SSTF: Counselors could be overrun by new requirements

Palomar counselors said they are worried they could be overrun by new requirements passed down from the state.

Counseling officials said they have already implemented the core requirements of the Student Success Task Force (SSTF) initiative, a state plan aimed at saving California community colleges money by pushing students to plan better and finish faster.

But a lack of academic advisers at Palomar — 13 full-time counselors are available to service more than 30,000 full- and part-time students — left some department leaders wondering if they could keep up with new demand created by the task force plan.

Ed Planning Could Overwhelm Counselors

One key component of SSTF, section 2.2, would require every new Palomar student to create an education roadmap spelling out what degree they want and what classes they’ll need to get it. The task force is still revising its plan, but the mandate is expected to stay, opening the door of Palomar’s counseling department to a flood of needy students.

Several counseling positions remain vacant this semester after a college-wide hiring freeze, leaving the department unable to handle a significant increase in student demand without help, said Lynda Halttunen, dean of counseling services.

“We only have 18 counselors for [more than 30,000] students,” Halttunen said. “That’s not a lot of counselors.”

Compounding the problem are several staff reassignments from positions that see students and help with academic planning, leaving just 13 full-time advisors.

Understaffing is “always a concern,” Halttunen said.

“We used to have 23 counselors plus our part-timers,” she said. “We’ve had a number of retirements and people who have left to go to other departments and we haven’t filled their positions. We didn’t really have sufficient counselors when we had 23. As we reduce the number of counselors available, we do the best we can.”

Staff blood-letting has left Palomar with a significant deficit of counselors compared to similarly sized community colleges.

Santa Monica College has 45 full-time counselors and 70 part-time counselors serving a student body of about 34,000, roughly the same size as Palomar, according to Brenda Benson, the Los Angeles-area college’s dean of counseling and retention.

“We feel fortunate that we have the number of counselors that we do, and that SMC has long understood the need for student support services like counseling,” Benson wrote in an email. “We think that many of the SSTF recommendations will be hard to achieve and will require additional human resources and/or more sophisticated tracking technology, but are committed to improving upon what we already do.”

Testing edict should be easier to implement

Another part of SSTF, section 2.1, would force students to take a standardized test to gauge their college progress. Palomar already requires all students to take a placement test before enrolling in classes, satisfying the core of the testing mandate, college officials said.

Some Palomar officials think the state’s evaluation requirement codifies the college’s current testing regimen, according to Halttunen.

For example, SSTF encourages colleges to coordinate with K-12 schools to make sure incoming freshman have the direction they need.

Palomar’s Early Acceptance Program (EAP) gives incoming high school students priority registration if they take assessment tests before April 30. If applicants meet requirements for the EAP program they’re allowed to register on June 7.

“(EAP testing) is required for all student matriculating as they come in. They take an assessment to find out their proper placement, the students then take the next step and make an appointment with a counselor to make an educational plan,” Assessment Coordinator Diane McAllister said. “We give them priority registration because we feel that their success will be greatly enhanced because they’ve had their appointment with their counselor and because they will be able to get their first choice classes on the days and times they want them. They won’t have to compete or crash their classes.”

McAllister said she has run this program for at least 20 years.

Testing is conducted on computer-based testing program called Compass that ranks students’ understanding of reading, writing and mathematics and determines what classes they should take first. The results are good for up to two years, according to McAllister.

College administrators said consistency has been a boon for the testing program, helping students get on the right track and monitoring skill levels of incoming enrollees.

Admin: SSTF won’t change much

SSTF won’t fundamentally change Palomar’s approach to counseling new students, just broaden already-used  practices, said Mark Vernoy, vice president of student services.

“We do a lot of the things the task force recommends, but we don’t necessarily do all of it for all our students,” Vernoy said. “Right now we try to assess every new student that comes in.”

The recommendations identify a lot of things that Palomar has been doing from research and from experience, according to Vernoy.

Students have always been told to see a counselor and create an education plan, he said. But under the new plan students would be required to have one within a year of being at Palomar or lose priority enrollment.

Up to this point, the department has helped students create a rough ed plan, one-on-one with a counselor. To make up for the shortfall in the ratio of counsellors to students, they’ve been offering classes that are supposed to help participants craft their own plan while getting units, and group counselling that allows one adviser to meet with 10 or more students at once.

Some people, such as the Associated Student Government, have been encouraging electronic components such as myEdu.com. If implemented correctly, these programs could significantly alleviate the workload on the counselling department.

With 18 full-time counselors for 30,000 students, the counselling department believes they will need to switch to a more symbiotic relationship with online ed plan generators if they are to fulfill their requirement under SSTF, according to P.J. DeMaris, the counselling services chairwoman. However, they believe they will always be necessary because people will always have questions that a “computer can’t answer.”

“It’s not unlike the situation I had last night with doing my taxes,” DeMaris said. “The information is all there and the charts are all there and the websites are all there, but you don’t necessarily have the expertise and the knowledge to bring all those pieces together and utilize them in the way that’s best for you as an individual student.”

According to Vernoy, Palomar is as ready as it can be to implement changes, but only if it doesn’t require more money or more staff. At this point, the school has made it clear to the state that if any additional programs are put in place, the school has to receive extra funds to cover its implementation, according to Halttunen.

Palomar could be facing further financial woes moving forward. Community Colleges could be facing millions of dollars in further cuts next semester, leaving the source of funding for SSTF uncertain.

The next part in the Push to Succeed series will focus on the financial side of the Student Success Task Force and try to nail down the source of funding.

Author: Ian Hanner

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1 Comment

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    Than Nguyen
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