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A Moment of Opportunity for Student Pathways Support

By Sara Allan | Gates Foundation, U.S. Program

Valerie Gonzales is an inspiration. A recent college graduate in Fort Worth, Texas, she navigated challenging circumstances as a college adviser during the pandemic to support and guide high school students as they strove to make their own transition to college. Always willing to brainstorm career options in her office or track down a student at their afterschool job to make sure they completed application paperwork, Valerie is a trusted partner to her students and a testament to the power of individual relationships in students’ lives. Sadly, the kind of help she provides through the College Advising Corps is not universal in high schools across the country.

Valerie’s work, highlighted by Bill Gates in his recent  Gates Notes post, is a shining example of how a holistic approach to college advising lifts up students, including those in underserved communities. At the same time, we know that too many students also miss out on other supports and opportunities that are more likely to keep them on a path to success beyond high school such as opportunities for mentoring, advanced course placement, and career-connected learning opportunities. They also need access to the kind of social capital and networking opportunities that will help them out in the world. In essence, students need a Valerie at every stage of their education-to-career pathway.

Our education system creates opportunity and provides support for some students, but not others. And too often, the system fails the students who need it most, and who would benefit most from these key learning opportunities, supports, and experiences. Supporting students through critical transition points between high school, college and employment systems requires intentional design to keep students on their education pathway. However, few young people feel they are receiving a great deal of support from their high schools, counselors, or outside programs as they make their plans for college, or their career and life goals, according to the 2020-2021 Equitable Futures National Youth Poll. The situation is even worse for young people from lower-income households.

Many young people who took the poll said that they don’t know of any outside programs that can provide support, and they don’t know where to look for them. Students overwhelmingly feel as if setting and achieving their career and life goals is all on them.

“I never had anyone ask me about my plans. The only time I met my assigned counselor, she doubted my ability to take AP classes. I had no one to ask questions of,” a Hispanic male, age 20 and from a lower-income family, told the surveyors.

“They only cared about you graduating; they didn’t talk about life after high school or careers,” said a  Hispanic female, age 20, also from a lower-income household.

There has never been a more important time to act to change this. COVID-19 disrupted the paths and dreams of too many young people. High school students are shifting their postsecondary plans and college enrollment continues to decline. At the height of the pandemic, we saw how critical relationship-based programs propelled some students— but unfortunately not all—to get back on track.

We need to strengthen our education pathway structures and systems so that all students’ access to high-quality supports and learning opportunities aren’t left to chance or determined by where a student lives. We know we can do better. It’s already happening in some places – just not in enough places – and it’s happening in a systematic way. We have strong examples from across the country that prove change is possible:

  • Achieve Atlanta has worked with Atlanta Public Schools since its founding in 2015 to ensure that more students have access to college and have success once they get there. This partnership has increased FAFSA completions, college applications, and created more seamless college enrollment for students in the area. The nonprofit has provided financial and other supports to 3,821 “Achieve Atlanta Scholars”—97% of whom are eligible for Pell grants and 94% of whom identify as Black or Latino. Understanding that students need a range of pathway supports, Achieve Atlanta prioritizes bringing together K-12, postsecondary, civic groups, policymakers, and philanthropic partners to work on behalf of students, and is sharing their model and practices with other communities across the country.
  • CUNY College Connect is building a near-peer advising system within the City University of New York network to help incoming students. It starts in the summer as they transition from high school to college and goes through their first year and beyond. Students have access to a fully trained adviser and receive guidance from campus Peer Leaders, who are trained to provide critical and timely one-on-one and cohort support. Peer Leaders themselves get robust and meaningful career development skills. This approach is grounded in research that shows the success of near-peer relationships in developing the skills students need to reach education or employment goals. Early results of this pilot are promising, providing insights into the structures and systems needed to ensure that every entering student at CUNY, which serves more than 270,000 students, has access to support from Peer Leaders.
  • Future Focused Texas Campaign (FFTX) launched in the wake of COVID to help maintain college enrollment rates in Texas. The campaign provides a digital college support and success hub for both counselors and their students. Built through a powerful collaboration between Get Schooled, the Texas College Access Network, and five additional Texas education organizations, FFTX supports students directly. They engaged with over a half million students last year via social media. In addition, the campaign builds counselors’ capacity to engage with their students digitally. FFTX continues this school year, readying new “digital counselor packages” for counselors in high schools across the state.

The Gates Foundation is proud to support and learn from these impactful programs as they replicate and scale. There is also a particular opportunity (and need) right now with the availability of additional federal funds that states and schools can invest in strategies that we know work for our young people.

As a result of the pandemic, there was a 7 percent decline in immediate postsecondary enrollment for the high school graduating class of 2020. Nearly a third of students indicated that they changed their postsecondary plans in some way. Completion rates for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) were down 5 percent in 2021 compared with last year, indicating that these trends are likely to continue. To support districts as they work to reverse these trends, Invest Forward – a joint effort of leading education groups – has created a playbook of affordable, sustainable investment strategies that include expanding advising, earning college credit before graduation, implementing 12th grade transition courses, and fostering students’ career exploration. Partners can join this effort and connect with others to learn more and get ideas. Many of these are affordable, high-benefit investments, that will pay off in getting more students from high school to college, career, and beyond.

In order to ensure that no student’s dreams are deferred by COVID and that we come through this pandemic with a stronger education system, we need K-12, higher education, and workforce leaders to join forces and take ownership of this change. The good news is that we have proven models to guide us and advisers like Valerie to inspire us.

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