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Just the Stats: Can High School Counselors Prevent Drop-Outs?

A new report by the National Center for Education Statistics suggests a strong relationship between the number of credit hours a high-school student earns as a freshman and their likelihood to drop out. With this information, could school administrators identify potential dropouts early enough to intervene?

Based on an analysis of the outcomes of a cohort of students who were in the 10th grade in 2002, the report, “Course Credit Accrual and Dropping Out of High School,” “examines the timing of dropping out and its relationship to the number of credits earned by high school students.” 

In 2004, roughly 5 percent of the 10th graders from 2002 dropped out, 2 percent were still enrolled, 12 percent graduated early or received their GED and 82 percent graduated from high school. 

Researchers found that the dropouts had failed to earn enough credit hours in their freshman year to put them on path for an on-time graduation. The trend continued each year, with students failing to earn the same amount of credits as graduation-bound students.

Average course credits earned by class of 2004 high school graduates and dropouts 

Average Course Credits Earned


Freshman Year

Sophomore Year

Junior Year

Senior Year

Average All Years

High School Status






On-time graduates












Source: National Center for Education Statistics: Course Credit Accrual and Dropping Out of High School, 2007

The path to dropping out can be clearly seen when examining credit accrual in core course work, such as mathematics, science and English. During freshman year, dropouts earned less than on-time graduates in English (0.90 vs. 1.07), mathematics (0.71 vs. 1.00) and science (0.63 vs. 0.89). The gaps widen during sophomore year, and grow substantially higher during junior year.

The findings indicate that a student’s decision to drop out is cumulative, says Dr. Frank Linnehan, the associate dean for undergraduate programs at Drexel University’s Lebow College of Business. Linnehan co-wrote a different study  “High School Guidance Counselors: Facilitators or Pre-Emptors of Social Stratification in Education.”

In other words, students drop out of school because of a series of events, not because of one specific event.

“Future research would have to be conducted to determine if this was true, but the results are similar to findings of studies that have looked at dysfunctional groups,” Linnehan says. “Many dysfunctional groups have been found to begin very badly and are never able to reverse that initial negative experience — they fall into a ‘death spiral.’”

Schools must develop effective early warning systems to catch potential dropouts before the students decide their academic career is hopeless, Linnehan says. After identifying at-risk students, counselors can provide interventions to help improve the student’s situation.

“Unfortunately, this is much easier said than done, as it seems that many, if not most of today’s counselors are over-worked. They have too many students to counsel and simply don’t have the time or resources to focus their efforts on developing an effective system that would identify those who are just beginning to lag behind,” Linnehan says.

Valerie Williams, the assistant director of public policy at the National Association of College Admissions Counseling, agrees that early intervention is key to preventing high-school dropouts, but she says schools are faced with different sets of challenges.

“Those schools with high drop-out rates have fewer counselors, with high caseloads, or none at all,” she says. “With early intervention, you can prepare students who have certain goals to choose classes accordingly.”

A NACAC report shows that, on average, each counselor in an American public school is responsible for counseling 488 students. Although this caseload burden has been reduced slightly over the past five years, it remains at nearly five times the recommended student-to-counselor ratio for college and academic counseling, which is 100:1.

Dr. Madelyn L. Isaacs, the president-elect of the Florida School Counseling Association, says counselors could be more proactive if they had more time to do their jobs. Instead, she says they are often caught doing lunch duty or performing administrative tasks.

“There are many factors that contribute to students falling behind, and it doesn’t start in high school,” she says. “Having enough middle school counseling resources to properly prepare students for the transition to high school and to help minimize all of the other personal and social distractions that occur concurrent with high school is also critical.”

–Shilpa Banerji and Olivia Majesky-Pullmann

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