Between remote and hybrid classes, the pandemic has drastically altered education for high schoolers this fall and left many students and parents frustrated and dissatisfied. And those feelings could be having a major impact on how many students — particularly those from rural Maine — may choose to go on to college.
As the school day gets underway at Bucksport High School, Principal Josh Tripp welcomes students as they hop off the bus. There was a time when many would have already had their lives planned out: graduate from high school and go to work at the local Verso paper mill. But when it closed about six years ago, hundreds of local manufacturing jobs went with it, and Tripp says it forced students to rethink their futures.
“Kids know that they can’t just walk out these doors, go down the street, and they’re going to have that $45,000-a-year job waiting for them,” he says. “Doesn’t mean that they have to go to college, but they have to have a plan when they leave here.”
To help students with that plan, the school has tried to make applying to college a bit more fun. A few years ago, it launched twice-yearly events where families would pack the gym. There’d be food and raffles for laptops — all incentives to get the families to fill out federal financial aid forms, a critical step in the college application process that’s considered a strong predictor of whether students will ultimately enroll.
“So we’re like, ‘All right, we need to get them just to fill it out,’” Tripp says. “Whether they go on to college or not, we just need them to fill it out.”
But because of the pandemic, students are harder to reach. And Bucksport and other schools across Maine are already seeing worrying indications that the effects could be drastically altering students’ post-high-school plans.
“This huge gap is unprecedented, which we couldn’t anticipate,” says Mary Callan, the project director for GEAR UP Maine, which supports rural students pursue postsecondary education. “So now what? What do we do about that?”
Callan and her colleagues say that assisting students in the college process requires close relationships and one-on-one interaction. But this year, admissions events and field trips to campuses have now been replaced with emails and online presentations as many families are more focused on the immediate stresses caused by the pandemic.
Callan says of the more than 800 high school seniors that her group helped apply last year, more than 40% never actually ended up enrolling in college this fall. That’s nearly double the rate of previous years.
“And that’s going to be very hard to recover, if we can recover it, ever. I mean, that’s a big drop,” she says.
Early indications for this year’s high school seniors aren’t much better. In rural Maine schools, the percentage who’ve completed federal financial aid forms is down by nearly 20 percent.
In Bucksport, senior Ethan Lozier says he does expect to attend college next year and has already been accepted. But he says after months of struggling with online and hybrid classes in high school, he questions the value of college if he can’t learn in-person.
“I’m sure that there are thoughts — they’ve been in my mind,” Lozier says. “Why do I want to go and have online classes like this? And spend many thousands of dollars?”
And remote and hybrid learning have also have had a chilling effect on mentoring. Teachers say that with fewer interactions with students, it can be difficult to even find time to discuss the prospects of college. Bucksport science teacher Katy Hunter says one student with whom she had lunch every day last year isn’t showing up to class this fall.
“Like, she’s fallen off the radar, and it kills me,” she says. “And it doesn’t matter how many times we’ve tried to contact home. It’s just impossible. And it’s sad, and frustrating, because you feel helpless. And you know that this person is very capable, and a good person. I don’t think they realize what this is going to do to their futures. So it’s really hard.”
Hunter says she’s trying out new strategies over the next few months, including texting, to reach seniors. Administrators are also trying to bring in recent graduates to talk to seniors and give them an honest assessment of what remote and hybrid learning have been like on campus this fall.
And on the college side, Mila Tappan of the Finance Authority of Maine says many schools are trying to come up with new incentives to entice students to attend recruitment events.
“Colleges were saying the other day, ‘You know, is it sweatshirts?’ Is that what’s going to get students to come? When they come to an event, if they think there’s a sweatshirt or some other swag from the college? I think we’re gonna see where that line is.” Tappan says.
If this fall’s college application trend continues, education and workforce experts worry that Maine could see a further decline in skilled workers, who will be needed as the state recovers from the pandemic.
This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.