Guest Column: Fostering a ‘culture of college’ from Aspen to Parachute |

Guest Column: Fostering a ‘culture of college’ from Aspen to Parachute

Aspen Community Foundation, Board Photo, Mar. 13, 2014
Steve Mundinger |

Spring is in the air, and high school seniors are getting the “fat envelopes,” those letters of acceptance from colleges and universities that help determine the course of their future, at least for the next several years.

Or are they?

While the overall graduation rate for our area high schools is high, little more than half of the students regionally enroll in a postsecondary institution or program. Why does this matter? Well, we know from jobs research and reports that by 2020, 74 percent of the jobs in Colorado will require some kind of postsecondary education, be it a degree or a certificate.

We have a long way to go to meet that bar. Right now, only 1 in 4 Colorado students who graduate high school completes a two- or four-year degree. According to Colorado Mountain College leaders, this is what’s known as the “leaky pipeline.”

Here’s how it works: Take 100 ninth-graders in Colorado. Of those, only 75 will graduate from high school. Of those graduates, 52 will enroll in a postsecondary institution. Thirty-six will progress beyond their freshman year; and just 24 will earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree within six years.

For low-income or first-generation students, the holes in the pipeline are even more drastic. In fact, Colorado ranks in the bottom 10 of all states in sending low-income students to college.

To prepare wisely for the future, we must help local students bridge the gap between high school and the workforce. We must clarify to all students that their educational journey can and should continue beyond 12th grade, and we must give them the tools that tomorrow’s economy will require.

To that end, the Aspen Community Foundation’s Cradle to Career Initiative is hard at work on the Post High School Success Project to move students beyond high school in order to acquire the skills they need to thrive. The way to accomplish this is to create a “culture of college” at every high school in the Aspen-to-Parachute region. By emulating the success of Aspen High School’s college-counseling program, this project will deliver the same services at every high school in the Roaring Fork, Garfield RE-2 and Garfield 16 school districts.

Presently, the only two high schools in our region with full-time, dedicated college counselors are Aspen and Basalt. Launched in 2012 with the support of the Aspen Community Foundation and the Aspen Skiing Co. Ultimate Ski Pass program, the Basalt college-counseling program began by following in the footsteps of Aspen’s, which typically sends more than 90 percent of Aspen High School graduates to a four-year institution. In Basalt, the first graduating class to benefit from college counseling saw an 11 percent jump in college enrollment from 23 percent to 34 percent. (A much higher percentage of Basalt students are accepted to two- and four-year institutions, but enrollment is a separate measure.)

The goal is to replicate these gains by situating counselors in the remaining high schools in Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, New Castle, Rifle and Parachute.

The Post High School Success project, a partnership among Aspen Community Foundation, Colorado Mountain College, Yampah Mountain High School and all four public school districts, envisions a new culture of college and career readiness in each of these schools. We believe it can be a game changer. The Aspen Community Foundation is building a $2 million philanthropic investment to support these counseling positions over five years, at which time the schools will assume full financial responsibility.

Currently, one counselor serves the three high schools in New Castle, Rifle and Parachute. Having a full-time person at each site will be a huge leap forward for Garfield County students who have never before had someone on campus specifically to help them apply, enroll and pay for postsecondary schooling. Most of these students don’t think of themselves as “college material,” and the aim is to change that perception.

Full-time college counselors can help students in many ways. They meet with students, individually and in groups, to show them the range of college options and help choose the right institutions. They also can point students to college fairs, scholarship opportunities and volunteer mentoring assistance through programs such as the PreCollegiate Program, Upward Bound and College Trek.

Giving today’s children a pathway to success will empower them not only to become tomorrow’s business and government leaders but also to lead productive and fulfilled lives.

Tamara Tormohlen is the executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.

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