BRANDON — When Brandon High principal Jeremy Klein was asked if his school would join a program that gets students thinking about life after graduation, his answer was an immediate “yes.”

Just 42% of Brandon’s graduating class last year completed the federal financial aid form, a measure educators use to gauge students’ interest in continuing their education. That was 10 percentage points behind the district average and one of the lowest rates among Hillsborough County high schools.

Klein sees that changing soon.

He played host earlier this month as district officials and local nonprofit leaders unveiled the latest initiative to address Hillsborough’s underwhelming college enrollment and federal aid application rates. Just 52% of Hillsborough seniors filled out the federal application last year, trailing Miami-Dade by nearly 10 percentage points.

Brandon High is the second school in the district to get a Student Center of Postsecondary Exploration, part of a program funded and staffed by the Hillsborough Education Foundation. The center is staffed by a foundation employee who helps students plan for their next step after graduation, whether that’s a university degree or trade school.

The path to a career after high school is more complicated today than in prior generations, said Anna Corman, the foundation’s interim chief executive officer. Many jobs require more than a high school diploma to just get in the front door.

Inside the center during the unveiling, pennants from Florida’s public universities lined the wall. Tables displayed fliers from college programs and scholarships. A whiteboard at the front of the room displayed a diagram of post-graduation options: University, Trade School, Military.

The program launched in 2022 at King High in east Tampa, where completions of the federal financial aid form known as the FAFSA have increased by 5 percentage points, according to federal data.

A Tampa Bay Times analysis of a similar program in Pinellas showed that completion rates of the forms increased every time a new college and career center opened at a school. The Pinellas school district added the centers in phases over the last few years and now has one in each of its 17 traditional high schools.

Van Ayres, the Hillsborough school superintendent, has expressed a strong interest in a similar districtwide effort. In a recent presentation to the school board about a proposed special property tax for schools, he said some of the proceeds would be used to put a career counselor in every high school.

At Brandon High, Klein said the new center is part of his vision for improving the school’s less-than-stellar reputation and restoring its status as a pillar of the community. Since taking over as principal, he has pushed the school to attract more students through specialized programs and resources like a food and clothing bank.

“Yeah, we’re still a C school” Klein said, referring to the state’s annual grades for public schools, “but we’re a higher-skewed ‘C’ school than we were four years ago.”

Last year, 88% of Brandon High seniors walked across the graduation stage, according to state data, higher than the district average.

The next step is to focus on post-graduation, Klein said. “Just hearing what (the center) can provide will force kids to think about their next steps.”

Ian Hodgson is an education data reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, working in partnership with Open Campus.

Education data reporter for The Tampa Bay Times in partnership with Open Campus.