So many students at Willard Alternative High School came to apply for college Thursday morning that there were not enough computers, and students were sent to round up laptops.

This week, 143 Montana high schools have partnered with GEAR UP, a program from the Commissioner of Higher Education that allows seniors to apply to college in the state for free, waiving or deferring the application fees that can be a barrier for some students.

That’s up from the 84 schools in 2013 that offered time during the school day or at a dedicated after-school event to help students with applications. Last year, seniors at 139 schools submitted 3,811 applications.

“Students of all socioeconomic backgrounds struggle to prioritize completion of college applications while balancing schoolwork, extracurricular activities, jobs and their social lives,” GEAR UP Director Zach Hawkins said in a press statement. “College Application Week helps by giving them time and support.”

The commissioner's office coordinates with high schools, colleges, the Office of Public Instruction and others. Many schools throughout the region build upon the event with extra activities and presentations about education and career options after high school.

In Frenchtown, for instance, every teacher and staff member makes a poster to hang beside their door that says what college they attended. They're encouraged to spark conversations about their college experiences.

Students who can answer daily trivia questions about college are entered in drawings for prizes. Seniors are given flexibility to leave classes to complete applications or talk with career counselors. On Thursday, students and staff were asked to “wear college gear or something that represents their future career path,” counselor Beth Terzo said in an email.

“This year we are broadening the focus of College Application Week to include any future planning — military, work, etc.,” she said. “We are encouraging students to come in to complete job applications, work on resumes, and search for scholarships in addition to the college applications.”

As one student turned on her laptop at Willard, she asked a question on the minds of many teens entering their final year of high school and considering college: “I don’t even know what I want to be. Should I be here?”

Counselor Tri Pham encouraged students to consider their applications as giving them flexibility after graduation.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of. It’s super-easy, super-fast. It’s a free application,” he said. “It’s painless. It’s there. It’s an option.”

Tyray Lavoie, 17, expects to take a year off to work after graduating next year so he can “take the smallest student loan possible.”

“I want to be a coder,” he said, adding that he was thankful for the chance to apply for free. “It’s really cool.”

Career counselors from the University of Montana circled the room, helping some students apply to multiple campuses from Bitterroot College in Hamilton to Salish Kootenai College in Pablo.

“It’s probably a good idea for my future,” said Francie Barber, 17, who graduates in June. “I’m going to work full time for a year, then I’m going to SKC. Hopefully I’ll get in to become a registered nurse.”

Sylvianne Wright, 17, is unsure of exactly what she’ll do after graduating in June, but said her long-term goal is to become an architect who specializes in permaculture, designs that make it easier for residents to live sustainably.

“Even if I end up not going to school in Montana, or not going for a year, it’s still a possibility,” she said as she filled out an application to the University of Montana. “If I get accepted now, I know it’s an option.”

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Education Reporter

Education and special projects reporter at The Missoulian.