For years, I've argued that high school seniors - especially in Philadelphia - should be required to pursue higher-education options. Doing so could be a component of senior projects that are already required.

The new requirement would be simple: Every single graduating senior must successfully apply to a community or four-year college, or to a trade or technical academy. In addition, each senior must complete an application for government financial aid or a scholarship of his or her choice.

This would be a requirement for all seniors, even those who have no plans of attending a college or trade school. Any student who missed the deadline and failed to meet the application requirements would not be eligible to participate in commencement ceremonies.

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Backup plan

Adding these requirements to the senior projects would provide many students with an emergency plan after high school. Too many Philadelphia teens have no concrete, realistic idea of what they will do with their lives after they graduate. Many students have vague "plans," but most of them are not well thought out.

This is why requiring seniors to complete college and financial-aid applications would be so valuable. Come July and August, when a young person's "plan" has fallen through or turns out to be no plan at all, he will have something tangible in his pocket.

With so many youths in the city at or near the poverty level, aid and scholarships are ripe for the picking. More than $100 billion in federal aid for college is available.

Some graduating seniors would get scholarships and admission to schools literally by accident. It would be like casting a fishing line in a river and walking away. When you come back a few hours later, there might be a catch.

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Where's that letter?

I can see it now: The 18-year-old young lady who was supposed to work at her uncle's store or move in with her boyfriend or become a fashion model suddenly realizes things aren't working out the way she had hoped. But, wait a minute, didn't she get accepted to that junior college around the corner?

And then there's that envelope with the letter inside stating she's eligible for $5,000 a year in financial aid. Where is that letter? Better go get it while there's still time!

School guidance counselors would not be the only ones helping students fill out these applications. The Philadelphia School District, in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, has launched the Philly Goes 2 College Campaign. School district employees and other volunteers are visiting schools and helping young people with paperwork as part of the campaign.

With just 18 percent of city residents 25 and older possessing a college degree, now's the time to make applying to colleges and technical schools a districtwide requirement for graduating seniors. Students will learn a valuable lesson on meeting deadlines and have an emergency plan to fall back on.

Christopher Paslay is a Philadelphia schoolteacher. His blog, "Chalk and Talk," is at http://chalkandtalk.wordpress.com.