Missouri Placed Postsecondary Advisers in Rural Schools. College Enrollment Increased.

On a recent visit to Hollister, Missouri, I attended an event at the local high school called Decision Day, at which hundreds of students, families and local leaders gathered to celebrate seniors’ plans for life after graduation. The outgoing students proudly announced whether they would be enrolling in a college or university, seeking career training or enlisting in the military. It was a joyous day for the families, for the community and for the state as a whole. After all, when students have strong plans for lifelong success, everyone benefits.

Today, as an increasing number of jobs require postsecondary education and training, too few students leave high school with a clear path forward. This has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows undergraduate enrollment across the nation continues to decline – and the situation may be worsening. Already, the number of undergraduates has dropped by nearly 1.4 million students during the pandemic. This issue most affects community colleges, where many rural students – who have already long faced unique barriers to college and career access – enroll.

What’s more: The job market did not offer these same students a better alternative. The unemployment rate among youth spiked to nearly 30% during the pandemic, with nearly 5 million 16- to 24-year-olds neither working nor enrolled in school in 2020.

As national and state education and workforce leaders search for solutions, Missouri – where I serve as commissioner of education – can offer a blueprint for success. Through an expanding initiative that places dedicated college and career advisers in rural high schools, the Show-Me State is working not only to defy national college enrollment and workforce trends, but to reverse them.

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The initiative, called rootEd Missouri, is a partnership among the state’s education department, Ozarks Technical Community College and national philanthropic organization rootEd Alliance.

Launched in 2018, rootEd Alliance partners with local entities to fund, train and place dedicated college and career advisers in rural high schools in various states. These advisers work alongside school counselors to ensure every student has a strong plan for life success after graduation and resources, like financial assistance, to realize that plan.

In 2021, schools with rootEd Alliance advisers saw college enrollment rates increase by an average of 10.5% over pre-rootEd years. In Missouri, specifically, that rate increased by 7.5% across all participating schools and by as much as 14% at select sites. Moreover, one-third of college-bound students at rootEd schools overall recently reported they wouldn’t be going to college if it weren’t for their adviser.

rootEd Alliance began its work in Missouri with a pilot program in eight schools. As a result of its success, Missouri is now scaling the program statewide. In fall 2021, the state announced an initiative to utilize federal relief dollars to expand the program to at least 135 additional rural high schools. And earlier this year, state lawmakers and Missouri Gov. Mike Parson dedicated $9 million in budget funding to keep it growing

The expansion of this proven advising model is critical, now more than ever, as the extensive effects of the pandemic on education and the workforce continue to come into focus. And it’s a support every student, no matter their background or ZIP code, deserves.

Missouri has found dedicated college and career advising, when implemented thoughtfully and intentionally, to be an achievable solution for helping to address the postsecondary pitfalls plaguing the nation. And just as we cheered on the Class of 2022 at this year’s Decision Day event, efforts to set students on a path toward success should be celebrated as well.

Those same efforts also should be scaled. We encourage other states to join us.

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