Texas education initiative streamlines financial aid info for high school students and counselors

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — A new public-private collaboration by six Texas education organizations will provide new resources and tools to help high school counselors and curb the pandemic’s negative effects on college enrollment, according to a Tuesday press conference held by some of its members.

The collaboration, called the Future Focused Texas initiative, was launched by organizations such as the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB) and the Texas College Access Board, according to the initiative’s webpage. The goal is to provide virtual advising resources to high school students, including 350,000 seniors, in a state where the ratio of counselors to students is 444 to one, according to a press release from the Greater Texas Foundation.

Harrison Keller, the THECB commissioner, said statewide college enrollment is 3% lower compared to last fall and could be 4% lower next year based on the number of FAFSA completions. He said the initiative will hopefully help students who are most at risk of not receiving a post-secondary education, especially Black students, Hispanic students and students from rural communities.

According to THECB data, the total number of Texas FAFSA completions decreased 18% from October 2019 to October 2020. During that same time frame, the FAFSA completion rate—the number of completions divided by the number of seniors enrolled— dropped from 21% to 17%.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been the most significant disruption to Texas higher education since the end of the second world war,” Keller said. “Our high school counselors have incredibly challenging jobs. They’re often tasked with supporting students’ academic planning, mental health, state assessments, in addition to college and career advising. Counselors need easy access to resources that help them advise more students effectively, and students need to have ready access to information and tools that can help answer their questions.”

Over 700 counselors and college access professionals have opted into the initiative, said John Fitzpatrick, the executive director at Educate Texas. He said resources provided by the program include curated weekly content to share with students, helping with FAFSA completion and using social media to alert about applications and deadlines.

Fitzpatrick said one of the ways the Future Focused Texas will lighten the burden on counselors is the use of ADVI, the THECB’s virtual advising tool. He said this system will crowdsource some of the most common or basic questions and allow both students and counselors to get help at all hours of the day through a chat bot.

“Part of what we’re trying to do with Future Focused Texas is to not totally eliminate the… human contact between high school college counselors and students, but to help the counselors do it online,” Fitzpatrick said.

Christina Wallace, a transition coordinator at Rouse High School in the Leander Independent School District, said connecting with students and families and providing the necessary information is one of the hardest challenges in preparing them for college.

“We put out all of the information as much as possible, but it’s hard for us to answer the questions they have before they actually have the questions,” Wallace said. “On the other side of that, our students right now are just trying to keep their heads above water. They’re focused on the right now, which is senior year—already stressful—before you lay COVID on top of that. I think I’m just trying to meet students where they are as much as possible.”

Wallace said students being able to apply for FAFSA is a top priority, as that acts as a gatekeeper for financial aid and the vast majority of their students can’t afford the complete cost of college. She did acknowledge scholarships won’t cover a large portion of a student’s college expenses, as it usually ranges only from $50 to $100.

To begin interacting with the virtual advising tool, high school students and counselors can text COLLEGE to (512) 829-3687.

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