The promise of opportunity fills Room 241 inside Post Falls High School. The walls are a collage of college pennants. University brochures and scholarship packets abound. Computers are set to explore degree programs or campus housing options.
In a state where less than half of high school graduates move immediately on to higher education, counseling hubs like this are the front lines of a desperate push to turn more teens toward college or career-training programs.
Cathryn Coley is one whose future changed when she walked through the door. The Post Falls senior plans to attend North Idaho College in the fall — something she didn’t consider possible just a few months ago.
“I didn’t even think I could go to college at first. I didn’t think there was anything out there for me,” said Coley, 18.
At the start of the school year she had just moved from Alabama, where the prospect of college seemed elusive. She and her mother would chat about it now and again, but “once we started talking about money, we’d get stuck and we’d eventually drop the conversation,” she said.
At Post Falls High, Coley found herself in a very different academic environment.
“Grades, grades, grades — everyone was talking about college,” she said. “I’m like, OK, there’s no way I was going to make it.”
Then she spoke with the school’s Near Peer mentors: recent college grads hired to guide students to college or other postsecondary programs. They help kids explore career options and fields of study, and walk them through admission, financial aid and scholarship applications.
Coley applied for federal student aid and was awarded a Pell Grant to cover her first year at NIC. She also qualified for several scholarships.
“My mom cried,” she said. “She was so excited. No one in the family has gone to college. I’m the first one.”
WIDE GAP IN EDUCATED WORKFORCE
In 2014, about 63 percent of American high school graduates were enrolled in college in the fall.
But for years Idaho has ranked at or near the bottom of all 50 states in sending students on to postsecondary education. From the class of 2014, just 47 percent were in college that fall. The rate rose to 52 percent within 12 months after high school.
The “go-on” rate in Idaho fell between 2012 and 2014 — a discouraging trend for state education leaders under pressure to prepare students for the demands of an evolving workforce.
“We’re not where we want to be,” said Blake Youde, spokesman for the Idaho State Board of Education.
In 2010, state officials set an ambitious goal: By 2020, 60 percent of residents ages 25 to 34 would have a postsecondary degree or certificate. But with four years left to go, only 40 percent of people in that age range meet the educational benchmark.
And studies indicate that within the next few years, close to 70 percent of the workforce will need to complete college or other professional training programs to be employable, said Blake Youde, spokesman for the Idaho State Board of Education.
“What we hear now is urgency,” he said. “It’s not employers running away from our state or saying Idaho is not a good place to do business. I think on the contrary they think it’s a great place to do business, and they are impressing upon us the need to help them here with the workforce.”
WHY DON’T MORE IDAHO STUDENTS GO TO COLLEGE?
Family influence is a big reason.
“Idaho traditionally has not had a high go-on rate, so now it becomes a generational issue,” Youde said. “You know, ‘My parents didn’t go and they both got jobs, therefore I don’t need to go and I can still get a job.’”
Byron Yankey, who also works at the State Board of Education, manages the College Access Challenge Grant in Idaho. The federally funded project helps low-income students prepare to enter and succeed in postsecondary education.
Religion also plays a role in Idaho’s low rate of immediate transition to college. About a quarter of the state’s residents belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and high school graduates from Mormon families traditionally serve as missionaries for up to two years.
And those who enter military service out of high school are not captured in the go-on rate, even if they receive training that can lead to a career.
Financial constraints also keep many students from moving on. Most young people know they can boost their lifetime earning power with a college degree or professional certificate, but they still get lured by the short-term gain of entering the job market right after high school.
Young men especially are tempted to forgo college for an immediate wage, Youde said. And when the economy is improving, college enrollment dips all around as hiring picks up, he said.
Graduates who postpone college plans are at greater risk of never enrolling.
“The more years they’re out of high school, the less likely they are to go,” Youde said.
Idaho is a big state with institutions of higher education concentrated in a few population centers. Moving away from home to attend college or vocational school is a financial and social obstacle for quite a few teens.
“Many of our students ... are site-bound, meaning that they typically do not move far away from their hometown or their families,” Yankey said.
