Circling back with 2020 high school grads to push college enrollment

School districts and colleges are reaching out to 2020 high school graduates whose postsecondary plans were disrupted by the pandemic in an effort to help them enroll.

Just under 63 percent of new high school graduates enrolled in college last fall, marking a 20-year low, The Wall Street Journal reports. That number likely decreased even further as the pandemic forced some enrolled students to pause their education shortly after matriculating. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 727,000 fewer students were enrolled at U.S. colleges and universities this spring, compared with a year prior.

Related: US college enrollment declined sharply this spring, report shows >

College access advocates looking to reverse that attrition say that time is of the essence. The longer students forego higher education, the more likely they are to lose contact with their high schools, become entrenched in the workforce, move, or lose interest in college.

The National Student Clearinghouse says it has seen a 50 percent increase in new requests for data from its Student Tracker, with which high schools can see college enrollment details for their graduates, including whether and where students enrolled, transferred, graduated, or dropped out.

Communities, school districts take action

The Nashville, Tennessee-based nonprofit Oasis Center, which focuses in part on college and career access, has requested Student Tracker data for graduates of its 11 partner high schools, hoping to follow up with some of the many Nashville-area seniors who never enrolled in college after graduating in spring 2020.

“The stakes are huge,” Lee Gray, the Oasis Center’s senior director of education and advocacy, told the Journal. “If we don’t do our jobs to the point of exhaustion, just to have a conversation about where they’re at and where they want to go, and is education still a part of their plan, it’s going to be a huge failure.”

Officials from Springfield Public Schools in Massachusetts similarly are matching Student Tracker records against what seniors had told their schools about their post-secondary plans. Just 37 percent of the district’s graduating class of 2020 enrolled in college, compared with 45 percent in 2019.

In Riverside County, California, education leaders are hoping that one-on-one interventions from high school counselors can help recent graduates overcome the hurdles preventing their college enrollment. The College Comeback program—which launched this May and is thought to be the first of its kind in the state—deploys six counselors for 25 hours a week to contact members of the class of 2020.

Once they make contact, the counselors not only provide emotional support but also walk students through their options, assisting with tasks like financial aid applications, registering for classes, completing paperwork, and coordinating with colleges. Riverside officials hope the program will demonstrate the power of ongoing postsecondary counseling as students make the leap from high school to college.

Colleges deploy peer mentors, financial incentives

Colleges also are launching initiatives to connect with recent graduates. Nearly 30,000 seniors graduating from New York City Public Schools in 2020 committed to attend the City University of New York (CUNY), but just 22,200 actually enrolled in classes. CUNY has since tapped current students to contact some of the 7,600 recent grads who never signed up and provide coaching services. The university says one-fourth of students who received coaching this past winter ultimately enrolled in spring courses.

Wilkes Community College in North Carolina is pairing its outreach with financial incentives, offering the region’s recent graduates a $1,000 scholarship. To increase awareness and encourage enrollment, current Wilkes students are calling graduates of their hometown high schools.

Many disrupted students seeking lower-cost options

As school districts and higher education stakeholders work to steer recent graduates back onto a college-going path, a new survey offers insight into the mindset of students who veered from their original postsecondary pursuits. Researchers from Strada Education Network surveyed 1,212 high school seniors—half of them from the Class of 2020—whose college plans had changed during the pandemic.

They found that 35 percent of respondents are now seeking a lower-cost education, while 18 percent want a shorter program. Black respondents were more likely than their white counterparts to indicate a desire for a less expensive postsecondary option.

“In order to help those students reconnect, educators and policy makers should listen to what those students say they need: better guidance, clear information on education’s connection to careers, and an easier financial aid process,” Dave Clayton, senior vice president at Strada, told Inside Higher Ed.

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