Paving new pathways

By Sarah Earle

Changes and challenges lie ahead for college and career readiness

Part Two of a Two-Part Series

To guide students onto viable career pathways, an increasing number of districts are starting young. 

Franklin Middle School counselors Cass Lucas and Jennifer Campbell have been working with eighth graders this year to start plotting career paths, first identifying careers that interested them and suited their personalities, then diving into the high school course guide to map out a route to the career or careers they chose. 

By starting early, young people have time to explore their passions and possible career paths before the pressures of high school hit. The idea is not to lock students into a plan but to create some flexible pathways and help them start developing goals. 

“We do it in a way that’s like, ‘it’s important for you to start exploring, but you don’t have to decide right now what you want to do for the rest of your life,’ ” Campbell said. 

Giving students a sense of direction can also help improve their confidence. “You have something that you’re working towards, you have the tools to get there, and we’re going to help you get there,” Lucas said.  

Research has begun to show a connection between early college and career exposure and student success. One recent study found that middle schoolers who visit college campuses are more likely to begin planning for college than their counterparts who don’t attend campus trips. 

To that end, Congress passed a law in 2018 that allows school districts to use federal money under the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Improvement Act to create career education and training programs in middle schools, and many middle schools have, in turn, begun offering career exploration programs. 

New initiatives are helping students begin their college careers in earnest at a younger age as well. The Drive to 65 Act allows 10th graders to enroll in Running Start courses, giving them a leg up. 

That change paves the way for other innovations. The Community College System is working with CTE centers to devise a Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN) program for high school seniors that would give them an edge in competitive Registered Nurse (RN) programs while also helping them secure an in-demand workplace credential. Students need to complete a two-year Licensed Nursing Assistant (LNA) program before they can enter an LPN program; allowing them to start the LNA program as sophomores opens the door for the new initiative. 

The bottom line

It’s no secret that money is one of the biggest hurdles to college-and-career readiness — and that hurdle appears to have grown in the past year. Enrollments at community colleges have dropped sharply this year nationwide, particularly among male and minority students, and while there’s no single cause, financial hardship seems to be a factor. 

While the pandemic has worsened the financial picture, it’s been far from rosy for some time. Since the 1980s, the price of college has outstripped the rise in wages by a factor of eight

For some students, initiatives such as Running Start may offer sufficient momentum to clear the financial hurdle. But many of the students who could benefit most from early college programs aren’t finding their way to them. 

A few efforts are underway to widen the net for college-bound students. Senate Bill 147, proposed by Sen. Jay Kahn (D-Keene) would require all high school students to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). At a hearing last month, Kahn explained that New Hampshire ranks 30th in FAFSA completions nationwide, with just a 58% completion rate. That percentage is almost exactly parallel with the percentage of high school seniors who go on to attend college, though how closely the numbers are connected is unclear.

“The FAFSA is a key to college entrance, and what we know about the FAFSA is that it is often those who need financial assistance the most who are the most unlikely to apply for it,” Kahn said at a Senate Education Committee hearing on Feb. 18. “That’s unfortunate because it is a key that could open a door of opportunity.” 

Revisions to the FAFSA, designed to simplify the process, are underway as well. 

Earlier this month the Senate also passed SB 148, an omnibus bill that will, among other things, expand dual and concurrent enrollment programs to include career and technical education courses. Presumably, STEM courses offered through CTE centers would be eligible for the Governor’s STEM scholarship, which was defunded in this year’s proposed budget, if and when it returns in some form. 

One of the challenges of budgeting for the program is that those who administer it don’t directly reap the rewards. Currently, only about 10% of students who take Running Start classes transfer them to the Community College System. 

“We really want to improve on that, in the times of rising costs of education and parents really starting to say, ‘hey, wait a minute. We really can’t afford that,’” said Beth Doiron, college access programs director for the Community College System of New Hampshire. Additionally, “We want to keep kids in New Hampshire,” she said. “That’s the bottom line.”

At a crossroads

Meanwhile, New Hampshire’s higher ed institutions are facing financial hardships of their own. Those have come to a head this year with the proposed merger of the University System of New Hampshire and the Community College System of New Hampshire detailed in the Governor’s proposed budget for 2022-23. 

The Governor has pitched the merger as a cost-saving move as well as a way to streamline pathways for students — allowing them to more easily transfer from one college to another. 

Higher education leaders, however, have raised grave concerns about the merger in work group meetings over the past few weeks. 

Among their biggest concerns are the implications for populations who are typically served by the Community College System, including adult learners, New Americans, and first-generation college students, given that mergers in other states have diminished the vigor of community colleges. 

“How are we going to meet the needs of this diverse population of students?” Rep. Mel Myler (D-Contoocook) asked during a House Education subcommittee meeting earlier this month. “That’s the question we need to be asking.”

Part One: Choosing their own adventures