Last week, my team and I attended high school graduations for our OneGoal students across Metro Atlanta. Students proudly donned their OneGoal stoles and Achieve Atlanta cords, gleefully throwing their caps in the air as their families cheered them on. Like the two classes to come before them, graduation speeches acknowledged the unprecedented challenges they’ve faced together, and the lessons they will take on the road ahead. We celebrate our students as they plan to attend schools like GSU, Clayton State, Gwinnett Tech, Savannah State and many other schools in the USG system. And we in the postsecondary success space know that for our students, that road is a steep one.
This celebration was staged against the backdrop of the recent release of sobering national statistics. Undergraduate enrollment has dropped by 9.4 percent since the start of the pandemic. As Stephanie Saul recently reported in an article for the New York Times, “While elite colleges and universities have continued to attract an overflow of applicants, the pandemic has been devastating for many public universities, particularly community colleges, which serve many low and moderate income students.” For students of color, these numbers continue to drop with Black freshmen enrollment declining by 6.5% in the Fall of 2021.
Experts aren’t clear whether the decline represents a lingering pandemic effect or a more fundamental shift in student attitudes about the value and necessity of college. As a first-generation college student, I know firsthand the positive impact a college degree can have on a young person’s trajectory. 9.4% fewer students attending college, particularly from low-income families, is likely to have a devastating effect on their lifetime earnings, job stability, and overall economic mobility.
So, what should we do?
(1) Listen to our young people – I think we all need to more deeply understand what our students have faced the last two years and how their attitudes towards school and higher education may have changed. We need to affirm and acknowledge the fears or doubts they may have about the value of a degree or credential and understand what, if any, misconceptions need to be dispelled. At OneGoal, we will be starting our year with a ‘mindsets survey’ to better understand what our students believe and what they need as they pursue their postsecondary path.
(2) Double down on postsecondary advising, especially for students who need it most – Most high school seniors receive around 38 mins of dedicated postsecondary advising per year. This is woefully inadequate. Students and families need significant help to navigate the many postsecondary options available to them, the financial aid process, application, and enrollment decisions. At OneGoal, we see overwhelming evidence that dedicated postsecondary advising can be transformative in influencing and supporting students to enroll in and complete a college degree or credential, especially through this pandemic. Now, more than ever, young people need support to identify their long-term goals and to enroll in the postsec programs that will make those dreams a reality.
(3) Link Arms – Across Metro Atlanta and the state, there are some exciting opportunities for us to recommit to ensuring that our young people can fully participate in our booming economy through postsecondary attainment. GPEE’s recent goal of ensuring 65% of young people attain a degree or credential, Learn4Life’s postsecondary CAN, and HB 1435 are all steps in the right direction. After the massive disruption we have experienced in education over the past two years, we have a chance to reimagine postsecondary access for all of Georgia’s students by taking steps to influence policy and practice in ways that matter most for kids.
Georgia’s young people deserve limitless opportunities. Our economic vitality and commitment to equity hang in the balance. Hannibal, a OneGoal student recently remarked to peers, “There are challenges. There will always be challenges. But take them step by step. Never give up.” I take Hannibal’s words as a call to action for all of us. Despite the last two years, our students remain optimistic about their future and we know the solutions are at hand.