The pandemic is exacerbating an already wide chasm in opportunity and access to higher education in the Bay Area — and across the United States.
Before the pandemic, only 22% of students from low-income communities nationally earned a postsecondary degree, compared to 67% of their peers from high-income areas.
In the nine-county Bay Area, for adults age 25 and older, only 29% of Black and 22% of Latino people hold bachelor’s degrees compared with 60% of their white peers.
That was before the pandemic, and now it seems that even fewer California students are taking the steps to enroll in college during the coming year, and possibly beyond. According to a recent EdSource article, college financial aid applications from students under 18 are considerably down compared to prior years, with just 314,855 students under age 18 submitting an application (27,522 fewer than in 2020) as of February 15.
One core issue contributing to this degree divide is the lack of access to high-quality college counseling for students, particularly those in low-income communities. Chronic low spending on counselors has led to extremely high counselor-to-student ratios.
In 2011, high school students received an average of only 38 minutes of college advising in their high school career. Since then, some districts that have invested in more counselors have seen improvement in college-going rates as a result, but these investments require tough trade-offs and are harder to make for lower-income districts that tend to have smaller budgets. California is 21st in the nation in per-pupil spending despite its high cost of living, which means districts have to make their dollars stretch farther.
In affluent communities, accessing support to plan postsecondary education isn’t a question — it’s a given. There, well-resourced high schools typically have robust college counseling programs, parents hire private college coaches or students already know what colleges they want to apply to and how to do so.
At this moment when the nation is paying more attention to deeply rooted inequities, we have an opportunity to reimagine what effective preparation for a postsecondary education can look like. We should focus on investing in postsecondary access and success in school districts that have not historically had the resources or vision to do so for every child. Postsecondary education should be the baseline expectation for all students.
This means systematically ensuring that every child, regardless of apparent interest, has access to a high-quality curriculum, advising, mentoring and data that help them make informed decisions about their futures and to apply, enroll and matriculate to a postsecondary institution.
There are many nonprofit and community-based programs that are working toward this goal; 10,000 Degrees and Destination College Advising Corps, for example, both do their work embedded within school buildings, and organizations like the Northern California College Promise Coalition are working to build momentum toward our shared goal of postsecondary success for all.
At OneGoal, the organization I head in the Bay Area, we offer a three-year program that starts as a G-Elective — one of the requirements for entry to the University of California and California State systems — during junior year, and continues through senior year and the first year of post-secondary education.
One of the students who participated in the course was Jorge Ramirez, now a freshman at Sacramento State. He told us that before knowing what his options were, he did not plan to go to college because he wasn’t motivated to enroll, and, more important, he didn’t see how he would find the funds to do so.
After he enrolled in the course in 2018, he learned about the FAFSA, a form to apply for college financial aid from the federal government, and the entire college application process. While he originally wanted to study engineering in college, he discovered his passion once in school and is now working on getting his bachelor’s degree with the goal of becoming a social worker.
Our experience suggests that by embedding postsecondary planning into the school day, along with equipping educators to act as mentors and supporters to students’ journeys, students like Jorge can have an equitable opportunity to attain their postsecondary aspirations.
But reversing chronic divestment requires systematic investment. We must take action now. That will require parents and community members backing and supporting school board members who place a high priority on postsecondary attainment.
It will also require looking closely at their school or district’s strategies for promoting postsecondary success, and advocating for plans that provide all children with support to pursue higher education.
As we’ve seen so clearly over the last year, the people’s voice matters. I hope that people all around the country will rise up to demand that postsecondary preparation be integrated into all schools as a matter of equity, and look forward to the day when a postsecondary degree or credential is a right for all.
Lia Izenberg is the executive director of OneGoal Bay Area.
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