In a typical year, high school seniors — and their parents — have a lot of questions about what awaits them in the fall and whether they’ve missed any important steps in preparing for college.

But in a year like no other, school leaders are wondering how to best support students making the transition, particularly those from low-income families or others whose families might lack knowledge about the college-going process.

In fact, in a webinar Tuesday, Zenia Henderson, the director of member and partner engagement for the National College Attainment Network, said she has heard from high school counselors who indicated their seniors have “gone dark,” and that it’s been difficult to get in touch with them to determine how the pandemic has affected their college plans.

Recent data show, for example, that out of 1,000 high school students, 44% of juniors and seniors say the crisis has impacted their plans to pay for college, and 30% of those who planned to go to college now say they will have to put it off. 

Hosted by AASA, The School Superintendents Association, the webinar focused on five steps high schools can take now to get a grasp on how COVID-19 has interrupted students’ plans and which students will need more help to follow through with beginning classes in the fall — even if those classes are remote. 

“These students need both technical and moral support,” said Bill DeBaun, the director of data and evaluation for NCAN, a member organization that includes school districts, higher education institutions, nonprofits and others focused on college access. But he added “not all … students are going to need the same support, depending on what their plans are.”

That’s why the first recommendation is critical, the speakers said.

Conduct a senior exit survey — now

Schools that have never collected data from graduating seniors might want to stick to some core “high-level questions” that cover the student’s post-high school plans, whether they have completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, whether they have made a tuition deposit, what influenced their college decision, and their experience with their school’s college advising services, said Erin Grogan, the senior director of research and evaluation for College Advising Corps.

The nonprofit, now active in 17 states, focuses on increasing college enrollment among underrepresented groups of students and recruits recent college graduates to work as advisers through both in-person and virtual models. 

Schools with more experience conducting surveys, she said, could add some personal questions that explore whether students are rethinking their decision because of the pandemic. 

Some, she said, might have family members who are ill. Some students might have been depending on scholarships tied to athletics, performing arts or academics that have been affected by school closures. Others, she said, might now be working and are deciding to attend school closer to home so they can keep their jobs.

In a typical year, the schools her organization works with aim for a 70% survey response rate, but she said this year, that’s been set at a more realistic 50% to 70% rate. Still, some schools are even struggling to reach that goal, which reduces the chances school leaders and advisers will gather data from students most in need of support, Grogan said.

“I’d be lying if I said our survey cycle was going as smooth this year as it has in the past,” she said.

Even so, she noted a few strategies for increasing response rates.

  • Including paper copies of surveys in meals at high school grab-and-go sites.
  • Using web-based surveys, which are likely to gather more responses and can be done using free tools if a school didn’t budget for a survey.
  • Sending postcards to students’ homes with links to the survey.
  • Keeping questions concise and breaking up larger chunks of text to fit on a mobile device.
  • Using multiple choice, likert or “choose all that apply” questions to gather better data.
  • Having surveys available in multiple languages for English learners.
  • In lieu of a survey, sending some quick polls by text.
  • Tying survey completion to an Instagram graduation ceremony as an incentive.

Focus on FAFSA completion

Data shows completion rates have dropped significantly since schools shifted to remote learning in mid-March. Another 400,000 students would need to complete the application to reach the typical rate of about 60%, DeBaun said.

FAFSA completion is important, he added, because it increases the chances a student will enroll in college in the fall after high school graduation. Schools, he said, should also take a “all-hands-on-deck approach” and reach out to other community agencies and partner organizations working on college access issues. 

Decode financial aid offers

“The financial aid conversation does not end with completion of FAFSA,” Henderson said, adding that offer letters and other financial aid information from colleges are filled with “a lot of jargon” and might not use uniform terms.

School leaders and counselors need to discuss how they are going to collect the offer letters to review and whether they are comfortable accepting screenshots from students who don’t have access to printers at this time. 

Navigate decision deadlines

Colleges usually set May 1 as the deadline for students to accept or reject offers, but many have now extended those deadlines.

Henderson recommended counselors work on the “front end” to find out the deadlines of the top 10 schools in which their graduates usually enroll and provide that information to families.

The key thing here is localizing the information,” she said.

Combat summer melt

The one task still ahead, DeBaun said, is staying in touch with college-bound students to ensure they enroll in the fall. School leaders need to determine who is available to work over the summer, as well as what funds are available to pay them, he said.

It’s important for school district staff members to have partnerships with key contact people in the higher education institutions that most students attend in order to create “a bridge for students,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of staff and stakeholders working in concert with one another.”

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