Needed: More graduates enrolled in college or training after high school

Guest Correspondence

BY JENNIFER VIGNE SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY MAY 1, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic’s impacts on students entering the college and career technical training pipeline are coming into focus, and the data show that we have reasons to be concerned about our short-term and long-term needs.

Two areas in particular call for our attention and action as a community that cares about our young people.

The Helios Education Foundation reported in its April issue that community college enrollment in Florida has declined 14% this year compared to the last academic year. That’s a bigger decline than the 10% drop nationally for the same time period.

Worse, first-time college freshmen enrollment (representing the class of 2020 high school graduates) declined nearly 21.7% nationally.

An inseparably linked indicator of concern is that financial aid applications (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA) are down nationally by 9.4%, according to the February 22, 2021, Hechinger Report.

Community colleges and career technical schools are the affordable and accessible gateway to education after high school for many graduates. With financial aid providing the means for many students to pay for higher education, including traditional college and career technical schools, the combined data present an alarming projection of a high number of young adults preparing to enter the workforce without the education that we, as a nation, need them to have.   

In thinking about the education pipeline, let’s consider how these lower percentages might translate to fewer primary care physicians. Engineers? Math teachers? Cyber security experts? Oncology nurses? Construction managers?

In education, we always are aware that we are supporting tomorrow’s leaders--today. The need for an educated workforce is going to grow, not subside.

We can view this through a local lens. FAFSA info specific to Sarasota County is provided by Thomas Williams, director of PLANit Sarasota, which tracks and reports the data on a month-to-month comparison from year to year.

“Sarasota County has promoted the importance of completing the FAFSA, and in 2020 our county finished first in the state for highest FAFSA completion rate for large school districts,” Williams said.

“However, Sarasota County was down 5% from the previous year, which took us to second place.”

The actual percentages of high school students completing the FAFSA were 46.8% for 2019, 51.5% for 2020, and 46.5% for 2021. Essentially, Sarasota County has rebounded to pre-pandemic numbers, but that’s still less than half of eligible students completing the FAFSA application.

There is a long way to go to catch up to current and future needs. The window to submit the FAFSA application is still open, Williams said, and Education Foundation of Sarasota County and PLANit Sarasota staff are prepared to help.

PLANit Sarasota is a collective of community partners working on campaigns to help raise awareness of the importance of getting a college or career technical education after high school, especially in historically underrepresented populations.

With FAFSA filings remaining down at high schools with more students of color and those who are financially disadvantaged, PLANit Sarasota is focused on awareness campaigns that promote the importance of making plans for life after high school and taking steps to pay for the education they need to achieve their goals, whether it’s a two-year or four-year college or career technical training. 

This is where the community comes in: If anyone knows of students who are graduating and haven’t yet planned or perhaps are thinking of pausing their education beyond high school because of the pandemic impact, please suggest they reach out to any of our Education Foundation advisors or network partners.

We will listen, discuss, and help them consider alternatives and new avenues to get the postsecondary education that they and we, as a community, need. 

One place to start is by going to our web page devoted to this topic: edfoundationsrq.org/planit-sarasota/just-keep-planning/

Thank you for helping us help our students.

Jennifer Vigne is president and CEO of the Education Foundation of Sarasota County.

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