This op-ed originally appeared in The Tennessean.
Early numbers indicate that too many students in the Class of 2020 who graduated from high school during the COVID-19 pandemic face a real risk of losing their way.
Community college enrollment in our state for the fall of 2020 was down 19 percent among full-time first-time students and for historically underserved students as well — down 18 percent for Hispanic students and an alarming 31 percent among Black students.
A college degree or credential is still a key lever to economic mobility, and students losing their way now might suffer in the long term. The holder of an associate degree in Tennessee makes on average $25,000 more per year than someone who immediately enters the workforce after graduating from high school.
This trend of students not transitioning from high school to postsecondary education is worrisome. The application deadline for the Tennessee Promise scholarship program was extended until Dec. 1, and we need to encourage members of the Class of 2021 to complete their Free Application for Federal Student Aid forms.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the economic recession that followed have disrupted education and the workforce in our state as never before. Yet, increasing the number of postsecondary certificates, diplomas and degrees remains just as essential to meeting the demands of Tennessee’s changing workforce.
From these unprecedented times arises the opportunity to ask new questions, explore new ideas and find new policy solutions, while also implementing well the practices that we know work for students as they transition to college, work or the military.
Tennessee has already developed the foundation of a robust data system that links K-12 education with higher education, labor and workforce outcomes. State leaders and partners should use this existing infrastructure to quickly assess and understand the pandemic’s effects on students, their learning loss and their transition from high school to college or career.
In addition, the Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation in June to create the Education Recovery and Innovation Commission, which will set a strategic vision for how Tennessee’s K-12 and higher education systems can innovate to support students recovering from COVID-19. This is one place where robust data systems could provide meaningful information for state leaders charting a path forward for Tennessee.
Let’s use this moment to zero in on the most important metrics and milestones to identify the gaps, and then deploy proven initiatives and interventions to offset the biggest challenges students face.
Expand personalized advising, coaching and mentoring
Every graduating senior should have access to a dedicated college and career adviser, a coach, mentor or point of contact to support them during their transition to college.
High school students, especially those who are low-income or the first in their family to go to college, are significantly more likely to enroll and persist in secondary education if they are paired with an effective counselor or mentor.
We already have great models at work supplementing our in-school counselors in K-12 and through the transition to college, including Advise TN, the Ayers Foundation Scholars Program, GEAR UP TN, the NiswongerCARE College and Career Advising program, tnAchieves, Knox Promise, the Better Together partnership between Metro Nashville Public Schools and Nashville State Community College, UT Promise and many others. But we need to reach even more students and ensure every student in Tennessee has this kind of support.
Career credentials and pathways
All students in high school should have the opportunity to gain a high-quality credential aligned to workforce needs. Multiple studies find that attainment of a high-quality credential results in both higher earnings and levels of employment, even for those who do not hold a college degree.
The state should ensure that every high school has some form of high-quality credential program, so that students have the ability to graduate from high school with both a diploma and a workforce-relevant credential.
Common college application
Reducing red tape and as many barriers facing students as possible is also key going forward. At the federal level, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has worked tirelessly to simplify the FAFSA, the first step to scholarships, grants and loans.
Here at the state level, we should do the same by creating a common college application to make the point of entry into college as easy as possible.
Other states are already doing it. In the City University of New York system, students can complete one application to apply to multiple two- or four-year institutions within the CUNY system.
The time is now
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed many challenges and existing issues for students transitioning from high school to college to the workforce.
The actions we take now as a state will affect not only our Class of 2021 high school graduates, but they will set an even stronger foundation to increase the opportunities for all future Tennessee graduates.
David Mansouri is president and CEO of SCORE.