Getting students back on track to higher education

Higher education lost about 400,000 students this fall--who are they, and what can educators, families, and students themselves do to help them towards their goal of college and a career?

COVID-19 has raised a number of major questions for educators, one of which is “Why are college applications decreasing?” Higher education lost about 400,000 students this fall. Are these students taking a gap year between high school and college? If so, that might be a good thing, since data suggests that a gap year can actually help students. The most important question is, “Will students put off college for a significant period, or choose not to go to college because of financial hardship?”

Fall 2020 enrollment data shows the largest decreases falling across community colleges and public universities, especially among lower income and minority students. This last data point is perhaps the most concerning. Educators need to be especially watchful and mindful of where these students land, and how we engage them and bring them into higher education after an (unplanned) gap year. Why? Because putting off college can have a significant impact on lifetime earnings, and overall education level continues to be one of the strongest predictors of lifetime earnings.

According to the Social Security Administration, men with bachelor’s degrees earn approximately $900,000 more in median lifetime earnings than high school graduates. Women with bachelor’s degrees earn $630,000 more. Men with graduate degrees earn $1.5 million more in median lifetime earnings than high school graduates. Women with graduate degrees earn $1.1 million more.

For colleges and universities, the critical question is whether or not the decline in enrollment is temporary, and if there is a shift in the perceived value of higher education. Given that the biggest declines in enrollment are at community colleges, with losses of lower-income and urban high school students, I think we’re not facing a structural long-term concern among the college or university enterprise. Colleges and universities may face short-term financial challenges, but overall demand is not likely to shift. However, an entire generation of poor and urban students may face greater future challenges and lower future earnings due to lack of college enrollment.

Every education stakeholder should be significantly concerned about the trajectory of students who are choosing to take a gap year that was not planned. A gap year spent exploring the world can be an enlightening and improving experience, but one spent coping with the mental, social, and economic challenges of a pandemic can be academically and personally damaging. So what can educators, families, and students themselves do to clear the pathway to higher education and a rewarding career?

Collaborating on CTE

Career and technical education programs are natural feeders to community colleges and can be used to engage students–including recent graduates. One of the most interesting initiatives at the nonprofit Center for College & Career Readiness, where I serve as chairman, is a network of partnerships with organizations especially focused on career and technical education. The Successful Practices Network, led by Dr. Bill Daggett and Ray McNulty, is working with our partners at ACHIEVE3000 to bring “real-world learning about what jobs are really like” to millions of students via videos and interviews. The goal is to help students, especially high schoolers, become excited about potential careers and colleges.

As part of the same initiative, we are looking at ways to accelerate the pipeline from high school to Historically Black Colleges and Universities. HBCUs offer tremendous opportunities for students to enjoy personalized higher education while also qualifying for scholarships and other financial aid. We want to bring real-world vignettes of what life is like for students at these dynamic organizations.

Lastly, our partners at MeTEOR Education are looking closely at best models for CTE learning environments, as schools work to bring “real-world” learning experiences to students within the classroom environment. Speaking of real, one of the starkest realities of the past year has been the central role that parents need to play if they want their children to excel in school.

Parents forming pods and finding tutors

From local neighborhood “pods” to individual tutoring, parents are perhaps more concerned about schooling for their children than they have ever been. The shift in learning environments will have long-term impacts on the business of school, as has every prior health crisis to impact schools.

We see less concern about high-stakes tests such as the SAT and ACT, and more concern about core skill areas like reading, math, and science. Moreover, many families want to ensure that their students do not fall behind because of the pandemic, and are therefore engaging private tutors or using online services such as TutorMe, which connects students with academic help in hundreds of subjects within a matter of seconds.

According to CEO Myles Hunter, his platform has seen “a 330 percent increase in tutoring hours in 2020 as compared to 2019,” along with 500 percent year-over-year revenue growth in 2020. In a time when equity is more important than ever, TutorMe works with a number of TRIO programs at institutions such as the University of Michigan, the Colorado Community College System, and Washington State University. All of this growth comes not just from parents signing their students up, but from students taking an active role in continuing their education outside the classroom.

Students helping themselves

In an online environment, research shows that students who have the skills to self-regulate their learning actually do better. They have more time, are more efficient, and are generally happier.

For high schoolers on their way to college, an essential aspect of self-regulating is applying active learning methods to prepare for the SAT or ACT. Dr. Chandra Pemmasani, the founder of UWorld, which provides online learning tools to help students prepare for a variety of high-stakes exams, differentiates between test preparation and learning that students actually retain. “We provide challenging practice questions that mirror the real tests and clear explanations of the rationale behind each answer,” he says. As a result, “Our students are certainly ready to succeed on test day, but we teach in such a way that they understand and retain specific knowledge throughout their education and into their career.”

When it comes to finding the right college, successful students are taking different pathways to their destination. When the pandemic hit in March 2020, most college applications were already in process. College fairs have now gone virtual, with companies like Novva Tech offering not only online gatherings, but using AI to connect students with colleges and universities that fit their goals.

And to be honest, with the declines in enrollment, now may actually be a good time to start college. Competition for scholarships has lessened, and universities are in need of new students. We are in a “buyers’ market” for higher education, and I sincerely hope that students and their families seize the opportunity to get the sort of education that prepares them for a rewarding career.

eSchool Media Contributors
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