Higher education is awash with challenges. While young people today need college more than ever, college attendance across the country has dropped in each of the last eight years, including 300,000 fewer students last year alone. This is happening at a time when almost all new well-paying jobs require postsecondary training and study.
As enrollment declines threaten the survival of more than a third of our nation’s colleges, and as communities face economic decline because they’re short on college-educated workers, a solution lies within our grasp.
Growing up in Polk County, Florida, Maria never considered becoming the first in her family to attend college. That changed in 10th grade when her math teacher, James Lambert, took Maria and three classmates to visit a nearby university. “It opened up a new world for me,” said Maria.
In grade 11, the complexity of the college admissions process threatened to derail Maria’s dream. That’s when Lambert stepped in and showed her how to sign up for the ACT, fill out financial aid forms and move through the admissions maze. “Mr. L badgered me about deadlines and supported me at every turn. I never could have done this alone,” said Maria, who graduated from the University of Central Florida last spring.
At schools across the U.S., millions of students, most from low-income households with limited college and career knowledge, sit on the bubble. They’re qualified for college but they don’t get the kind of college- and career-readiness support that Maria received from Lambert.
Most of these bubble students never find a college- and career-readiness advisor to encourage and help them understand college terminology, test taking, applying to and paying for college. More often than not, formal education for these students ends before or after 12th grade, and they end up staying in their home communities, generally making minimum wage.
Those who don’t go to college earn, on average, half what their college-educated peers will make. The impact also impedes local economies.
Government and business leaders are recognizing the correlation between workforce needs and postsecondary attainment. Almost every state has set postsecondary and workforce-readiness goals to strengthen their economies. Vermont, facing a shortfall of 132,000 job-ready workers over the next few years, is looking to increase the percentage of people with college degrees from the current rate of 60% to 70% by 2025. California plans to help an additional 1.5 million residents attain college degrees by 2030.
A recent University of Vermont study confirmed that 10% more students would attend college and attain degrees simply if they had an advisor who provided them information and encouragement.
On average, one school-based counselor serves 470 students; the metrics are much worse for low-income kids, where the counselor-to-student ratio is an appalling 1 to 900, according to the American School Counselor Association. For our most vulnerable children, counselor support can be hard to come by.
That disturbing inequity plays out across the country. Those children who need the most help get the least, while those from advantaged backgrounds get an abundance. We saw that excess in the Varsity Blues admissions scandal where wealthy parents bribed officials to get their children into elite colleges.
Support needs to be spread around, so that every young person has an advisor advocate to help them down the pathway to a brilliant future.
In a new program, CFES Brilliant Pathways is making sure more support is available to train and credential college- and career-readiness advisors to fill this national void. Last month, CFES awarded 20 College & Career Readiness Advisor Certificates to schoolteachers and staff, business partners and college administrators.
A daylong training workshop focused on how advisors can help students identify potential colleges, majors and careers, sign up for the ACT and SAT, complete the FAFSA, plan to pay for college and practice essential skills like perseverance. Advisors, who will receive ongoing professional development through digital resources, were presented with research on why students from low-income families choose not to attend college, including a lack of parental support, and offered strategies for how to help students overcome such obstacles.
The college- and career-readiness advisor concept is simple and powerful. We need to train and credential college, community and business personnel, as well as educators and staff in schools. All students should have an advisor who is helping them meet admission and financial aid deadlines, understand how to pay for college, complete applications, find internships and job-shadowing opportunities and navigate the realm of college- and career-readiness challenges.
Rick Dalton is president & CEO of CFES Brilliant Pathways. Jon Reidel is the organizations’ director of communications and advancement.