Young people in the Wenatchee Valley are the future skilled trades, business and agricultural leaders, and health care workers of our community. Many rely on financial aid and scholarships, as well as academic advising and other resources to help them navigate their post-high school education.

As the pandemic stretches on, these students — and the tens of thousands like them across Washington state — need expanded supports to get and stay on track toward earning a credential, such as a degree, apprenticeship or certificate.

As the state Legislature begins the 2022 session, which will include decisions about spending federal COVID-19 relief aid and increased state revenues, Washington a has prime opportunity to provide essential support for students — and address a growing crisis that started long before the pandemic.

The need is urgent.

Enrollment in Washington’s postsecondary institutions dropped 13% in fall 2020 compared with the previous year, which is nearly double the 7% drop nationally.

Enrollment drops have been particularly concerning among first-year students and students from low-income backgrounds who are eligible to receive the federal Pell grant. These students have been hardest hit by the COVID-19 economic fallout and are essential to creating a stronger, more equitable economy and a diverse workforce.

But even before COVID-19 became a household phrase, far too few Washington students were successfully making the step from senior year to post-high school education. Although the high school graduation rate has been improving, the percentage of those graduates enrolling in postsecondary programs at two- and four-year institutions has not budged in 10 years. According to a report from the Washington Roundtable, 76% of high school graduates from the 2006 cohort enrolled in postsecondary programs; the estimate for the 2017 cohort dropped to 75%.

This is all happening at a time when most jobs in Washington — particularly those with family-wage salaries and advancement opportunity — continue to be filled by workers who have completed a post-high school credential. That’s why the state set a goal that 70% of adults earn a credential beyond a high school diploma.

Washington was already behind in reaching this goal before the pandemic, and COVID-19 made matters worse. Only 41% of Washington’s high school class of 2017 is expected to complete a credential by age 26. Projected credential attainment among Washington’s Black, Hispanic/Latino and Native American students is even lower.

Bold action is necessary now to increase post-high school education enrollment and credential attainment through state- and community-level strategies.

At the state level, agencies should work together to remove barriers for students to access Washington’s nation-leading financial aid initiative, the Washington College Grant. Additionally, courses that provide high school students with college credit — such as College in the High School and Running Start — should be cost-free for all students. And a comprehensive outreach and engagement campaign should inform students and families — particularly students of color and students from low-income backgrounds — about available pathways into post-high school education, financial aid and other resources.

Within communities, we have growing evidence that partnerships between high schools, postsecondary institutions, and community-based organizations can provide students with the individualized support they need to complete their financial aid applications, plan courses of study, fill out college applications, and successfully start their post-high school educations.

Consider the Student Achievement Initiative (SAI) in Chehalis, where more than 9 of 10 students are graduating from W.F. West High School in four years, compared with about 83% statewide. Additionally, the SAI reports that from 2013 to 2020, the Chehalis School District has increased the percentage of students enrolled in post-high school education directly after high school from 54% to 73%.

Or Seattle Promise, where financial aid for two years of community college plus intensive advising and other supports are leading to significant enrollment increases among graduates of Seattle high schools. Washington’s Department of Education and Early Learning recently reported a 37% three-year graduation rate for the 2018 Seattle Promise cohort, exceeding the average national three-year completion rate of 28% reported by the National Center for Education Statistics.

The Legislature should prioritize support to create similar regional partnerships across the state.

Washington’s economy rises and falls with the education levels of its residents. Our state was already struggling to ensure students have access and supports they need to earn post-high school credentials. As state legislators move their agendas forward this session, prioritizing bold action to enroll more Washington students in post-high school education and see them through to graduation will turn this pivotal moment into long-term benefits and a brighter future for the Wenatchee Valley and for students, families, employers and communities across our state.

Gene Sharratt is former superintendent of the North Central Educational Service District and a current senior research associate with the Center for Educational Effectiveness based in Bellevue.

Sue Kane is director of STEM initiatives and strategic partnerships for the North Central Educational Service District.

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