The city’s next schools chancellor will soon have to determine his or her ultimate goal: for every student to graduate from high school? To be “college or career ready”? To graduate from college?

report released yesterday illustrates just how complicated those last two can be, as only a fraction of those who graduate from city high schools actually enter college and earn a diploma. Researchers embedded in 14 high-needs middle and high schools found a litany of roadblocks that originate before students graduate, from the limited number of advanced college-preparatory courses available to a lack of trained counselors to help students through necessary paperwork.

“What happens to our students in New York City, particularly in low-end communities, is they don’t have all of the traditional tools that middle class and upper class families do in terms of academic and social supports to actually make it through college,” said researcher Kim Nauer of the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. “As more and more students have been told that they can, and should, attend college, too many of them get to college and just fall off a cliff.”

A lot of the report’s content was previewed in a panel discussion held last June. But after four years of firsthand observation, the center is recommending an action plan for the next administration.

“The next chancellor is going to have a lot of tough financial decisions to make,” Nauer said. “If college readiness is genuinely part of the goal, they’re going to have to think about how to support students in school for this process.” Some of their recommendations:

Hold schools more accountable for preparing students for college: The researchers credit the Bloomberg administration with beginning to hold schools accountable for what happens to their students after they leave, through the “college and career readiness” grade now included in school progress reports and Where Are They Now reports for principals. But even though the college-going population has jumped, many students aren’t academically ready to take—or their schools do not offer—classes that prepare them to do college work.

A Center for New York City Affairs analysis of 2011–12 Progress Report data revealed that only 28 of 342 high schools analyzed had students taking Regents exams for Algebra 2, Chemistry and Physics. Most schools offered only one or two of these courses for possible advanced Regents credit in that year—and 46 schools appeared to offer none. That said, most high schools offer at least a few advanced or college-level courses. And taking even just one course can improve the probability of success in college.

Still, Progress Reports are set up to emphasize measures that show whether students pass Regents exams that determine graduation. One teacher phrased it this way: “Too much energy is spent on short-term passing—and not enough energy on long-term college planning.”

While no one wants to see the graduation rates erode, it is important that the department move toward a more balanced set of incentives. A good first step will be to increase the value of the Progress Report’s College and Career Readiness score, which measures important things like college matriculation and the number of students with access to college prep courses.

Offer more trained help for students: The study’s analysis of data from the teacher’s union showed a 1 to 316 ratio of students to licensed guidance counselors from kindergarten to grade 12 in city schools, excluding charters. There are no standards for how many guidance counselors schools need, or a direct budget line for them.

The researchers acknowledge that there are a few schools of thought on who can best provide college guidance—the city and many principals say outside providers and teachers can do the job well. Still, the report notes significant gaps in the counseling process for many students, and recommends either a full-time trained college counselor or outside help with enough resources to really reach students.

Center researchers also observed that the College Ready Communities schools were usually thinly staffed and heavily reliant on outside nonprofit help. Over the three years we observed these schools, we saw several occasions where applications of an entire senior class were put at risk when a guidance counselor left on maternity leave or when there was a major change in school leadership. Even though nonprofit partners and other school staff stepped into the breach, there was a remarkable degree of instability in college guidance in many of these schools.

The department’s Chief Academic Officer Shael Polakow-Suransky has said that hiring full-time college counselors for every school would be impossible financially, though.

Support the nonprofits that are filling those gaps: At Flushing High School, a single college counselor was available for more than 3,000 students. The focus there has been on getting as many students over the bar to graduate, especially since the Bloomberg administration has tried to close the school for low performance. The organization Asian Americans for Equality helps some students fill out financial aid forms and search for scholarships, support that the school’s counselor, Maria Berber, has said is vital:

“I’m under the impression that AAFE will stay, if they didn’t, it would be a nightmare, I really, really hope they stay, because it will be at least some continuity for these kids and a face that’s familiar.”

A revealing note: For nonprofit organizations that do provide students with counseling help, there are difficult and often uncomfortable decisions to be made about how to allocate limited resources.

“If a student is a junior in high school with a GPA of 70 and has never written a research report, there are real ethical questions about exactly what colleges he should go to or if he will even get into one,” a former Cypress Hills Local Development Cooperation staffer. “Is it really fair to send this student to college if he may not be able to even pass out of remediation?”

Thus organizations face a Hobson’s choice: Try to help students catch up academically or give up on college and help them find a different post-secondary pathway.