Reconnecting to College for the High School Classes of 2020, 2021

Insights from National Experts

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Key Findings


Experts identified many barriers to college enrollment that the classes of 2020 and 2021 have been facing, but the three that are perceived to be most disruptive are the pressures of current family finances, additional structural barriers on the college prep path, and the increased emotional stress students are feeling.


Potential solutions identified included providing increased financial and emotional support, improving communication with students and families, and ensuring that education options are flexible enough to meet students’ needs.


Hearing from the students themselves will be critical to understanding their needs and how best to help them get back on a college and career pathway.


From its onset in early 2020, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has upended life across the world, leading to uncertainty around health, work, finances, education, and a host of other issues. For some, the pandemic has led to adaptations or delays in their life plans. For others, COVID-19 has fundamentally altered their life trajectories. Of vital interest to Strada Education Network and stakeholders across the country is the sharp decline in postsecondary education enrollment from students at high poverty high schools.

In order to inform solutions for how to reconnect with young adults whose education plans have been disrupted, Strada Education Network is conducting a multiphase research study with high school graduates from 2020 and 2021. The research will be centered on the learner perspective and will include a large-sample online quantitative survey, as well as in-depth, personal interviews capturing in video the personal stories that bring to life the challenges these students are facing.

To help prepare and guide the research, Strada convened leaders from across the nation to share their perspectives and experience with this issue. We are grateful for their enthusiastic and insightful participation.

The input from these national experts will inform the questions that will be asked of the learners themselves in the subsequent phases of the study. In addition, the expert feedback will be used to guide the structure of the research to help ensure that the recommendations that emerge are actionable for institutions and leaders across the country.

“Young people desire and need to work for the income. Many 18-year-olds are working full time or near full time.”

Perceived Drivers of Declining Enrollment

The key objective of the research is to identify and understand the relative influence of the key drivers behind reduced enrollment. Our national experts brainstormed to develop a list — based on their experience and observations — of the key barriers and challenges students are facing and then collectively prioritized what they see as the relative influence of those barriers and challenges.

The large number of barriers and challenges identified is striking — there are many factors converging to make enrollment more difficult. In the eyes of these experts, however, there are three issues that clearly rise to the top: the pressures of current family finances, additional structural barriers on the college prep path, and the increased emotional stress students are feeling.

Based on what you are seeing, what you have learned, and your experience in higher education, what do you see and believe are the underlying drivers causing this to happen?

“Impact of rising cost of attendance and how financial aid has not kept up with the increase.”
“We need to be mindful of the huge gap between K-12 and PSE – segments in education are siloed and do nothing systemically to support seamless transitions.”

“Exhaustion, mental health, burnout and a sense/fear that things won’t ever go back to normal.”

Potential Solutions to Top Barriers

Many of the perceived barriers fell into three main categories: family financial pressures and needs, emotional stress, and a general disconnect from the college pathway. We asked our experts to identify some potential solutions that might address each of these challenges.

Based on your experience, what do you think are some of the actions or steps that might be taken to address these challenges or barriers?

“Resources for a new generation of COVID micro grants that equip institutions to intervene and retain students at junctures where they might leave.”

Address Affordability

  • Increase award size and access to financial aid programs.
  • Develop easy to follow information related to student loan programs.
  • Increase availability of “earn as you learn” programs.
  • Redefine perceptions around what postsecondary education looks like, and ensure institutions adapt to new lifestyle realities (i.e. offering flexible schedules, evening classes, online classes, etc.).
  • Provide clear information on the value of postsecondary education, and link degrees/credentials with career pathways.
  • Develop stackable credentials so that there is more immediate earnings payoff along the way to a degree.
  • Develop new ways to interact with potential students, and ensure parents are also involved in the decision; consider peer groups, mentorship programs, and community networks.
“Clear information on ROI – by degree, by school.”
“Additional investment in peer mentors and learning communities.”

