College and Career Readiness during COVID: Rebuilding the Pathway to Success

By Patrice Williams, Deputy Director, US Education, FHI 360

We have long known that for high school students, college and career readiness programs are  the best pathway to long-term success. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced schools to focus on students’ more immediate academic, mental health, and social-emotional needs, shifting time and resources away from college and career readiness.

This change has had dire consequences. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the number of students who enrolled in college directly after high school dropped nearly 7 percent in fall 2020 from fall 2019. The clearinghouse also found that students of color and students from low-income families were hit especially hard: College enrollment directly after high school among these students fell 11.4 percent in fall 2020. While early findings indicate that the enrollment decline among all students slowed in fall 2021, the trend is still troubling.

Connected & Engaged recently hosted “Keeping College and Career Readiness at the Forefront: From National Priorities to Action Plans,” a webinar to support educators working to reverse the trend. The webinar brought together national- and state-level college and career readiness experts to offer a range of perspectives, data, ideas, and tools.

The panel emphasized the importance of using data to strengthen college and career readiness programs. Noting the overwhelming challenges that educators already face because of COVID, one panelist suggested that school leaders look for the “low-hanging fruit“ as they  shore up their programs. For example, one data point that educators can easily track is the number of their students who complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). High school students who complete the FAFSA tend to go on to their first year of college, so tracking the number of students who do so can give educators useful data to help shape their programs.

The panel also stressed the need for school leaders to develop college and career readiness plans that address the specific needs of their schools. Connected & Engaged offers guides and tools that help school leaders do just that. One guide, “The Comeback: Strategies and Supports for the 2021-22 School Year,” includes a section on college and career readiness that offers a range of strategies and resources on topics such as postsecondary readiness and access, engaging families in postsecondary planning, and postsecondary match and fit. Our action plan tool lets educators create a customized plan by simply clicking on the resources that suit their schools’ needs. The tool assembles the resources into a single webpage that educators can share.

As schools recover from the impact of the pandemic, college and career readiness must be part of that rebuilding. Fortunately, we have the ideas, resources, and tools that can help our students get the support they need to build a hopeful future.