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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Asha Douglas: Students need legislative action to get back on college and career pathways

By Asha Douglas

By Asha Douglas

Students in the Spokane area are the future computer scientists, educators, engineers, medical assistants and social workers of our communities. Many of us rely on financial aid and scholarships, as well as academic advising and other resources to help us navigate post-high school education. Financial aid and support from counselors, mentors and teachers were vital in my ability to continue my education. As the pandemic stretches on, students across Washington state urgently need expanded supports to get and stay on track toward earning a credential, such as a degree, apprenticeship or certificate.

As the state Legislature makes decisions about spending federal COVID-19 relief aid and increased state revenues, Washington has a big opportunity to provide essential support for students – and address a growing crisis that started long before the pandemic.

Enrollment has dropped nearly across the board at Washington’s colleges and universities during the pandemic as current and future students put their goals on hold. Some of my peers have had to make the difficult decision to leave college because of a lack of support. It can be challenging for students to access the information and guidance we need to earn post-high school credentials, adapt to our families’ changing schedules, overcome technology issues and make ends meet.

Enrollment drops have been particularly concerning among first-year students and students from low-income backgrounds who were 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, 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 good salaries and the chance to get promoted – 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, Latinx and Native American students is even lower.

Bold action can enable more students to start and stay in post-high school education to earn credentials. The Legislature should prioritize strategies like comprehensive, culturally responsive outreach and community navigators to help students and families learn about financial aid availability and the college application and enrollment process. Cost-free opportunities to earn college credit in high school and stipends to prevent emergencies from causing students to drop out are other important ways to support young people in earning credentials.

I don’t think I would have been able to stay in college without financial aid and mentoring. In May, I will earn my bachelor’s degree in English (writing) and plan to pursue a career in the nonprofit sector. I want to see this opportunity to earn a credential expanded to as many Washington students as possible. The Legislature can help make this happen in 2022.

Asha Douglas is a student at Gonzaga University.