High school seniors face uncertain fall


College application deadlines are fast approaching, yet the next school year is a big question mark, leaving high school seniors in a tough spot. Counselors are still pushing college, and mentorship programs are moving forward virtually, but the uncertainty means that Tomales High School may see more of its 35 graduates stay close to home and enroll at Santa Rosa Junior College, rather than aim for a four-year institution. 

“It’s a big challenge,” counselor Rachael Kobe said. “The process is a lot more intimidating than usual, and it already was tough. I think students are totally struggling.” 

Career exploration days, college knowledge workshops and financial aid tutorials have moved online. Campus tours have been canceled, and one-on-one counseling is taking place on Zoom. Students must explore life after high school at the same time they participate in distance learning, which is working for some and failing for others. 

Despite the challenges, systems of support have adapted to the virtual format. Many scholarships are available, the Shoreline Mentorship Program is plugging ahead with pairing students with adult mentors, and the 10,000 Degrees Institute has enrolled 12 seniors from low-income families in its college success program. 

The central question facing seniors is whether college will be held virtually or in person next fall. The California State University chancellor already announced that all 23 campuses will be closed this spring, and University of California schools will be mostly online, with select courses offered in person. But nobody knows what the pandemic will look like in August 2021, which makes planning difficult for seniors who must apply for college now. The application deadline for the University of California is Nov. 30, and the state university deadline is Dec. 4. Many students are applying to the junior college as a backup plan.

“Most of us are hoping that by our freshman year of college, it’s normal,” senior Max Wessner said. He has applied to several schools across California, hoping to pursue architectural engineering. It’s important for Mr. Wessner to experience living in the dorms, but if he moves in while classes are virtual, that seems like a waste of money. Also, he believes the difference between a prestigious school and a community  college is small if classes are attended from home. He visited campuses in the spring, a strange experience because the grounds were empty. “You had to guess what it was like as a student,” he said.

The Shoreline Mentorship Program typically takes students to colleges across California, but the trip was canceled this year. The 10,000 Degrees Institute also does a three-day college knowledge workshop at the high school, and it was moved virtually. These programs are still sticking with their core purpose—pairing students with mentors—in a virtual format.

Another senior, Misael Gonzales, is hoping to enroll at California Polytechnic State University, but, like most students, he is applying to a range of schools across the state. Keeping up with deadlines has been difficult because it’s tougher to visualize a calendar when counselor presentations are virtual. 

“A lot of my classmates are being overwhelmed with the whole process, a lot of confusion going on. We’d be asking each other when the deadline is and nobody would really know, and that just amplifies the stress,” he said.

While both students are engaged and ready to go to college, that’s not the case for everyone. Ms. Kobe, who works as the college and career counselor at Tomales, wasn’t able to meet with every senior at the start of the year, as she usually does. When school was held on campus, she could easily pull seniors out of class with a hall pass; now, she must email them and hope for a response. She managed one-on-one meetings with 30 seniors, and she has emailed the five she didn’t see multiple times, with no response.

“That’s been hard for me, just realizing there’s only so much I can do,” she said.

Her experience reflects a chronic problem with distance learning: Although most students go to class and manage the workload, there is a segment of students who are falling behind. These students will not ask for help and are not turning in assignments, so teachers cannot assess their comprehension. Students who previously struggled in the classroom are now struggling tenfold, and English-language learners and students with an individualized education program are having an especially hard time, said Becca Bishop, an English teacher and the director of the Shoreline Mentorship Program. Students who managed a D before are now failing. 

These are the students who are more likely to go directly into the workforce, as roughly a quarter of Tomales graduates tend to do, Ms. Kobe said. The estimated 75 percent college-going rate is higher than statewide averages of 64 percent and fluctuates greatly year to year. 

In Ms. Kobe’s meetings with seniors, she stresses that resources are available for graduates who want to continue their education. Because of the school’s small size, financial support in the form of scholarships from the Inverness Garden Club and 10,000 Degrees is easier to receive. 

A community college is also a sensible option: For less than a quarter of the price, students can complete their general education requirements before transferring to a four-year college for a bachelor’s degree. Last year, 42 percent of Tomales graduates enrolled in a two-year program, up from 30 percent in 2019.

Tomales is focused on its college completion rates rather than enrollment rates, because only about half of graduates end up with a degree. A survey of former students found independent living skills, finances and reading levels to be key barriers, and the Marin Promise Partnership is working toward a goal of having 80 percent of graduates complete a post-high school education program by 2028.