New report finds many recent high school graduates reassessing education plans, focusing on career outcomes, financial considerations

Surveys and interviews with 2020, 2021 high school graduates who postponed their education plans due to COVID-19 also show advising, financial assistance, career relevance are important to bringing students back to campus.

Strada Education Network, a nonprofit social impact organization dedicated to improving lives by forging pathways between education and employment, has released new findings gleaned from interviews with graduates of the 2020 and 2021 high school classes who delayed their education due to the pandemic. The findings indicate that while most of those students ultimately plan to enroll in postsecondary education, their experiences with the pandemic have led them to reassess their education plans and focus more on career outcomes and financial considerations.

These learners recognize the pandemic has changed the world into which they’ve graduated, causing them to reevaluate education, career, and financing options. These insights can shape  how education leaders draw these cohorts back to campus and address equity imperatives.

“The pandemic has caused many of today’s students to feel a significant amount of stress and uncertainty about their future, but the effect of their decisions to delay enrolling in postsecondary education could outlast the pandemic,” said Melissa Leavitt, a director of research for Strada. “These decisions could threaten their long-term socioeconomic mobility — setbacks that could be devastating for low-income learners and students of color. Understanding the disruptions they experienced, the influences that led them to delay their enrollment, and the practices that could bring them back to the classroom is vital to addressing these equity concerns and getting these students back on the path to graduation.”

The report follows a year of steep enrollment declines at both two- and four-year institutions that has disproportionately affected low-income students and communities of color. Enrollment at four-year schools in fall 2020 dropped at a rate that was 4.5 times higher than prepandemic declines, with the greatest displacement of low-income students and students of color. The report points to other signs of increasing equity gaps: Applications for federal student aid for 2021 graduates are down 5 percent nationwide compared to 2020 graduates, a decline that is almost four times higher at schools serving Black and Latino students.

While the report draws the pandemic’s disruption into sharper focus through direct statements from aspiring students — including several video interviews — it also reveals a resilient response to the barriers COVID-19 has presented. Graduates of those high school classes are still committed to their education, and changing their education plans provided an opportunity to reexamine their goals and build confidence in their ability to make their own decisions.

The interviews also provide insights into the incentives that can lead these students back to education. Among them: Providing personalized college and career guidance; removing financial barriers for a population that is now hyperaware of the risks of accruing debt; and infusing career relevance into their education so they feel assured their efforts are preparing them for a good job.

“Disrupted students still see the necessity and value of a college education and the promise it holds for improving their lives,” Strada Postdoctoral Fellow Elaine Leigh said. “They are increasingly focused on ensuring that college is a step toward a career. The pandemic has brought enough uncertainty to their lives. The more certainty they can feel about what their education brings to them beyond completion, the more likely they will be to invest in it.”

The research that informed the report was conducted in three phases. Strada researchers first consulted a panel of experts on postsecondary education and workforce transitions to identify the greatest challenges, ingredients of effective solutions, and important issues to address during the research. The researchers then collaborated with Heart + Mind Strategies to survey a nationally representative sample of 1,000 disrupted young adults between April 30 and May 16. Finally, 17 disrupted learners were recruited to participate in an online, interactive discussion board, and 12 took part in one-on-one interviews. Interviews were conducted in June and July.

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About Strada Education Network

Strada Education Network is a new kind of nonprofit social impact organization, dedicated to increasing individuals’ economic mobility through purposeful connections between education and employment. Our approach combines innovative research, thought leadership, strategic philanthropy and investments, and support for a network of nonprofits. Together, we work to better serve the millions of Americans seeking to complete postsecondary education and training, gain clear value from those experiences, and build meaningful careers. Learn more at stradaeducation.org.

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