Applying to and enrolling in a postsecondary program can be daunting. Prospective students must wade through options, paperwork, and deadlines, all the while meeting the commitments of daily life. Add to that, students can become overwhelmed when thinking about the costs of post-high school education. And that was all happening before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The number of real and perceived roadblocks, combined with beliefs among too many adults about who belongs in college or at a university and additional setbacks due to the pandemic can dissuade students from pursuing their passions,” says Brian Jeffries, policy director of Partnership for Learning.

Jeffries points to overwhelming evidence that a postsecondary credential – such as a degree, apprenticeship, or certificate – is increasingly essential in Washington state.

“Workers with postsecondary credentials have been experiencing greater job stability during the pandemic,” Jeffries says. In fact, according to labor market data from last fall, more than two-thirds of Washington workers claiming unemployment (68.1 percent) did not have a credential. And there’s every reason to believe the advantages for credentialed workers will grow over time, Jeffries adds.


But how do we make sure students facing increasing hurdles stay on track to a credential?

Prepare students early

Preparing students for postsecondary education needs to begin long before the senior year of high school, emphasizes Paul Francis, executive director of Council of Presidents, the association of Washington state’s six public four-year colleges and universities. 

“We really try to reach out to students and bring them onto our campuses,” he says. “They can see what it’s like to be an engineering student at the University of Washington, for example.”

The earlier students start exploring postsecondary options and begin developing a college-going mindset — even in elementary or middle school – the better.

Francis cites a program at Western Washington University called “Compass to Campus” that brings elementary school students to campus for the day and pairs them with WWU students who serve as peer mentors. Programs like this plant the seed early on that these students have a place on college campuses, Francis says.

Provide support to students

It’s not just about getting students enrolled. Francis says it’s about getting them acclimated, comfortable and supporting them through to the finish line.

“We know the college and university experience can be stressful,” Francis says, “We want students to know that our faculty, administrators, and staff are ready to help. We’ll be there as students explore academic programs and credentials, financial aid, student support services, and much more.”

Francis adds that students who take advantage of counseling and mentorship programs are much more likely to stay in school and graduate. This is especially true at key points because colleges tend to lose students after their first term or their first year. “If we can get them to continue to the second or third year, they’re much more likely to make it to graduation,” he explains.

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Make financial aid options accessible

Kris Gonzales, vice president for Independent Colleges of Washington, an association of 10 private, not-for-profit colleges and universities in Washington, works with students pursuing a wide range of academic programs.

Financial aid that helps with meeting the expenses of post-high school education tops the list of concerns for prospective students, Gonzales says.

To ensure equitable access, it’s also crucial that advisers and mentors are available to help students navigate the financial aid system. For example, Gonzales says a student named Kelsey who transferred from community college to Saint Martin’s University was initially receiving a Federal Pell Grant but lost her eligibility halfway through the school year.

“That dealt a heavy blow because Kelsey had all these other family and life obligations, and it meant that she was going to have to take out loans or take on additional hours at work,” Gonzales recalls. After speaking with her financial aid officer, Kelsey learned that she qualified for the Washington College Grant based on expanded eligibility requirements.

“We must preserve and expand the critical supports needed to get more students – like Kelsey – from high school to and through postsecondary education,” Jeffries says. “That’s how we recover from pandemic-related setbacks, develop the workforce of the future, and help more Washington students discover and achieve their dreams right here in Washington state.”

Partnership for Learning, the education foundation of the Washington Roundtable, brings together business leaders and education partners to improve our state’s education system, so Washington students are ready to pursue the career pathways of their choice. Learn more at credentialessential.com.