How to fund a Covid gap year?

A national report came out last week on how students are faring three years after the Coronavirus pandemic. The picture it pains is alarming. Our older students are not all right.

The Center on Reinventing Public Education began sounding the warning bell last year with its inaugural report on the State of the American Student. It chronicled the pandemic’s devasting on learning and recommended fundamental changes to prevent this situation from happening again.

With this year’s report, decibel levels have risen. High school students are running out of time to recover. However, CRPE offers bold ideas to prevent the warnings from becoming clangs of doom and get teens back on course as they enter adulthood. They include blurring the lines between high school and post-secondary education. Some examples include offering meaningful high school study that extends into the community through apprenticeships and internships and expanding dual-enrollment programs that offer the chance to earn college credits.

The report acknowledges that those reforms may be too late for some members of the COVID generation who recently graduated or who are set to receive diplomas in the spring. Underclassmen are also at risk of failing to make up lost ground as federal COVID relief funds end in 2024.

The report recommends establishing community “gap year” programs to help these students find their path to success.

The idea was first proposed by Tom Kane and Sean Reardon, professors at Harvard and Stanford universities, respectively. They wrote in a New York Times opinion piece about the value of an optional fifth year of high school in which students could divide their time between high schools, community colleges and employers to fill holes in academic skills, get help applying to colleges or explore career paths. They also suggested making ninth grade into a triage year for students to receive intensive help in key subjects.

But one challenge lies in funding such programs, which CRPE recommends that governments subsidize. The other challenge is making students see value in these programs. Research suggests that for post-secondary programs to be successful, they would have to look different from traditional community college remedial courses that cost first-year students time and money and cause many to drop out.

The basic problem: Students can languish in remedial programs attempting to fill gaps in their academic preparation without making meaningful headway toward a degree or industry credential.

“There is no shortage of proven solutions and ideas to help us shift course, but they require leadership, vision, determination and most of all, urgency,” CPRE Director Robin Lake wrote in the report’s final remarks.

A program that CPRE cited as worthy of public investment is CUNY Reconnect, which received $4.4 million from the New York City Council when it was launched last fall. The initiative surpassed its initial goal of re-enrolling 10,000 students who earned some college credit but left before earning a degree or were unable to enroll due to the pandemic.

We would offer a different solution that could help students take ownership for their post-graduation success and give them resources to chart their own path.

Give students grants that they could use for tutoring, postsecondary courses, or a mix of other learning experiences that meet their individual needs. For states that already have education savings account programs, that could mean simply letting students use remaining funds in their accounts after they graduate.

There are any many paths to postsecondary success, and individual accounts would let students find the right one for themselves.

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BY Lisa Buie

Lisa Buie is senior reporter for NextSteps. The daughter of a public school superintendent, she spent more than a dozen years as a reporter and bureau chief at the Tampa Bay Times before joining Shriners Hospitals for Children — Tampa, where she served for nearly five years as marketing and communications manager. She lives with her husband and their teenage son, who has benefited from education choice.