Even in the best of times, the path from high school to college is fraught. And these are not the best of times. COVID-19 disruptions have turned the light haze of college transition into a blinding fog.
The stakes of this moment are high. Students who put off college in the face of uncertainty are unlikely to get back on track, and they suffer poorer life outcomes as a result. Without high expectations and clear guidance for students, we’re at risk of losing years of progress on college access.
A lot of great organizations are working to prevent that. Based on our access work at the College Board over many years, here’s where those efforts should focus.
Simplify the steps. Life is not a checklist, but getting to college should be. The instinct on college guidance is often to provide more information, more detail, and more resources.
But over years of research, piloting, and student focus groups, we’ve found that students often need less. Simplicity fuels motivation, so provide concrete steps students can take right now to stay on track. We identified some of the most effective steps to boost enrollment when we created the College Board Opportunity Scholarships.
- Research and create a list of potential colleges. Many students apply to just one or two schools. Applying to more increases their chances of success.
- Practice for, take, and retake a college-entrance exam. Retaking exams can help close enrollment gaps.
- Strengthen your college list. Include a mix of fit, reach, and safety schools.
- Complete the FAFSA. Financial barriers are one of the biggest concerns for students, and FAFSA completion can significantly increase both enrollment and completion rates.
- Apply to colleges. Start with those on the list you made. Undermatching is a huge problem, especially for first-generation and low-income students. Finding a good academic fit increases the odds of college completion.
Measure progress and intervene. To be effective, you can’t just count students who make it to college. The key is to track progress and intervene along the way, before students fall behind.
At the College Board, we’ve tried different approaches for keeping students on track over the years—text reminders, mailed packets of prefilled college lists, incentives for exam practice. We found that to be successful, students need tangible incentives such as fee waivers to apply to colleges or the chance to earn scholarships, caring adults to guide them—like teachers who set aside class time for FAFSAs and college applications—and a personalized plan that includes specific skills to study for college-entrance exams, college lists based on a student’s academic record, etc.
Schools and states may have their own metrics for college progress—signing up for rigorous courses, scheduling a conversation with a counselor, completing a FAFSA—which they can monitor and incentivize. In 2018, Louisiana adopted a FAFSA completion requirement for high school graduation, leading to a boost in college enrollment. Illinois and Texas recently adopted similar policies. Pushing students to take those incremental steps is one of the most effective ways of making the leap from high school to college.
Use humans where you can, robots where you must. Students do best with caring adults to guide them. Translating those relationships online is tough but doable. Virtual advising can guide students to better-fit colleges, and there are lots of examples of folks who are doing it well. Our partners at the College Advising Corps are doing great work in e-advising as schools closed over the past few months. Organizations like Strive for College connect volunteer mentors to students on a huge scale. College Point, an initiative sponsored by Bloomberg Philanthropies, matches high-achieving, low-income students with mentors who guide these students to selective colleges.
Technology can be a great backstop—the functional counterpart to the caring humans. A text bot can’t provide thoughtful life advice, but it’s very good at deadline reminders. A learning-management system doesn’t do much for motivation, but it can flag a struggling student for teacher outreach. With the likelihood of more blended and online learning in the year ahead, we need to get creative about using tech insights to guide timely intervention, combining the scalability of technology with the guiding hand of caring adults.
Show compassion and maintain expectations. This is the hardest school year many students have ever experienced. Empathy and flexibility should be the order of the day, but that doesn’t mean abandoning high expectations. The worst thing we can do is lower our horizons for students. Rigorous coursework in high school is one of the keys to college enrollment, and missing that preparation hurts vulnerable students the most.
All the psychic and economic pain we’re seeing right now will be compounded if the pandemic produces a drop in college enrollment and completion. We’ll simply lock in our losses for years to come, and we’ll harm the students who could benefit most from keeping their ambitions high.
Prioritize those who need help most. We’ve all read about how the burden of the pandemic has landed disproportionately on low-income families, minority communities, and workers without college degrees. We have a moral duty to make sure that burden is not compounded through even deeper inequities in college access. There is a lot of attention being paid right now to students who might take gap years rather than accept online classes or decide to stay in state rather than enroll someplace across the country. That’s all intriguing, but the real story of this moment will be about students who were already on the margins of college enrollment, unsure of whether to enroll at all. We cannot allow them to get lost in the anxiety and uncertainty affecting all of us.
Risk signs are already emerging. Financial-aid applications are lagging well behind where they should be this time of year. And up to a third of high school seniors are wavering on college enrollment, hoping for a clearer picture of the fall.
Our message must be firm and consistent: This is not the time to sit back and wait. The path may look a little different than students expected, but we owe it to students to help them keep moving.
Editor’s note: This post, written by a member of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's Board of Trustees, was first published by Education Week on its “Rick Hess Straight Up” blog.