The past year and a half has been one of unprecedented challenge for New Hampshire’s high school seniors, buffeted as they have been by pandemic-related disruptions and limitations that have ended many of their normal school experiences and no doubt tested their enthusiasm for schooling. That raises a number of concerns, but two foundations have recently announced plans to address a significant one — that, because of the pandemic’s upheaval in their and their families’ lives, this year’s graduates will be less able or inclined to continue their education beyond high school. To address that, the N.H. Charitable Foundation and the Foundation for New Hampshire Community Colleges have teamed up on a more than $1 million commitment to underwrite a “Gift to the Class of ’21” — a free community college course this fall for any of this year’s high school graduates.

The concern is a meaningful one. In a press conference to announce the program earlier this month, Michael Turmelle, the Charitable Foundation’s director of education and career initiatives, cited troubling evidence of significant declines in financial aid and post-secondary scholarship applications and overall lower college enrollment since the pandemic’s onset. The idea of the gift, then, is to encourage reluctant or discouraged seniors to give higher education a chance to see if it’s the right path for them.

Any student graduating from a Granite State high school this year is eligible under the initiative to take a three-credit course this fall at no cost at any of the state’s seven community colleges, including River Valley Community College, which has campuses in Keene, Claremont and Lebanon. The curriculum choice is expansive, as the free course can be in person, online or hybrid and so can be at any of the seven colleges regardless of the student’s location. Also, courses in certificate programs that prepare students to enter skilled trades are included.

In developing the program, the foundations and the N.H. Community College System were guided by a similar initiative launched last spring in Vermont, Turmelle and Charitable Foundation President and CEO Richard Ober said in the press conference. There, the community colleges saw a doubling of enrollment, with very high course completion rate, Turmelle reported. And the Vermont experience points to a win-win for both students and the state: In Vermont, he said, more than 80 percent of the students taking advantage of the program afterward said they wanted to take more courses, and more than half used the program toward short-term certificate and licensure programs. In short, Ober said, the model “became the pathway [Vermont] hoped it would be” for encouraging participants to continue their education as well as for spurring workforce development.

To take advantage of the foundations’ “Gift to the Class of ’21,” New Hampshire’s graduating seniors need only contact the admissions office at one of the community colleges before the fall semester. No standardized tests are required, and the admissions staff will provide course selection and other guidance. Registration for the fall semester is now open and will remain so until a few days before the community colleges’ Aug. 30 start date, but some late-start classes beginning even after that date are also available.

The foundations expect about 1,300 students will take advantage of the free course available through the program this fall. That would be a significant gift indeed to put graduating seniors on a path toward furthering their education and career opportunities and to aid workforce development in the state. The frustrations of the pandemic year may have blunted the ability or interest of some graduating seniors to give higher education a try. The “Gift to the Class of ’21” is a worthy effort to overcome that and help them continue to discover new learning opportunities and career paths.

For more information about the program, visit www.GiveNHCC.org/ClassGift.