How adding high school counselors saved Colorado more than $300 million

Money spent to bring in more middle school and high school counselors helped keep almost 1,000 at-risk students in Colorado schools and send more of them to college, a new report shows.

The state-funded Colorado School Counselor Corps grant provided $16 million to 59 schools between 2010 and 2015 in an effort to keep students engaged and chart a course — unfamiliar to many low-income students — toward college and career.

The program appears to be paying off. By one estimate, the state is saving $20 it would otherwise spend on social safety net services for every $1 it spends on school counselors, the report from the Colorado Department of Education found.

Most measures the department looked at trended upward, including daily attendance, enrollment in college courses students can take during high school and the number of students who completed federal financial aid paperwork.

Here are four takeaways from the report:

The grant money allowed schools to lower their student-to-counselor ratio. That allowed counselors to do their jobs more effectively. Before receiving the grant, schools averaged 363 students per school counselor. That’s a ratio well above the suggested 250-to-1. By the end of the fourth year, participating schools had their student-to-counselor ratio down to 216-to-1.

The grant money mostly helped students of color from low-income homes. In the final year of the grant, 71 percent of the students at schools that received grant dollars identified as minorities and 59 percent qualified for either free or reduced-priced lunch at school. In poor communities, preparing for college can often be complicated if no one in the household knows how to navigate the process. That’s where school counselors come in.

Dropout rates rose across the board in the final year of the grant — for reasons that went unexplained. Before the grant money came in, 5.5 percent of the students in grantee schools dropped out. That dropped to 3.5 percent after three years of funding, but climbed to 3.7 percent in the final year of the grant. Statewide, the number increased as well. The report called the drop in graduation rates “concerning,” but didn’t elaborate on potential causes.

By keeping kids from dropping out, the program saved taxpayers more than $319 million. Each child who drops out, according to the report, could cost the state about $321,450 in lost taxes, plus spending on welfare, incarceration and health care, among other things. By keeping 995 students in school, the state dodged a $319 million-plus burden on taxpayers, the report concluded.