In an ongoing effort to help high school seniors successfully chart their course after graduation, educators at Northern Arizona University developed the Senior Launch Guide, an innovative workbook designed to inform students, parents, teachers and counselors about postsecondary options and identify steps to get there. Based on its success in Arizona, schools throughout the country are now using the Senior Launch Guide—and modifying it as needed—as a resource to support their students.
Through the Arizona GEAR UP program, a team of educators created the Senior Launch Guide in 2017 to support the state’s students. It has since distributed some 15,000 guides to Arizona seniors. Andrea González Sotelo, associate director of Arizona GEAR UP (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs) in NAU’s College of Education, says the Senior Launch Guide is a practical tool that includes checklists, timelines, worksheets and information about selecting and applying to colleges, as well as forms for pursuing financial aid, scholarships and jobs. The step-by-step roadmap also helps students track their progress as they transition to life after high school.
“Every student in Arizona is required to create an Education and Career Action Plan (ECAP),” González Sotelo said. “However, the process can be overwhelming. The Launch Guide is like having your own personal college and career counselor to help navigate the process. It also offers information about other postsecondary options including technical school, community college, military or the workforce—so whatever choices students make upon high school graduation, the workbook shows them the way forward.”
“We needed a tool, not only for the GEAR UP students, but for the adults working with them,” said Teena Olszewski, executive director of Arizona GEAR UP. “If you want students to go on after high school, they have to know the steps involved. Unfortunately, Arizona has the worst counselor-to-student ratio in the country, 905 to 1, so we developed the launch guide to help students and families know what to do next.”
GEAR UP organizers quickly realized the workbook could benefit students and parents everywhere, regardless of socioeconomic status, as they navigate the process of financial aid, understand the path that best aligns with student interests and determine where and how to enroll to obtain desired skills or achieve educational goals.
“For the schools we partner with, we think it’s a good stand-alone document, but it’s more powerful and effective when educators are using it in workshops aimed at certain groups of students,” González Sotelo said.
Arizona GEAR UP has made the Senior Launch Guide available on NAU’s website, so any educator, parent and high school student outside of GEAR UP’s target schools can use it. “We don’t want to limit the people who have access to it because our mission is about access,” she said.
As a result, the workbook has become a national resource. “Programs in 37 states across the country have downloaded it. Tennessee wants to offer it to every high school senior in the state,” González Sotelo said.
Since 2000, NAU has administered the federally funded Arizona GEAR UP program, which aims to foster partnerships and collaborations between NAU, high-poverty high schools and organizations committed to enhancing education.
In August, the U.S. Department of Education awarded NAU its fourth Arizona GEAR UP matching grant, $31.7 million over seven years, to continue promoting college awareness to students beginning in the seventh grade. College of Education Dean Ramona Mellott and professor Daniel Kain are co-principal investigators on the current grant. Through matching funds from the Helios Education Foundation, every senior in all of the state’s 41 GEAR UP schools will receive a hard copy of the Senior Launch Guide through 2026—this year, more than 6,000 graduating high school seniors received the workbook.
Partners supporting Arizona GEAR UP include the Arizona Business and Education Coalition, Arizona Commission for Postsecondary Education, Arizona K12 Center, Be A Leader Foundation, Center for the Future of Arizona, College Success Arizona, Expect More Arizona, Global Pathways Institute, Helios Education Foundation, National Council for Community and Education Partnerships and the Student Success Agency.
The NAU Innovations team, the university’s technology transfer arm, has been working with the GEAR UP team.
“We worked with them through the protection, clearance and ownership of images, copyright/trademark issues and how to distribute to other groups just as we would for a commercial property,” said assistant vice president Will Aylor. “While the current distribution has not been commercial in nature, GEAR UP has great value. NAU Innovations works with groups like this to make sure we can help in any way to get their work to the intended audiences.”