Analysis: As Calendars and Routines Get Scrambled, 5 Ways High Schools Can Keep the Class of 2020 on Track for College

Is college right, right now? As the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic continue, many students are asking themselves some variation of this question. Schools have closed across the country, disrupting the academic year and forcing millions to learn from home. Meanwhile, colleges and universities have shut their campuses, unsure whether they will fully reopen in the fall. For high school seniors and other prospective college students, the fall feels uncertain and daunting.

Amid such uncertainty, high schools must encourage students to stay the course and enroll in the fall as planned. Research shows that students who enroll immediately after high school are more likely to graduate from college. And the Great Recession dramatically illustrated just how important having a college degree can be when navigating a recovering economy.

Here are five steps every high school should take, even in these last weeks of the year, to ensure that their students are better prepared for postsecondary success in these trying times.

Conduct a senior exit survey now

If students are going to succeed after high school, it is important first to know where they are now — and what they need next. Many districts and schools already issue senior surveys to gather contact information and gain an understanding of what students are planning to do after graduation. That seemingly basic information will prove especially important now, as it can help shape the kinds of supports seniors will receive. For schools that do not conduct these kinds of surveys, now is the time for principals and counselors to start. For schools that do, it’s time to revisit them. The information schools have on their seniors’ postsecondary aspirations and plans must be current. Much has changed in the past few weeks.

The survey should focus on each student’s postsecondary intentions — whether it’s immediately entering the workforce, joining the military or attending a certificate program, a two-year college or a four-year university. For students planning on attending college or university, the school should collect information on which institutions they are applying to and where they are in the application process. Schools can leverage that up-to-date information to consider what support they can provide. Counselors and other postsecondary advisers should have access to these data, and there should be a clear, consistent process in place for updating it as new information is obtained.

Make sure students complete the FAFSA

FAFSA completion is strongly associated with postsecondary enrollment immediately following high school graduation. Alarmingly, the number of FAFSAs completed by high school seniors this spring has sharply declined from last academic year. National College Attainment Network data suggest that FAFSA completion is down 3 percent since March 15. Compared with last year, we’ve seen 4.7 percent fewer FAFSA renewals; that percentage doubled between March 1 and April 15. Between first-time and returning FAFSA applicants, this year has seen more than 400,000 fewer completions nationwide. Even more troubling: Students from the lowest-income backgrounds are the furthest behind.

The uncertainty students feel around their postsecondary decisions is not limited to the effects of COVID-19. They are worried about paying for college and about missing out on vital financial aid. Schools must ensure that students complete the FAFSA, and that school leaders and counselors have accurate information on the percentage of students who have done so. Though the process varies by state, nearly all offer student-level data on FAFSA completion.

Schools should also inventory and reassess which of their programs and activities encourage FAFSA completion, and determine whether any can now be delivered virtually. Many districts and schools have pivoted to a virtual advising model. Schools should also consider and incorporate an appropriate social media strategy to reach more students. Advisers and faculty can direct students to online resources like #FormYourFuture’s “The Guide” and the Federal Student Aid Information Center, which operates both a live online chat and a phone helpline for students and families.

Understand award letters and compare costs

For students planning to attend a college or university, financial aid award letters are a critical component of determining where they will go. But these letters — like much of the byzantine financial aid process — can be confusing. For students to make the best decision, they need guidance about what their financial aid award letters actually mean.
 After determining seniors’ current acceptance information, schools can compare their list of students who submitted admissions applications with those who have submitted a FAFSA, double-checking that they properly overlap. Then it’s time for another survey, this time simply asking accepted students if they would like help understanding their financial aid award letter. Importantly, some may say they do not need the extra help, reducing the number of students staff need to reach out to.

Navigate decision deadlines

While May 1 is traditionally the popular deadline for students to make their college commitments, institutions across the country have shifted these dates as far back as June 1 as they face uncertainty about the fall. Students will need extra support to ensure that they make their decisions on these revised deadlines and fully understand the implications of those commitments. Schools would be wise to take a look at the colleges where their students most often matriculate and map out their key dates and deadlines. Schools can also contact local colleges and universities and offer to work together to deliver important deadline information to students in these final two weeks of decision windows.

Combat summer melt

Summer melt occurs when a student fails to enroll in or attend a postsecondary institution, even after they have already been accepted. Financial, family and workforce issues and commitments can all get in the way of a student arriving on campus. Summer melt is one of the most common and pernicious challenges faced by first-generation students and those from low-income backgrounds. Luckily, it’s also one of the most studied. There are plenty of proven strategies for supporting students from high school graduation to postsecondary enrollment.
 Schools should recruit staff who are willing to work summer hours, either in person or virtually. Text-messaging can also work, nudging students to complete the enrollment process. This can be accomplished through phone calls and social media posts as well.

It’s unclear just when schools and colleges can return to their normal operations. Our current situation could be our new normal, at least for some time. Few are feeling this uncertainty as much as our graduating seniors. It is more important than ever that we provide them with the resources and guidance they need to navigate their postsecondary aspirations no matter how unpredictable the future might be.

Kim Cook is a former college admissions officer and executive director of the National College Attainment Network, which works with college counselors and college access community-based organizations all across the country.

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