John White, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Rural Outreach at the Department of Education, lauds CFES’ pivot to support students and families in the pandemic era.

I made my first trip to the New York Adirondacks to learn about College For Every Student (CFES) on a cool September evening in 2011. I flew into Manchester, NH, rented a car, and drove up to Charlotte, VT, to take a ferry across Lake Champlain to meet Rick Dalton, CEO and President of the nonprofit, now named CFES-Brilliant Pathways.

The sun went down in a hurry that evening, just as I arrived at the dock to catch the ferry. The sky turned pitch-black. I was literally and figuratively in the dark. I was sitting at the end of a road with no guard rails, at the water’s edge alone, and there were no visible signs of evening commuters, transportation, or any activity at all.

I was unsure if I was lost or merely waiting for a guide.

I imagine many of Mr. Dalton’s students feel the same at times when thinking about their futures. They know where they want to go but are unsure about how to get there. And what about returning home again?

Rural students, like the young people attending the small remote schools we visited in the NY Adirondack Mountains, generally graduate from high school at high rates but often do not enroll in college. Overall rural students have the lowest college enrollment rates in the nation.

Mr. Dalton took me on a whirlwind tour through Crown Point, Ticonderoga, and Willsboro to see the college advising and mentoring he hoped will make a difference. CFES was working with elementary, middle, and high school students, supporting cultural exchange with Hawaiian schools, conducting bullying prevention and service-learning programs, and facilitating college visits.

Mr. Dalton, a former college admissions officer at Harvard and Middlebury Colleges, started CFES-Brilliant Pathways 30 years ago. The nonprofit has worked with schools, higher ed institutions, and businesses to help students find their way to college and improve their career readiness.

Partnering with more than 150 schools and districts, rural and urban, in the United States and Ireland, CFES-Brilliant Pathways has helped more than 100,000 students from low-income communities gain access to post-secondary education and career training.

It is really no surprise college and financial aid applications are down year over year. There are many reasons for these drops.

According to a National Clearing House report, since the COVID-19 pandemic began, college enrollment by students from low-income backgrounds has dropped 29 percent, compared to about 17 percent for students in higher-income schools.

Some students chose to take a gap year with schools and colleges moving to online learning. Why pay full tuition for a part-time experience?

According to the National College Attainment Network, the number of rural students filling out the free application for federal student aid has fallen off by nearly 20 percent, which is even more than the 16 percent drop among urban students.

College has been expensive for a long time and navigating the path to postsecondary education and career-training became more challenging during the pandemic. Requirements changed, making the college application process more uncertain. Students needed more support and interaction, but many high school counselors lacked capacity and expertise. Only 25 percent of high schools nationally required counselors to complete professional development in college advising before the pandemic.

More support is needed as students and schools continue to navigate new environments online and in-person. Fortunately, nonprofit experts have partnered with schools to assist educators, students and parents.

When many US schools and businesses closed in the spring of 2020 to slow the spread of coronavirus, CFES-Brilliant Pathways adapted its college and career-readiness training to changing school environments. The organization took its model online to overcome distance and isolation and train school staff, coaches, partners, and parents to help students navigate the college search process, test-optional colleges, and new financial aid considerations. Through virtual workshops, participants began learning from national experts and earning college- and career-readiness advisor certifications from the University of Vermont.

Understanding the need for support will continue to increase, Mr. Dalton set an ambitious goal for the next two years. CFES-Brilliant Pathways has made plans to train 10,000 people in 40 urban schools and 10,000 people in 40 high-poverty rural schools to serve as an army of new college and career advisors over the next 24 months.

If history is an indication of future success, both goals are achievable. Ninety-five percent of CFES students are from low-income backgrounds, 99 percent have graduated high school, and 95 percent enrolled in college.

Mr. Dalton and his team have committed to giving students the confidence to consider the college pathway and the skills to reach their goals.