“I don’t know what I want to do with my life.”

“I have no motivation or money to get the education I need.”

“I’m worried I will be in debt with student loans for the rest of my life.”

“All new things, even trials, sharpen you and make you better.”

“I am very confused because I am unsure of what path to take.”

“I feel exhausted.”

The country has only begun to reckon with what the future will hold for the 7 million high school graduates from the classes of 2020 and 2021 — those young adults who graduated into a pandemic. But the responses to one open-ended question in a recent Strada Public Viewpoint survey offer a glimpse into how they feel about education.

We already know these two graduating classes are less likely to pursue postsecondary education of any sort: Enrollment is down at four-year colleges and universities, at two-year programs, and in vocational training. Also troubling is the sharp decline in postsecondary education enrollment from students attending high-poverty high schools.

For new research that will be released Wednesday, Strada and its research partner, Heart + Mind Strategies, recently surveyed more than 1,200 graduates from the classes of 2020 and 2021. The grads selected for this survey are disrupted learners — those who had planned to continue their education but decided not to because of the pandemic.

Strada researchers and guest panelists will discuss how to better serve these young adults in a webinar scheduled for 2 to 3 p.m. EDT Wednesday.

“As we’ve watched and studied how the pandemic disrupted the lives and education plans of our youth, I’ve been drawn to Langston Hughes’ poem asking ‘What happens to a dream deferred,’” said Dave Clayton, a senior vice president at Strada Education Network. “Our team designed this research to learn how to help these disrupted students reconnect with their hopes and dreams.” 

The latest Strada Public Viewpoint research explores what disrupted learners believe would be most instrumental in helping them move ahead and enroll.

Their responses to a concluding question in the survey bring their circumstances to life: What three words would you use to describe how you feel about getting more education in the future?

Here is a sampling of their responses:

“Confused, obligated, stressed. I’m confused as to what I want to spend the rest of my life doing and don’t want to go into debt straight out of high school for something I probably won’t end up doing. I feel obligated because the only real way to make livable money is to get a higher education after high school unless you go into trades. I’m stressed because I have no money or family to help me pay for the high cost of college and this last year I haven’t made good enough grades.”

— Class of 2021, West Virginia 

“Overwhelmed: There are so many possible programs and colleges to choose from that it feels like too much to handle. Concerned: I am concerned about not making the right choice or not being able to afford college. Frustrated: With COVID, it’s hard to visit colleges.”

— Class of 2021, New York 

“Worried, finance, helpless. I’ve been very worried about my education lately because my grades went down tremendously since COVID, and I know that I won’t be able to get into what I used to want to. I’ve also been struggling financially and so has the rest of my family since COVID. I’ve been feeling very hopeless since the beginning of all of this, and I’m sure lots of other teens my age have been too. Everybody is.”

— Class of 2021, Wisconsin 

“Needed, unmotivated, and unaffordable. These words because I need more education for the job I want but I have no motivation or money to get the education I need.”

— Class of 2021, Louisiana 

“Successful, achieving, and overcoming. I picked these words because if I went to college I would do the best I possibly could and was able to do all of the time.”

— Class of 2020, Michigan 

“Annoyed, overwhelmed, indecisive. Post-high school education in America is very expensive, not accessible, and may not even be the right path for the lifestyle one wants. It feels as if it is the only choice but pointless at the same time. I don’t want to waste all my time and money on an education that gets me a career I don’t even enjoy.”

— Class of 2020, Arizona 

“Confused, naive, and scared. I chose these words because I don’t know what I want to do with my life, I am still young. Also I wasn’t taught enough about being an adult. And I’m scared about what the future will hold.”

— Class of 2020, Texas 

“The three words I would choose are concerned, worried, and anxious. I say that because I have no idea how I would pay for future education, and I struggle with my mental health and family issues. All of it makes thinking about trying to go to college hard.”

— Class of 2020, Pennsylvania 

“Worried, for health reasons and for the obvious ones too, such as debating whether I’ll be successful or not. I’m also worried to undergo such a huge change. Frustrated by the lack of movement in the last year, and the lack of support for people going into college during this time. And finally, tired. Tired of having to work 10 times harder than everyone who came before us just to accomplish the same thing, because we have to jump through a million hoops to be able to do even the simplest things.”

— Class of 2020, New Hampshire 

“Stressed, nervous, worried. I struggle to find a career path that I’m passionate enough to go into debt for. I want to go to college, but can my mental health handle all of that? The stress of work, deadlines, and debt? Absolutely not. But I can’t get a good job without a degree.”

— Class of 2020, Kentucky 

“Excited, hopeful, confident. These words are pretty self explanatory, but I chose them because no matter what the future holds, I’m excited for it. After all, new things, even trials, sharpen you and make you better. It could be good or bad but either way I’m going to learn and improve even if it’s not in the way I had exactly planned it. It will still all work out for me, and I am confident in that.”

— Class of 2021, Iowa 

“The three words I would use are excited, nervous, and worried. I picked excited because I am ready to start my career and going to college is that first step. I chose nervous because I was never that good in school and I’m nervous the experience will be difficult and stressful for me. Lastly, I picked worried because of my financial situation. I don’t have money saved up for college and I’m worried I will be in debt with student loans for the rest of my life.”

— Class of 2020, North Carolina  

“I feel exhausted.”

— Class of 2020, Alaska