Support Emotional Wellbeing

  • Increase access to community resources, including online counselling, peer mentors, and learning communities.
  • Develop programs that enable students to have greater social interactions both in and out of school.
  • Provide as much clarity and consistency as possible, as uncertainty is a major source of stress for students.
  • Develop clear pathways for postsecondary enrollment so the college pathway becomes less burdensome and a way for students to take control.
  • Cater postsecondary education schedules to the students’ lives.
  • Make a greater investment in high school counselors and college counselors.
  • Train faculty on how to support students in postsecondary education pathways and mental health.
“More investment in counseling and advising services to address students’ socio/emotional needs.”
“High Schools and Community Colleges could jointly offer college launch (or relaunch) centers, providing a place and opportunity for folks who are already out of high school who want to consider or reconsider college.”

Reconnect Students to the College Pathway

  • More summer programs to help students get up to speed for postsecondary education life, while also providing a place for socializing 
  • More clear and direct communication from schools to students, parents, and guidance counsellors
  • More creative initiatives to get students engaged with other individuals, including other students and mentors
  • Develop materials that have clear and distinct pathways not just to college but also to careers to make planning simpler and allow for greater perceived ROI on postsecondary education
  • Reevaluate the necessity of each of the typical steps in the enrollment process, including standardized testing, applications, etc. 
  • Develop ways to identify those that are likely to fall out of the pathway and generate targeted communications and assistance to those students
  • Increase the value of virtual interactions between prospective students and postsecondary institutions
“Increase options for work-based learning, job shadowing, so connections between post secondary education and training is experientially contextualized so the why gets clearer.”

What’s Next

These identified drivers and potential solutions will help to frame the learner-centered research. In May, we will field a quantitative survey of approximately 2,000 young adults from the high school classes of 2020 and 2021. Through this survey, we will compare the perceptions from our national experts with those of graduating high school seniors to help identify potential underappreciated drivers that need additional focus as well as the potential solutions that students identify as most helpful. This survey will be followed by an online focus group and in-depth interviews with students in order to bring to light some of the stories behind the quantitative findings.

Participating Experts

John Barnshaw – Vice President for Research and Data Science, Ad Astra and research affiliate, College Crisis Initiative

Michael Baston – President, Rockland Community College

Beth Bean – Policy Director, Office of Governor Jared Polis at State of Colorado

Shawn Bohen – Social Impact Strategist; formerly Chief Transformative Impact Officer, Year Up

Bridget Burns – Executive Director, University Innovation Alliance

Ben Castleman – Associate Professor in the Economics of Education, University of Virginia; Director, Nudge4 Solutions Lab

Mahnaz Charania – Co-Director of Social Capital Research, Clayton Christensen Institute

Matt Chingos – Vice President, Education Data and Policy, Urban Institute

Alex Cortez – Managing Partner, Education Portfolio, New Profit

Wil Del Pilar – Vice President for Higher Education Policy, EdTrust

Corley Dennison – Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, West Virginia Department of Education

Kai Drekmeier – Founder and Chief Development Officer, InsideTrack

Jason Engle – Dean for Organizational Learning, Columbia Basin College

Jill Frankfort – Co-Founder, President, Persistence Plus

David Hawkins – Chief Education and Policy Officer, National Association for College Admission Counseling

Pam Horne – Former Vice Provost for Enrollment Management, Purdue University

Nicole Hurd – Founder and Chief Executive Officer, College Advising Corps

Nancy Lewin – Senior Director, ACT Center for Equity in Learning

Matt Lopez – Associate Vice President of Enrollment, Arizona State University

Elizabeth Morgan – Director of External Relations, National College Attainment Network

Mary Parker – Vice President for Enrollment Management, Kent State University

Anne Stanton – President, Linked Learning Alliance

Becky Takeda-Tinker – Chief Educational Innovation Officer, Colorado State University System


Nichole Torpey-Saboe

Director of Research

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