Anxiety, Uncertainty and Financial Pressure Tied to the Pandemic Have Disrupted the Postsecondary Education Plans of High School Graduates

Disrupted high school graduates cited stress, anxiety, and uncertainty as having the greatest influence on their decision to delay further education — and they say guidance, affordability, and connections to career would help them re-engage.
June 23, 2021

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INDIANAPOLIS — June 23, 2021 — Strada Education Network, a nonprofit social impact organization dedicated to improving lives by forging pathways between education and employment, has released new findings from a Public Viewpoint survey of recent high school graduates whose plans for postsecondary education were disrupted by the pandemic.

Nationally, immediate college enrollment for the class of 2020 declined 6.8 percent — with enrollment among graduates of high-poverty schools seeing four times the decline as those from low-poverty ones — according to benchmarking data from the National Student Clearinghouse. This new Public Viewpoint survey sought to understand the experience of these high school graduates, along with ones from the class of 2021 who also have had their postsecondary plans disrupted. It specifically focused on students who want additional education but decided not to enroll right away.

More than 6 in 10 of these disrupted students of all races and ethnicities cited stress, anxiety, and uncertainty as being “extremely or very influential” in their decision to delay. Well above half also cited financial pressures, with Latino students most likely, at 62 percent, to say those pressures played a role. Health and family obligations also were major factors, with Black students more likely than others to say that health risks (43 percent) or needing to care for a family member (32 percent) had a major influence on their decision to delay education.

Disrupted graduates from the Class of 2021 became disconnected from the college-going process at an earlier point than those in the Class of 2020. Among disrupted students in the Class of 2020, 4 in 10 had received an acceptance letter and applied for financial aid, while only 23 percent of those in the class of 2021 received an acceptance and 29 percent applied for aid. 

“The high school classes of 2020 and 2021 have experienced massive disruption to their educational experiences,” said Dr. Dave Clayton, senior vice president at Strada Education Network. “In order to help those students reconnect, educators and policymakers should listen to what those students say they need: better guidance, clear information on education’s connection to careers, and an easier financial aid process.”

Disrupted graduates ranked having an advisor as the most helpful support to pursuing more education. Opportunities to earn and learn at the same time, easier access to financial aid, and clear career pathways also ranked highly. 

Despite this need, many disrupted students say the pandemic has made it harder to find information and guidance about college, with those who are lower-income especially likely to say that is the case. Similarly, only 56 percent of white students, 46 percent of Latino students, and 42 percent of Black students said they know someone who can help them find a way to get the postsecondary education that is right for them.

Additional key findings include: 

  • Most disrupted high school graduates have revised their postsecondary education plans in some way, with 35 percent of students saying they will choose a less expensive program, 31 percent looking for options closer to home, 21 percent a different major, and 18 percent a shorter program.
  • Disrupted Black students are more likely than their white peers to have changed their future education plans—with, for example, 40 percent of Black graduates saying they would look for less expensive options, compared to 33 percent of white graduates.
  • 69 percent of disrupted graduates still believe that additional education would help them get a good job and 63 percent believe they would be successful, but only 45 percent believe the benefits of education would exceed the costs.

The new Public Viewpoint findings are based on online surveys conducted from April-May 2021. The survey was designed and commissioned by Strada Education Network’s researchers, a team that studies the experiences and perceptions of American adults in order to better support individuals who face the most barriers 

to postsecondary education and career success. This research includes more than 350,000 completed surveys about the education and work experiences of American adults, the largest such database in the nation. View the full findings from this survey and past surveys at stradaeducation.org/publicviewpoint

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About Strada Education Network

Strada Education Network is a new kind of social impact organization dedicated to improving lives by forging clearer and more purposeful pathways between education and employment. Our approach combines innovative research, thought leadership, strategic philanthropy, mission-aligned investments and a network of affiliate organizations. 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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