Lines at San Diego Miramar College's academic counseling center are often 25 students long, with wait times stretching to two hours or more. On busy days, the center begins turning students away at 3 p.m., three hours before closing time.
The counseling crush at Miramar has gotten worse because of California’s deep budget cuts , which have led to a hiring freeze and reduced hours at the center. Students aren’t the only ones who are frustrated; counselors worry about making mistakes in five-minute meetings with students, while employees at the front desk are "taking a lot of abuse," according to two counselors.
Academic counseling is particularly important for community college students, who often lack college-savvy family support. And experts say better counseling is key to the success of the “completion agenda” – the Obama administration and foundation-led push for more college graduates.
But getting more than 10 minutes of one-on-one time with an academic adviser is almost impossible at Miramar. The college is part of the San Diego Community College District, which has 1,700 students per counselor, according to district officials. Other California community colleges are similarly overwhelmed. Pasadena City College has one counselor for every 1,647 students, said Cynthia D. Olivo, associate dean for counseling and student success services at the college. Pasadena had to turn away 2,500 students who sought counseling over a recent six-month period.
While California may be the worst off, the shortage of academic counselors at community colleges is a national problem, observers said, with ratios at many institutions exceeding 1,000 students per counselor. With a boost from the completion agenda, some colleges are trying to hire more help. The City Colleges of Chicago, for example, have made headway toward a goal  of having 450 students per counselor by the end of the year, down from 920 in 2010.
There are ways colleges can attempt to get by with high student-to-counselor ratios. Some tout the promise of online advising tools, like Hobson’s AgileGrad or CollegeFish.org, a service from Phi Theta Kappa, the honor society for community college students. Online advising can be a good supplement to in-person counseling services, and can reduce caseloads by helping students map out their paths to degrees.
California’s counseling shortage, however, is severe enough that only more advisers can fix it, most people agree. But state policies may make that difficult.
Standing in the way is the so-called “50 percent law,” a regulation that requires community colleges to spend half of their educational budgets on instructor compensation. When budgets are tight, which is certainly the case now, it’s nearly impossible to add counselors without adding faculty members to keep that 50/50 spending split intact, according to some community college leaders and higher education experts.
The law is a “disincentive” to hire counselors or otherwise improve student services, said Lynn Neault, vice chancellor of student services at the San Diego Community College District. As a result, the district has struggled to keep pace with demand, thanks to $300 million in budget cuts over the last three years. And “confounding” state rules like the 50 percent law aren’t helping, she said.
The district’s chancellor, Constance M. Carroll, has proposed legislative challenges to the law, but none of them have gone anywhere. Recently some college leaders have suggested that counseling salaries should be exempt from the requirement -- either being left out of the equation or being added to the faculty compensation portion of budgets.
“I believe that counselors are on the wrong side of the 50 percent rule,” Olivo said in an e-mail, adding that by moving them to the faculty side, community colleges could better make the case for “growth positions to meet student need.”
Open to a Solution
Faculty groups and unions have fought to keep the law on the books. But the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges is not opposed to re-examining it, said Michelle Pilati, the group’s president and a professor of psychology at Rio Hondo College.
“We don’t want it to be a disincentive to hiring counselors or librarians,” she said. To date, however, nobody has put forward a good idea for fixing the policy, according to the group, at least a solution that is worth overturning a law that seeks to hold the line on preserving faculty jobs.
“We’re willing to look at the 50 percent rule,” Pilati said. “But we do believe it serves a purpose.”
Some faculty members and outside observers also note that community college budgets are complex, and involve choices beyond just hiring faculty to add counselors. There may be other budget areas that can be adjusted to incrementally bulk up vital student services, according to this argument.
But Carroll said the district’s three colleges have been cut nearly to the bone, removing virtually all budgetary wiggle room. And faculty members are more interested in protecting their positions than finding a fix to the 50 percent law, she said.
“I’ve proposed many times to simply add counseling to the faculty side,”said Carroll.
Pasadena City College has gotten creative to try to meet student demand for counseling and advising, earning praise for their efforts from Thomas Brock, director of the young adults and postsecondary education policy area for MDRC, a research organization.
For example, the college now offers group counseling sessions for new students and those on academic probation, Olivo said. They also began online counseling, which 3,000 students use per year. Students can request an online review of their academic record to ensure that they’re on track for graduation.
“We are trying to do as much as possible so that students are not required to physically present themselves in the counseling department,” said Olivo.
Substantial in-person advising is preferable, experts said, particularly for students who are hesitant about seeking help and tend to be the most at risk. This is particularly true at the beginning of semesters, Brock said. Without being able to meet with counselors, students aren’t “getting the kind of individual attention and feedback” they need.
“It would be great if we had the resources for every student to sit down with an adviser,” said Andy Dryden, a former engineering professor and student adviser at Oregon's Mt. Hood Community College. But that isn’t the reality at many community colleges.
Dryden often advised up to 150 students at a time at Mt. Hood, on top of his teaching load. He created AgileGrad to help colleges extend their advising reach. Students can design their academic study plan with the 24/7 service, which includes a chat function and is generally cheaper for colleges than hiring a single counselor. Among other tools, the service can help students avoid overbooked courses or the “$300 mistake” of taking an unnecessary course.
Pasadena City College this summer plans to enlist the help of faculty members in counseling. That effort will be an experiment, Olivo said, because faculty members tend to have narrower areas of expertise than do full-time counselors, who have knowledge that extends across the college’s academic programs.
To bring in more counselors, the Campaign for College Opportunity, a California-based nonprofit, recommends  the broader use of "paraprofessional" advisers who do not hold advanced degrees. This group could do more of the routine, bureaucratic advising, leaving counselors with master's degrees to focus on "the critical services they are trained to provide."
California’s community colleges have recently begun giving priority to students who stay on the path toward a degree, through incentives like an earlier shot at registering for high-demand courses. A state task force has pushed that philosophical shift , which has been controversial in a system that has long prided itself on open access for its 2.6 million students. But the advising overload has made it harder for some students to navigate community college, counselors said, particularly when they first arrive on campus.
The beginning of a semester is a busy time at Miramar. “We’re trying to triage the students to get them ready,” said David Navarro, a counselor at Miramar. That’s not easy when a counselor typically has 5-10 minutes with each student. The ideal is a full hour, he said, with several follow-up visits. The short appointments are stressful for counselors.
“It’s very easy to make a mistake,” Navarro said. And the stakes are higher for students in the bare-bones version of advising. “Now they’re lost.”