Helping High School Students Who’ve Fallen Off the College Track

The crushing COVID-19 pandemic — its variants now disrupting a third consecutive school year — continues to push high school students off track for college enrollment.

The exact number of students who have given up on graduating high school due to the pandemic is still an unknown, but early indicators are alarming. A June 2021 survey by the consulting group McKinsey & Company found that 17% of high school seniors who had previously planned to attend postsecondary education were no longer aiming to go. Among low-income high school seniors, 26% had abandoned their plans. And graduation rates dipped across at least 20 states in 2021, a Chalkbeat analysis found.

The Class of 2022 has had more than half of its high school career disrupted. And many students have suffered from not only the academic challenges and social isolation associated with remote learning, but also the direct impact of the virus on families, including illnesses, job losses and deaths.

Robert Balfanz, a professor at the John Hopkins University School of Education and a national expert on high school dropouts, says there’s no doubt a subset of current students who expected to enroll directly in college were academically derailed on the way to graduation.

“Where kids get in trouble in general, and in the pandemic specifically, is when they suddenly find themselves in the 12th grade and realize they’re a couple of classes short,” Balfanz says. “Maybe they failed because distance learning was hard. They just struggled to learn, and they didn’t have that chance to ask the teacher, ‘What does this mean? I don’t understand that. Can you say it to me in a different way?'”

Suddenly, well-laid plans for college and scholarship applications are upended. Jill Madenberg, a private college counselor in New York, advises parents who are panicking about a suddenly lagging child to take a breath.

“How successful you will be in life, how happy you will be in life, is not predicated necessarily on you following one certain path,” Madenberg says. “To take into account where you are and what your options are is, I think, really liberating and an eye-opener.”

Closing the social-emotional gaps left behind by a pandemic can be even tougher than closing academic ones, says Robyn Lady, the director of student services at Chantilly High School in Fairfax County, Virginia. She urges parents to carefully consider whether their children are emotionally ready for college.

“I tell parents it’s detrimental to go to college and not succeed,” Lady says. “Then your child has got to dig out from, you know, rock bottom, and probably complete an associate’s at a two-year community college before they can even transfer back into the residential four-year school types that we’re talking about.”

Here are some other options for students who’ve fallen off the college track.

Consider a Fifth Year or GED

Students who fall behind their peers academically still have options to finish high school. If the academic gap is substantial, it could be worth taking a fifth year to complete high school with interesting electives, Madenberg says. Or, if the student lacks only a couple of courses, taking the General Educational Development (GED) test in place of a diploma could be an option.

A GED credential does not automatically close the door to college, but it will mean working harder to get into more selective colleges, says admissions consultant Hanna Stotland.

Stotland flunked out of high school in the 1990s. She went on to get her GED, work for two years, and then attend a small women’s college in Pennsylvania before transferring and graduating from Harvard University. She eventually graduated from Harvard Law School.

“A GED doesn’t slam a whole lot of doors shut, but it can influence the shape of your path if you’re trying to enter a competitive college,” Stotland says. “If you want to enter a competitive college as a freshman, then you need to show them your standout academic performance at some point prior to that.”

Ask About Credit Recovery

Another option is enrolling in a district-prescribed credit recovery program, which is typically online. The irony of this option, Balfanz says, is that many districts are relying on online credit recovery options for students who have floundered in COVID-era virtual classes.

Balfanz recommends parents use early and consistent communication with counselors to determine whether their student is a candidate for credit recovery. Some school districts will actively reach out to students who have gaps in their transcript; others will not.

Nat Malkus, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has surveyed the use of credit recovery in 200 school districts across the country. He found that school districts often choose their own credit recovery programs. And the quality and usefulness of programs vary widely.

“The problem with credit recovery — one of the biggest jobs in education — is that we’re often trying to do it with the least resources and with little contact with teachers,” Malkus says. “I think one of the questions you have to ask, as a parent, is how much teacher time will be involved? How much access does the kid have to somebody who’s dedicated, that actually knows the subject?”

Using credit recovery will not be a deal breaker for college admissions, Madenberg says. College admissions advisers understand because they, too, have families who have coped with the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Explain COVID-Related Challenges When Applying

Honesty should be a college applicant’s priority.

“There is space on the common application for additional information, a place to explain your circumstances,” Madenberg says. “Rather than gloss over those C’s you got, you want to explain your thought process. ‘Zoom classes didn’t work for me. As a result, I did X, Y and Z.'”

Most college admissions advisers will appreciate that kind of information, says New Jersey education consultant Elaine Cataneo, who helps students close academic gaps. She recommends students use college essays to be upfront about their challenges and delays.

“They can write a personal statement that says, ‘I had this setback. This is what I did with that year. This is how I used it to my advantage. Now, I am really ready for college,'” Cataneo says. “That’s who the college will want — someone who is self-aware, who has had a setback and has managed it beautifully.”

In some ways, that’s more appealing to a college admissions adviser than a candidate who hasn’t faced, and resolved, personal challenges, Cataneo says.

Reassess Emotional Readiness for College

At Chantilly High School, where Lady works, the graduation rate is still above 95 percent.

Students in Lady’s high-performing district — even those that have fallen behind — are still pulling it together to graduate on time. They’re applying and getting accepted to colleges. But when it comes to emotional regulation and maturity — skills gained in part by four years of solid interaction in classrooms with peers — they’ve lost ground.

“We have a tremendous number of kids who are ready to go to college. They’re going to go and they’re going to thrive. They’re going to do fantastic,” Lady says. “But we’re seeing a higher percentage of kids — more than we’ve ever seen — who are not emotionally ready to go.”

Some of these students have parents who continue to make most of their decisions on their behalf, from essay topics to lunch selections.

These are the students Lady anticipates will end up going on to college because it’s what their parents expect of them — but they’ll spin out in their freshman year and have to return home. Some will later attempt to work their way back into a four-year college.

“If the parent is working harder right now than the student (to get into college), then your student’s not ready to go to college,” Lady says.

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