By DAMON MITCHELL, WPLN-FM
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — It’s tough helping students enroll in college and getting them to stay there — even under normal circumstances. Add a pandemic to the mix on top of decades of education inequality, and expanding higher education access has become that much harder for student advocates.
So at KIPP Nashville, a Metro public schools charter network, the staff has had to get creative in the ways they help kids start college.
Lauren Denton, a persistence counselor on the KIPP Through College team, knows how important it is to keep students engaged after high school graduation. She’s been a student advocate since her advising days in Arkansas and has been at KIPP Nashville since 2018.
But even a pro like Denton has had to make tough adjustments to operate during the pandemic, especially since the KIPP college matriculation process is an intimate one.
Normally, it’s filled with face-to-face meetings, which helps builds trust, while also allowing for a smoother transition process. It’s something that starts in high school, when advisors help match students with colleges. Then they prepare students for their first day of classes — and the support continues for years after as they work to earn their degrees.
“Once they graduate from high school, we just don’t drop the ball with them,” says Denton.
The six-person KIPP Through College program serves more than 240 students and alumni at 40 different colleges and universities across the country. For this latest school year, they helped KIPP seniors secure more than $3.5 million in college scholarships.
But the summer after graduation is especially an important time for disinvested youth, Denton says.
Nearly 80% of KIPP high school students are underserved or economically disadvantage. Historically, these students are left behind in the enrollment process.
“Once they’ve made the decision to go to school. They think: ‘Oh, I’m just going to show up on day one,’ ” says Denton. “No. You have to make enrollment, (pay) fees or tell the school that you’re going to enroll. Then you have to register for orientation so that you have classes.”
Many high schools help students fill out financial aid forms, but at KIPP, that’s only a small part of the matriculation process.
“Are you going to live on campus or off campus? Do you have to let the school know if you’re going to live off campus? Have you made your first payment if you’re on a payment plan?,” says Denton.
But the coronavirus has made the intimate advising process nearly impossible.
With the past few months of remote learning, advisors now have to make the process virtual — matching students with colleges, getting them enrolled.
“It’s interesting trying to get in touch with everyone. Whether you’re the brightest student or you’re the least motivated, trying to get someone on the phone when their family’s around,” says Denton. “If the student doesn’t have a phone, how are we going to get in touch with them? Via email, if they don’t have internet access?”
On top of that, the pandemic has made college less attractive to students as an option. It’s brought more stress to their homes, jobs and financial situations.
“We’re hoping that students can go off to college,” says Stacy Lightfoot of the Public Education Foundation in Chattanooga. “But we think the trend will be more students will stay close to home as they have to choose between work and building back up monies that their families have lost during this pandemic.”
In Metro Nashville Public Schools, the district’s head of counseling says she’s also noticed that more students are contemplating gap years — or simply taking breaks.
According to the Tennessee College Access and Success Network, the six-year college completion rate for Metro public schools graduates is 26%. This is despite more than 75% of the district’s high school seniors taking steps to enroll in college during the past three years.
Taking a year off before college makes it even less likely that the student will complete a degree.
“You hear things like ‘gap years’ … Well, if you’re a low-income first-generation student, which I was, there’s no such thing as a gap year,” says Bob Obrohta, the head of the Tennessee College Access and Success Network. “You have to go, and you have to get in and do it as fast as you can.”
Some universities are planning to reopen campuses and report an increase in the number of students confirming their plans to enroll in the fall, while others are bracing for a decrease, as families are increasingly apprehensive about being on campus while the virus is still present.
On top of that, there’s the possibility of having to re-close schools, in the event that the country sees an uptick in COVID-19 cases. Education leaders say this will also have an impact on equitable access to college, specifically for students who are already there.
“This transition to digital to online learning — kids are saying they’re not going back to college if they have to do that,” says Lightfoot.
Lightfoot says remote learning isn’t a design for everyone, and it adds yet another barrier for students working to earn a college degree. Many students have never had equitable access to computers an internet access, she says, and may also face a learning curve with new technology programs.
Still, Davian Berry, a KIPP Nashville graduate and budding animal science major, says she’s still planning to head to Cumberland University in the fall, even though she doesn’t know what the semester will bring.
She credits her high school persistence counselor for supporting her through the process, and the school’s quick pivot to virtual advising.
“Without them, I would just be stuck and wouldn’t know what to do,” says Berry.
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