‘SUMMER MELT’ SHRINKS COLLEGE-BOUND POOL
Sandpoint High School employs a Near Peer mentor to work alongside Jeralyn Mire, the postsecondary transition counselor. While other school counselors focus on graduation requirements and other issues, Mire is all about where students go after high school.
“We’ve been at this for eight years,” she said.
Each year the school surveys its graduating seniors about their plans. Between 75 and 80 percent say they intend to enroll in a two-year or four-year college, pursue technical training or join the military. But not all are able to follow through.
“We call it the summer melt,” Mire said. “They’ve applied, they’ve been accepted, they’ve completed their (financial aid application), and something happens over the summer. They just don’t get there.”
And so the school’s go-on rate drops down to 60 to 65 percent — still better than the state average, but not as high as Mire would like. And she knows that some of these students abandon their college plans over minor bumps in the road.
Mire has worked with students who find the financial aid procedure too stressful and frustrating.
“It was so complicated ... they just gave up,” she said.
Others lack support at home and are too intimidated to reach out for help, she said.
“There’s a lot of help at the college level, but I think they don’t know who to turn to, and they don’t know how to advocate for themselves.”
MAKING IT FUN, LESS STRESSFUL
Post Falls High School is in its fourth year of using two full-time Near Peer mentors. They meet one-on-one with students, including all juniors and seniors, about college and career plans.
Their room halfway down a second-floor corridor is casual and inviting, with floor bowling, a mini-fridge for snacks and a microwave. Students kick back on a sofa as if they were lounging inside a dorm.
They call the mentors by their first names, and they can win gift cards and raffle prizes for dropping in and completing tasks along their journey to college or career training.
“We try to keep it low-key, low-stress, kind of fun — so they’re not afraid to come in,” said one of the mentors, Tiffany Beebe, who has a bachelor’s degree from the College of Idaho in Caldwell and a master’s from King’s College London.
Last year, 61 percent of Post Falls seniors completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which determines grants, work study and loan amounts, as well as how much a family is expected to contribute to college costs.
It can be an intimidating exercise.
“They’re afraid of the costs,” Beebe said. “We still encourage them to apply just to see what they’re offered. A lot of them don’t know what’s available and are surprised when they see they qualify for the Pell Grant or need-based scholarships.”
Those scholarship wins are announced on the wall outside the door of the Near Peer room, along with a map showing where seniors are headed after high school. It’s an effective marketing device.
“Other students walking through the hallway are seeing that map,” said Katalina Chacon, a Near Peer mentor and an Eastern Washington University graduate, “so they know these students are going somewhere.”
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Boosting high school advising, other efforts
Idaho is trying to smooth the path to higher education with measures to simplify how to prepare, enroll and pay for it. Some ideas:
▪ Direct Admissions gives high school seniors a jump on being admitted to the state’s public colleges or universities. In November, students receive letters telling them which of the schools have pre-accepted them based on their grades and college entrance exam scores.
▪ The Opportunity Scholarship provides resident students up to $3,000 a year for costs not covered by grants and scholarships at any of Idaho’s eight public and three private colleges and universities.
▪ The state set up a one-stop shop, at nextsteps.idaho.gov, for making the leap to college. The website walks families through the whole process from as early as the eighth grade. It includes tips on taking dual-enrollment and advanced-placement classes, preparing for the SAT or ACT exams, and navigating the labyrinth to grants, scholarships and loans.
▪ Idaho funded pilot projects to strengthen high school college and career advising programs. Lawmakers this year voted to have school districts report on the impact of these programs. Gov. Butch Otter recommended and legislators approved spending $5 million to expand college and career advising.
Culture matters: How Coeur d’Alene does it
The Coeur d’Alene School District has worked to create a school culture where students early on are exposed to the importance of college or other educational opportunities after high school, Coeur d’Alene Superintendent Matt Handelman said. Coeur d’Alene Public Schools have the highest composite SAT scores of the 10 largest school districts in Idaho.
“We start with the premise that every student, regardless of his or her life circumstances, should and will be given the tools and opportunities … to enable them to pursue and realize a dream of going to college,” Handelman said.
Teachers and staff are encouraged to wear or display their college colors. Career exploration begins in middle school. And all students in grades nine through 11 take the PSAT, a preliminary version of the SAT.