Graduation is here for the high school class of 2020. It is time to celebrate years of hard work and one of life’s signature moments. Graduation looks much different than what any senior had been expecting or planning, and thinking further into the future may feel even more daunting.

Education and business leaders across Washington have one message for the high school class of 2020: Don’t let COVID-19 derail your plans.

“In the last economic downturn, people with a credential or degree did much better in terms of jobs and earnings,” says Michael Meotti, executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council (WSAC). WSAC is a state agency focused on increasing educational opportunities and attainment in Washington.

“Washingtonians will need more education and training, not less, as the economy shifts in response to COVID-19,” says Steve Mullin, president of the Washington Roundtable, an association of senior executives from the state’s major employers.

A flexible plan can help you adapt to unexpected situations and open options for the future, Meotti says. “If you stay on the path, five to 10 years from now you’ll be much better off if you’ve earned a degree or credential.”

Meotti notes, “It’s not too late to apply for college or financial aid. There are resources and opportunities out there for Washington students.” While the enrollment deadline has passed for most of Washington’s four-year schools, students can apply for enrollment at two-year colleges right up until classes start.

Washington Student Achievement Council is a state agency focused on increasing educational opportunities and attainment in Washington.(Provided by Partnership for Learning)

Explore education options

Where to begin? WSAC’s online College and Career Compass tool allows you to explore career fields and where to get the education necessary — whether at a four-year university, two-year college, certificate program or apprenticeship.

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For example, you can discover which nearby schools offer dental assistant programs, then limit results to online, evening or transfer programs. Find out about a program’s length, prerequisites and the credential(s), such as a certificate or degree, offered.

Parents can use Compass to broach the subject of college with their student, too. Parent participation in the planning and enrollment process is helpful, says Mauricio Majano, the College and Career Access Specialist at Highline High School — particularly as the financial aid application requires parental assistance and information.

Then, start investigating schools. The Compass tool can help connect you with specific programs.

Schools offer a variety of resources to help students. For example, the University of Washington is providing online admission information sessions and self-guided virtual tours. Edmonds Community College offers video tours of residence halls. Highline College’s academic counselors are working from home while answering questions and assisting with course choices. Several other campuses are offering virtual campus tours.

College: Coming up with the cash

Many students encounter challenges paying for tuition, books and other costs related to degree, certificate and apprenticeship programs, but resources exist, and there is still time to access them.

Don’t buy into any rumors about missing the financial-aid boat, Meotti notes.

The state Washington College Grant has additional funding to support more families, even partially covering tuition for families making up to $97,000 a year. The grants support students attending in-state public colleges, universities, two-year schools, private colleges, apprenticeships, and other career training programs.

“School won’t necessarily mean an additional cost, because there is financial aid available,” Majano says.

Filling out a financial aid application (either a FAFSA or WASFA) is required to gain access to the Washington College Grant, among other aid opportunities. If you’ve already filed a FAFSA and your financial circumstances have changed, you can appeal for a review through the financial aid office of the school you are planning to attend. For example, if a parent has lost a job since you filed your FAFSA, you may be eligible for additional financial assistance, according to both Meotti and Majano.

Spokane Community College faculty member. (Photo courtesy of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges)
Spokane Community College faculty member. (Photo courtesy of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges)

Getting help

Navigating the financial aid process can be challenging. To help students, WSAC has launched a free financial-aid support texting service, called Otterbot. The Otterbot can be reached anytime by simply texting “Hi Otter” to 360-928-7281. If you have questions that can’t be answered by the automated system, your request goes to a human who can help.

Otterbot is just one of the tools available on the Plan Your Future page from WSAC. The page also provides information on scholarships and planning resources, as well as handouts available in a variety of languages.

It’s also wise to talk to a trusted adult — whether a parent, teacher or school counselor — particularly about affording school. They may be able to point you toward resources or help you think through the pros and cons.

“Don’t feel like you have to think about education or training after high school alone,” Majano says. “Your advisers are being paid to answer your questions, so come talk to us. Make us work for it. That’s what we’re here for.”

Tip: Community and technical colleges are usually open to anyone with a high school diploma or GED — no SAT or ACT scores required. Students can complete the first two years of a bachelor’s degree, pursue bachelor’s degrees in specific fields such as real estate, or receive the training necessary to jump directly into a job.

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.