Disruptions caused by COVID-19 put multiple cohorts of high school juniors and seniors in a uniquely challenging position. The pandemic upended one of the most critical periods in their lives — the time usually spent discerning what they will do after graduation — and further complicated the already fraught process of applying and transitioning to college.
Without in-person support and facing increased financial uncertainty, many students chose to postpone enrolling in college, while others were unable to complete all of the required paperwork and next steps to confirm enrollment. Enrollment in Massachusetts state universities and community colleges declined by 7.7% and 11.3% , respectively, this past fall. Declines among first-time freshmen were particularly high, with enrollment dropping by more than a third in multiple community colleges. This year, FAFSA completion rates among high school seniors — a key indicator of future enrollment — were also down, especially among students from economically disadvantaged families and students of color.
These trends may prove devastating for individual students and families, as well as for our state’s knowledge-based economy, which runs on workers with advanced skills and increasing education levels. The good news is that the influx of federal funding at both the K-12 and postsecondary levels affords education leaders an opportunity to better support students who are currently in the midst of applying and transitioning to college and lay the groundwork for stronger college and workforce planning in the future. Here are some steps education leaders should consider:
Strengthen Support for Postsecondary Planning
Over the past 18 months, high school guidance counselors have struggled to meet the rising demand for their services, as the pandemic took a toll on student’s mental health, social-emotional well-being, and academic progress. These competing priorities further depleted already limited capacity to support students’ postsecondary journey. In fact, according to a recent Gallup poll, although 80% of Massachusetts high school students plan on enrolling in college immediately after graduation, more than 1 in 3 students do not feel their school is adequately preparing them to make that transition.
Capacity challenges are likely to continue as school counselors help students recover from the pandemic. Education leaders must leverage federal aid to boost their short-term capacity to meet students’ postsecondary planning needs. Federal aid can be used to:
- Hire contract staff to support junior and senior students in applying to college.
- Hire more school counselors to support students now and in the long run. Districts should plan to use Student Opportunity Act dollars to cover staff expenses after federal dollars expire.
- Form partnerships with local organizations that specialize in helping students transition to college.
- Provide training for counselors to better understand college admissions and aid processes.
- Partner with local higher education institutions to lead FAFSA workshops with students and families.
- Partner with local community colleges to host Acceptance Days, where students sit down with a college or community college representative and receive a same-day admissions offer.
Increase Access to Summer Bridge and Transition Programs
Summer bridge programs, which are often run by colleges and universities, have traditionally been utilized to support students’ transition to college through academic advising, accelerated coursework, introduction to campus resources and other services. First-generation and economically disadvantaged students participate in bridge programs at higher rates. As students transition to college during this tumultuous time, leveraging the summer will be more important than ever. Higher education institutions have an opportunity to proactively address concerns about academic success through these programs without interfering with students’ traditional college curriculum.
Higher education federal recovery funds can be used to offer or expand summer bridge programs. They can offset staffing costs and other expenses, fund outreach efforts to students, and compensate students so that they do not have to decide between participating in a bridge program and working during the summer months. At institutions that already implement bridge programs, the funding can be used to expand these programs and/or increase the number of program participants or courses offered (see Bunker Hill Community College ).
Although decisions regarding offering summer bridge programs will likely be made by higher education institutions, school district leaders can advocate for expanding such programs at colleges that serve a plurality of district schools’ graduates. District leaders can also help fund these programs, for example, by paying the costs of attendance for their graduates.
Offer Year 13 Programming
Although some students will successfully transition to postsecondary education — perhaps with summer bridge or college-based support — others will require more intensive guidance. To help support these students, education leaders should consider extending the high school experience by offering the option of taking a 13th year. In a typical year, 13th year programs enable students to learn about postsecondary pathways while receiving both workforce training and college credits in a familiar high school setting. In the next few years, 13th year programs should also be designed in ways that help address unfinished learning and support students to enter college as prepared as possible.
