High school is a formative period during which students often need guidance. This can take the form of academic guidance, as students may need help determining which courses to take, which career paths to explore, and which colleges or trade programs to pursue. High schoolers may also need assistance in managing their physical and mental health as well as maneuvering through complicated social situations.
High school counselors help students navigate these complexities, playing a pivotal role in the social-emotional, character, academic and vocational development of the student populations they serve. In addition to helping individual students, school counselors also strive to create a welcoming, inclusive school environment where students can put their best foot forward.
It’s no surprise then that counselors’ responsibilities vary day-to-day. They may encounter students who are stressed about bad grades, seeking help with bullies, looking for information on colleges or who just lost their homes — all within the span of a few hours.
Because of the eclectic nature of student needs, high school counselors are expected to fill many roles. As such, they have become an indispensable part of the educational team. Although their skills are in high demand, the ratio of students to counselors remains far higher than the 250:1 ratio recommended by the American School Counselor Association (ASCA). ASCA data from the 2020–21 academic year revealed that the national average was 415:1, while six states reported student-to-counselor ratios that exceeded 500:1. This could be due in part to antiquated notions about what high school counselors do, with some believing that counselors are simply there to help students with scheduling.
In reality, the training that school counselors receive allows them to counsel individuals on a number of important life decisions. Earning a graduate degree can help prepare aspiring counselors for this impactful role.
What Does a High School Counselor Do?
High school counselors help students establish academic and/or vocational plans and develop the skills to succeed after graduation. They also provide support to students working to overcome struggles that can impede those plans. This can include issues in their personal lives, parental or social pressures, or academic difficulties.
The job description of a high school counselor includes many roles: advisor, mediator, disciplinarian, social skills teacher, advocate and, sometimes, simply a friend. Filling all these roles requires different approaches, but they all have the same goal: to provide the support students need to be their best, both in school and after they graduate.
High School Counselor Salary and Job Outlook
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) includes high school counselors with school and career counselors and advisors. The median annual salary for the profession was $60,510 in 2021, with elementary and secondary school counselors earning slightly higher compensation, at $63,460. Several factors can influence a high school counselor’s salary, such as their level of education and experience, and the region where they work.
The job outlook for high school counselors is promising. BLS projects a 10% growth rate for school and career counselors and advisors between 2021 and 2031. This is double the growth rate the BLS predicts as the average for all professions.
How High School Counselors Make a Difference
High school counselors can affect their students in ways that resonate with them for the rest of their lives. Below are some of the many ways that counselors can have a profound impact.
1. Provide Academic Support
While academics are typically thought of as teachers’ territory, high school counselors can also offer academic support for students. Many schools ask that counselors step up to the plate to improve students’ academic achievement.
When meeting with students who are struggling with their schoolwork, counselors can act as a bridge between students, parents and teachers, helping them identify the source of the problem and come up with solutions.
Counselors can also help to establish an environment that fosters academic integrity and encourages students to develop good study habits.
2. Improve School Climate
Bullying and violence have become an epidemic in today’s schools, threatening the quality of the school environment, which can drastically impact outcomes for students who are directly or indirectly involved.
According to a 2019 report from the National Center for Education Statistics — the most recent such report available — 22% of students in grades 6 through 12 have been the target of bullying at school. Additionally, the report noted that roughly 16% of high school students reported experiencing cyberbullying episodes during the previous 12 months.
Counselors play a critical role in combating this disturbing trend. They do this, in part, by diligently working to improve their school climate.
According to ASCA, schools with positive climates see improved academic achievement, better attendance, more successful conflict resolutions and more positive relationships.
School counselors work constantly to improve school environments for their students, both for high achievers and for those who might need an extra nudge. Some of what high school counselors do to improve school climate may entail urging fellow educational staff to maintain positive relationships with their students built on trust and care, developing programs and policies that foster educational development, recognizing students’ efforts and accomplishments, and encouraging them to continue aspiring to greatness.
3. Help Students Develop Socially
Students in high school are at a critical point in their social development. For many of them, navigating social scenarios at this age can be complicated, especially as technology continues to expand the means of communication.
Counselors can serve an important role for their students, helping them to better navigate tough social situations in ways that parents and teachers may not be able to.
Having been trained to counsel, listen and provide honest feedback and support puts counselors in a unique position to positively influence those who may be struggling with gossip, body image issues, bullying, dating and other common issues that high school students struggle with.
Counselors can also determine whether or not students need to seek help from another mental health professional. Their close and personal relationship with the students they serve may give them insight into a student’s mental health that parents or teachers simply don’t see. Counselors can also help destigmatize mental health by teaching students — and their parents — that seeking help for mental health issues is nothing to be ashamed of.
4. Provide Parental Support
High school isn’t just tough on kids, of course. Parents and families have to deal with a number of life changes as well.
High school counselors can provide families with strategies for improving academic achievement or better connecting with their children. Whether solutions involve family therapy, workbooks or simply a different means of communication, high school counselors are trained to help families iron out difficulties.
Counselors can also help parents navigate other difficult processes, including applying to colleges, providing training on how to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or informing them on how to access further counseling for their children.
5. Prepare Students for Life After High School
High school counselors wear many hats, but perhaps one of their most important roles is helping students plan for life after high school, whether they plan to attend college or trade school, or enter the workforce.
It’s important that students have access to counselors during this transitional phase of their lives. High school counselors complement the work of other educational staff, providing support and guidance to students so they can make well-informed decisions about their future.
Regardless of the paths students choose, counselors are instrumental in helping students transition into the next phase of their life, from hosting career fairs to helping students apply to college, or simply listening to their struggles.
6. Promote Cultural Competency and DEI
A crucial component of building a cohesive community is creating an environment that embraces diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) and encourages cultural competency. High school counselors can play a central role by identifying groups that may need extra support and advocating for DEI initiatives that promote a level educational field for all. They can also advocate for systemic changes that improve equal educational opportunities.
ASCA emphasizes that school counselors have “a professional and ethical responsibility to expand personal multicultural and social justice advocacy, awareness, knowledge and skills.” It notes that school counselors can achieve these goals through a variety of means, including:
- Providing culturally sensitive instruction, guidance and counseling
- Collaborating with other stakeholders to establish a school environment that embraces cultural diversity
- Analyzing data to identify and address disparities in opportunity, information and resources
Start Your Journey Toward Becoming a High School Counselor
What do high school counselors do? Not only do they help students transition into adulthood, but they also help parents and students cope with the many life changes that occur during these crucial years. They are an indispensable part of today’s educational team, and their importance will only grow in the years to come.
If you’re interested in a career where you can help guide young learners, Wake Forest University’s online Master of Arts in Counseling Program and its school counseling concentration can be the first step toward achieving your professional goals. The program helps students cultivate the knowledge and skills to support student development and make a real difference in their lives. Learn how Wake Forest can prepare you for success in this dynamic profession.