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With High School Seniors Back In The Classroom, Will More Go On To College?

Three students look at laptops at the Downtown Magnets High School college center, in a room lined with college pennants and computer monitors. Two of the three students sit at a wooden desk, one wearing a t-shirt and one wearing a gray hoodie. The third student is standing and eating a blue sweatshirt. Counselor Lynda McGee is in the background sitting at her desk. Everyone is wearing a facemask.
Counselor Lynda McGee and peer counselors at the Downtown Magnets High School college center during the first week back at school after nearly a year and a half of distance learning, August 19, 2021.
(Jill Replogle
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College enrollment plummeted this past spring amid the pandemic. So did the percentage of high school seniors applying for financial aid, which is seen as a strong indicator of a student's intent to go to college.

Without face-to-face interactions, counselors like Lynda McGee fretted over how to keep even their best students engaged and on track to continue their education.

"It has really killed their motivation," McGee said when I interviewed her in February, referring to students' pandemic-induced isolation and their families' heightened health and financial concerns.

Now, McGee is back at the college center at Downtown Magnets High School. She sits across from a bookshelf crammed with stuffed college mascots, including a University of Connecticut husky and a UC Santa Cruz banana slug wearing a miniature graduation cap.

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On a recent afternoon, McGee talks from behind a plastic divider to a senior in a pink sweatshirt and ripped, baggy jeans. The student is trying to get out of taking a math class this semester. She tells McGee she's planning to enlist in the Navy after graduation.

A bookshelf full of stuffed college mascots at Downtown Magnets High School.
McGee stocks the college center at Downtown Magnets High School with mascots from colleges and universities around the country, hoping to get students thinking about options they may not have considered.
(Jill Replogle

"You know what, we should talk," McGee said, asking if the student has heard of R.O.T.C., the government program that helps pay for college tuition in exchange for military service after graduation. By the end of the conversation, McGee has the girl at least thinking about college.

McGee says this kind of drop-by-to-chat, in-person interaction was sorely missing during the pandemic.

"It would be rare for them to just drop by my Zoom," she said of the students. And even if it did happen, they probably would have their camera off. So I couldn't gauge their body language in any way. And, you know, you alter your conversation, as a counselor anyway, to fit the reaction you're getting."

McGee says not being able to read a student's body language was a huge loss during the pandemic.

Senior Tyler Tran says he's happy to see his friends, but not so happy that teachers can see him. "Usually when you're online and the class isn't too interesting, you can just look at something else," he said, "but now you can't do that."

When it comes to college, though, Tran is on it.

"I have a list of the colleges, some colleges, I want to apply to, and I've started a little bit of the application process," he said.

Tran is one of the peer counselors that McGee has enlisting this year to help all of the seniors here aim for a bright future.

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Jill Replogle covers the pathways to higher education and the obstacles students face along the way.