Giving Thought: Smoothing the transition from school to ‘real world’
A little over four years ago, a collaborative effort commenced to establish dedicated college and career counseling at every public high school from Aspen to Parachute.
A project of Aspen Community Foundation’s Aspen to Parachute Cradle to Career Initiative, the Post High School Success project engaged Colorado Mountain College, all four school districts and other nonprofit partners to help prepare students for life after high school. Until the project launched in 2015, only Aspen and Basalt high schools had a specific college and career counseling program. Inspired by Aspen’s model, which had been in place for more than a decade, donors were interested in supporting the replication of it to high schools throughout the region.
Recognizing that businesses would benefit from more students being prepared for college and career, Aspen Skiing Co. led the charge, committing $500,000 to the project through the Ultimate Ski Pass program offered in conjunction with Aspen Community Foundation. This commitment included $250,000 in matching funds to encourage other business to contribute. Nearly 70 businesses have fulfilled the match over three years in support of the Post High School Success project.
Skico CEO Mike Kaplan explains the investment this way: “Quality education is important for our community and particularly for our employees raising families here. We believe that investing in our children is smart, as it improves our ability to attract and retain employees and leads to stronger citizenship as kids mature.”
There are many ways to invest in local schools, but the Post High School Success project focused specifically on the often difficult transition out of high school and into whatever comes next. Whether a graduate decides to go straight into the workforce or pursue a college degree, a counselor focused on postsecondary preparation can help ensure that the student is set up to succeed, and that the move occurs in the most conscious and cost-effective way.
“It’s really important for our young people to be as well-prepared as they can be for that transition into the real world,” said Mary Ryerson, executive vice president at Alpine Bank, another Post High School Success project supporter. “Those kids can come back to this valley and become contributing members of our community.”
For most Aspen-area kids, high school graduation leads directly to a four-year college or university, but many students at other high schools in the region follow various paths. One of the most important lessons learned through the project is the need to support students who may not choose to attend college but who still need help shaping a postsecondary plan, whether it’s technical training, the military or an apprenticeship in a building trade.
Trevor Cannon, president of Umbrella Roofing in Basalt, has supported the Post High School Success project as a vehicle to help kids not only with college, but also with career and life in general. Not every high school graduate is destined for a four-year degree, Cannon said, and college debt can be a huge burden for 20-somethings who don’t land a high-paying job.
“I really think we’re doing kids a disservice if we make them feel less than adequate for not going to college,” Cannon said. “I can hire a high school graduate and by the time he reaches 23 he can make $65,000 to $70,000 a year.”
As awareness has grown about the importance of college and career counseling and postsecondary education, progress has occurred in related areas too. The Western Slope College Fair introduces students to colleges and universities across the country. The two regional GlenX Career Expos connect high school students with businesses to learn about career opportunities. Students across the region have better access to job shadowing and internship opportunities. At-risk students have more supports to help them graduate successfully, develop postsecondary plans and achieve financial stability. More money also has been directed into regional scholarships to help students who most need them.
The Post High School Success project is in its fourth year and 100 percent of students from Aspen to Parachute have access to a specialized college and career counselor at school. Aspen Community Foundation continues to gather data about the impact of focused college and career counseling and student outcomes. The counselors themselves have formed a peer network, a place where they can learn, share and feel supported. And there is more to be done to ensure that each high school’s college and career counseling program will continue into the future.
By 2021, when the planned philanthropic funding ends and school districts take them on, nearly $1.5 million will have been invested and spent to establish these counseling programs. Thanks to the business partners and other donors who have invested in this important venture.
Tamara Tormohlen is the executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.