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This week was filled with paperwork at high schools across Montana, part of a statewide push for more students to go to college.

It was College Application Week, a Montana GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) and Office of Public Instruction collaboration to help high school seniors apply for college and fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

All Montana University System, private and tribal institutions participate, either waiving or deferring application fees. While it's called College Application Week, GEAR UP points out that it's to help seniors applying to any post-high school program.

College Application Week launched in 2013 in Montana. That year, 84 high schools participated. This fall, it's up to 138.

In turn, more and more students are submitting college applications: from 1,777 in 2013 to 3,231 in 2015.

The GEAR UP office says it doesn't know how many of those students actually end up enrolling.

According to the Montana University System, 62 percent of 2014 Montana high school graduates enrolled in college the fall semester immediately after graduating, the most recent data available. While that's up from 57 percent in 2004, the actual number is down.

In 2004, 6,236 Montana graduates enrolled in college. A decade later, that was down to 5,714.

Of the 2014 graduates, 49 percent enrolled in-state.

"We do this for the kids who really want to go to college," Willard Alternative High School Program counselor Bonnie Fergerson said during Willard's FAFSA workshop Thursday night.

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The thing is, not every student is college-bound.

On Thursday evening, three Willard students came to school to work on their FAFSA applications – one of the higher turnouts the school has seen in recent years. Willard's FAFSA workshops typically don't get many participants, Fergerson said.

"There was one other year we had a parent come, but last year we were here for an hour and a half and no one showed up," she said.

Every year, about 10 to 15 Willard seniors fill out college applications. This fall, there are about 80 seniors total.

"But I don't push college, because there are so many other avenues," Fergerson said. "There's the Peace Corps, the military, apprenticeships."

Many Willard graduates don't go to college, at least not right away.

"I can't encourage them to go right away if they don't want to," she said. "I can't encourage them to incur debt when they have no money to begin with."

On Tuesday, Fergerson took the students on a tour of the University of Montana and Missoula College's campuses. Missoula College resonated with them the most.

"They made it really relevant to these kids," she said, referring to an example of the diesel technology associate degree, which provides students an array of skills that open up numerous job opportunities.

"They come from a small school, so they often do better at Missoula College. It's a good way to transition and get a feel for it. There's not 150 people in your Psychology 101 class, there's 30 to 35."

Fergerson thought back to her time in school, when trades were encouraged.

"Now we talk about trades like they're a dirty word," she said. "But my brother is an electrician and I bet he makes more money than I do."

College Application Week is "great for kids who want to go to college."

The first year Willard participated, they made every senior apply, even though many didn't want to. They soon stopped that practice, instead focusing on all post-secondary options.

"Society tells kids they all have to go to college," she said. "But when you have a conversation with them, they say, 'I'm not sure college is the best place for me,' or 'I don't know what I want to do.'"

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Friday morning's assembly at Big Sky High School was a sharp turn from Thursday's laid-back get-together at Willard.

Kenny Dobbs spoke to the Big Sky crowd about his struggles growing up, how he overcame the drugs, alcohol and bad choices that plagued his life as a teenager and went on to become known as "the best basketball slam dunk artist in the world."

"Take your wishes out of your mind and put them down on paper," he said. "Create a plan of action."

It kicked off an entire month of related activities at Big Sky, dubbed Post-Secondary Month.

Big Sky's school counselors encourage every senior to fill out a college application, though they're not required to send it.

"We go into all of the (senior) English classes and they have a choice to fill out the application, work on their resume or scholarship applications," said counselor Vanessa Gibson. "But we don't force them to apply."

For some, it's good practice to fill out the application in case they decide to go to college in the future. The counselors also use the Montana Career Information System to do career exploration with all students during the school year.

"It's hard to stay motivated if you don't know what you're working toward," said counselor Heather Williams. "We want them to be successful for life."

Gibson said 52 percent of Big Sky seniors actually go on to college. But that doesn't include the students who take a variety of post-secondary paths.

"Our high school has a population that goes on to a large range of post-secondary options," Williams said. "Some are college-bound, some are trade-bound, some go into the military or two-year schools or straight into the workforce."

It's "not just college," said counselor Aine Franczyk.

"We don't want to pigeonhole every kid into one category," she said. "College Application Week is just one part of that."

For more information, go to mus.edu/gearup/caw.asp.

Source: The Missoulian