counselor Association recommends that financial aid training become part of the curriculum in undergraduate and graduate programs for those who wish to become counselors. How else can we fix the broken system?

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