WHEELING — Fall 2020 wasn’t an easy time for the high school class of 2021 to be thinking about the future, education experts here and in Charleston admit. COVID-19 was raging. Classes were remote. Help wading through the early stages of career choice was hard to get.
So, they say, it wasn’t a surprise that entering classes at the state’s public two- and four-year colleges and universities were down for the 2020-21 school year. What may be more surprising, they added, is the ways the pursuit of post-secondary education is bouncing back.
They say the class of 2022 is showing hints it will experience a more normal dispersal into the larger economy. The class of 2021 has signs of regrouping after a perhaps unintentional gap year. And, West Virginia’s public schools — from elementary institutions through four-year colleges — are tweaking programs in hopes that whatever COVID-19 took away from Generation Z can be restored.
BOOTS ON THE GROUND
“Last school year we struggled dealing with just communicating with our seniors,” said Jen Kucera-Short, chair of the counseling department at Wheeling Park High School.
With schools on remote learning, she said financial aid and college application assistance went virtual and some students that might have pursued further academic education or trade training, “definitely lost focus and direction.”
Kucera-Short said the problems were multi-faceted.
While parents were working, some students were balancing their own studies with helping younger siblings. Other students went to work to fill in financial gaps created when parents lost jobs.
“We saw a lot of things last year that we normally don’t see,” she said, noting that after graduation, school officials couldn’t see much of anything. Graduates dispersed and it was difficult to tell to where.
Recently, however, Kucera-Short said some graduates that had put off college are coming back, seeking help with various applications. “We’re happy to help them any way we can, whether they’re in the building or not,” Kucera-Short said, noting that the military, trade school or shorter-term certifications are also on the table.
While the class of 2021 is regrouping, Kucera-Short marveled at the quick turn around for the class of 2022. “Having them here and capturing them as a live audience has definitely made things more … (possible) for them.”
Some students are in the thick of applying for colleges and financial aid, she said. Others have completed enough career and technical training they are either already working outside school hours or have jobs lined up – in collision repair, for example – right after graduation.
Maureen Zambito, spokesperson for West Liberty University, said, ironically, such post-graduation employment possibilities allowed by a strong labor market are another thing suppressing enrollment there and at all other two- and four-year colleges in the state. “A good job market’s bad for enrollment.”
(West Liberty is down only slightly – from 2,522 in its last non-COVID year of 2018-19 to 2,479 in the current school year, according to the state Higher Education Policy Commission.)
Pointing to studies that reveal workers with post-secondary education fare financially better over a lifetime, Zambito said she is concerned some students will choose a job today over a lifetime career path.
Kucera-Short wonders if there’s actually that much choice.
“Those students are getting jobs to help their families,” Kucera-Short said of some cases. “Once they start contributing to that family income, it’s hard to stop and they put their own goals on the back burner.”
There’s a grant for that, according to two voices from the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission. That agency administers $100 million in financial aid for two- and four-year colleges and universities in addition to other duties and is urging the class of 2022 and other would-be students to do what needs to be done to tap into its share of that assistance.
Chris Treadway, who is currently vice chancellor for community and technical colleges but tracked college-related data for HEPC several years before that, said COVID did cause an enrollment dip, but there were other factors leading to a statewide 2020-21 college-going rate that, at 48.2% of graduating seniors, is the lowest in recent history.
The downward trend began, he said, not long after the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009. As jobs disappeared, college enrollment went up for a period as people sought to train or retrain to increase their employability.
So, the downturn that began in 2010 and 2011 was really a correction to that sudden uptick, he said, noting it has extended into more years because of non-COVID factors. One is a limited number of graduating seniors, a population segment in slow decline. The other is so-far unidentified but persistent, he added.
HEPC data shows statewide enrollment in public two-year and four-year colleges dropping from 96,573 in 2011-12 to 73,692 in 2020-21. While two-year colleges took the hardest hit – losing nearly half of their 27,000 students — the drop was universal.
“It’s hard to say what’s driving that steady decline,” Treadway said. “It’s a whole lot of individual people.”
Whatever the reasons, he and agency spokesperson Jessica Tice said the HEPC is taking multiple steps to get post-secondary education and training back in the groove. And, like Wheeling Park’s Kucera-Short mentioned, they’re not just talking four-year degrees in English. Shorter-term trade and healthcare certifications and the military count toward a state goal of having 60% of working adults credentialed in some post-secondary way by 2030.
For impending or recent graduates, the HEPC drive is most easily seen in the form of money access, Treadway note. Merit-based Promise Scholarship applications were down in fall 2020 but are climbing. Federal financial aid applications remain down, but HEPC is working with high schools, trying to get them and college applications back up.
The commission is even giving individual schools a target number of students to get enlisted or enrolled with access to financial aid. It’s not always a huge number, he noted. At Wheeling Park High School, for example, HEPC figures show the drop in college-going rate wasn’t huge – down from 59.5% of graduates in the last non-COVID class of 2019 to 54% in 2020.
Some of the HEPC funds are squarely aimed at meeting both labor shortages and students’ need for income, Tice noted. WV Invest Scholarships fill in gaps in financial aid in a way that is making some two-year or certificate programs free. She said this is particularly true for high-need fields such as entry-level healthcare, information technology, electrical line technicians and early childhood education.
Tice said HEPC is also working across the age spectrum. Adult learners now have access to micro-grants for small potential disrupters like a bad tire. Simple activities such as matching the mascot to the college are increasing awareness of the complete educational system in early grades. And, secondary students who fell behind academically during COVID will now have access to new for-credit college classes that may offer extra sessions or access to help for students who need it in order to catch up.
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