Education leaders can use federal aid to cover a wide range of program expenses:
- Program design and staffing costs: 13th year programs are not simply a repeat of senior year. They should offer a qualitatively different experience that enables students to receive intensive postsecondary planning support and begin to earn postsecondary credits. District leaders can use federal funding for staffing and other costs associated with starting and developing these programs — including consultations with students regarding the kinds of support that would be most beneficial to them. Additionally, district leaders can use federal funds to pay the salaries of additional counselors and mentors to support 13th year students.
- Tuition costs: Federal money can also be used to fund the tuition costs of high school students taking classes at local higher education institutions, which should not be shouldered by students from low-income backgrounds and their families.
- External provider support costs: District leaders can bring in external providers who specialize in supporting postsecondary planning and transitions to offer personalized support.
Waive Developmental Education Course Fees for the Near Future
Even before the pandemic, 60% of Massachusetts community college students and more than 1 in 5 state university students had to take at least one developmental education class — i.e., a course that covers material students should have learned in high school, and costs students money, but earns them no college credit. Research shows that students who must take a significant number of developmental education courses at the start of their postsecondary education are less likely to complete their associate’s or bachelor's degree.
This year’s incoming first-year class has had an unusually challenging last two years of high school. It is likely that a higher percentage than usual will need to take developmental courses. Combined with all of the learning disruptions and financial setbacks caused by the pandemic, the need to pay for developmental education may further undermine students’ chances of success, particularly for students from economically disadvantaged families.
School districts and higher education institutions should work together and share costs to make developmental education free at all public colleges and universities for the next two to three years. This would help ensure that students are not forced to bear the financial burden of pandemic-related unfinished learning and are able, instead, to utilize their tuition and financial aid for credit-bearing courses. Moreover, higher education institutions should work with students requiring multiple developmental education classes to ensure that they have a clear plan for completing their degrees.
Invest in Long-Term Improvements in Postsecondary Preparation and Planning
Although the pandemic undoubtedly complicated the college transition process, the challenges with postsecondary planning — especially for students who are the first in their families to pursue college — are not new. Federal recovery funding offers an opportunity for school districts and schools to strengthen postsecondary planning for the long term. Here are some examples of how districts can leverage these dollars:
- Launch or expand early college programs: Early college is an evidence-based program that has been shown to improve student outcomes both in high school and after graduation. Early college programs enable students to begin earning college credit (up to a full two-year degree), while benefiting from the guidance and support of their high school educators. In Massachusetts, students who participate in early college are 27 percentage points more likely to complete the MassCORE curriculum — the state’s recommended college-prep course of study — and are more likely than their peers to enroll and persist in college. Districts can use federal recovery funds to offset start-up and program design costs and conduct outreach to students and families (including beginning outreach in middle school).
- Build postsecondary exploration and planning into the middle and high school curricula: Students, particularly economically disadvantaged and first-generation students with college aspirations, need consistent and culturally relevant postsecondary planning built in to their school day. This includes the opportunity to explore careers that align with their interests and to map those to postsecondary pathways. This also includes ongoing and regular support to complete the critical steps for postsecondary enrollment: developing a list of options, submitting applications, completing the FAFSA and other scholarship applications, interpreting award letters, making a final decision, and navigating the enrollment process. Having meaningful, trusting, and consistent relationships with educators who can lead students through this process is key, as is close communication with families. District leaders should consider developing and implementing a multiyear postsecondary planning course of study that begins in middle school and continues through high school. Federal funds can be used to cover curriculum development and implementation costs, including consultations with current students and families, alumni, and local higher education institutions.
- Establish systems for maintaining contact with recent graduates, both to ensure that their transition to college or the workforce is as smooth as possible and to learn from their experiences so as to better support current students. Districts and schools should put a data system in place to collect and report information on key milestones in current students’ postsecondary planning, as well as graduates’ postsecondary experiences (e.g., immediate enrollment in college, 16-month persistence rates, results of any graduate surveys, etc.). Data from this system (disaggregated by student group) should then be used to assess what is and is not working for students, set improvement goals, and align policies and initiatives.
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