The high school classes of 2020 and 2021 have endured massive disruption to their education. After graduating from a high school experience that was dramatically different from the one they began, many are postponing or canceling their postsecondary education plans — even after, in many cases, applying and being accepted to college. These declines in postsecondary enrollment threaten to widen attainment gaps among low-income and first-generation students, as well as students of color — groups that postsecondary institutions already struggle to engage and support.
To better understand the extent of the disruption, the challenges driving so many to veer from their planned pathways, and the potential solutions that could reconnect them to college, Strada Education Network surveyed more than 1,000 graduates from the classes of 2020 and 2021 who had intended to enroll in education after high school but decided to postpone their plans. They tell us that better guidance on their pathways, support to understand and access financing, and clearer understanding of the connections between education and a career would be the most helpful resources for them to reconnect with their education aspirations.
Before deciding to change their education plans, most students had made some progress toward enrolling. More than three-quarters of the disrupted students in the Class of 2020 and nearly that many in the Class of 2021 had spoken to an adult at their high school, such as a teacher or counselor, about getting more education. Not surprising given the timing of the pandemic, those from the Class of 2020 made it further on the journey toward enrollment than did their peers in the Class of 2021. More than half of surveyed disrupted students from the 2020 graduating class had applied to college, and 4 in 10 had received an acceptance letter and applied for financial aid, while for the Class of 2021, 35 percent applied for admission, 23 percent received an acceptance letter, and 29 percent had applied for financial aid.
Students of color made greater progress toward enrollment than white students did. Among these disconnected high school graduates, Black and Latino students were about 10 percentage points more likely than their white peers to have applied to a college and applied for financial aid. Black students were also nearly 10 percentage points more likely than white students to have been accepted to a college or program.
These results mirror previous Strada research, which has found that Black and Latino students are more interested in enrolling in education, but also more likely to have had to step away due to the pandemic.
With so many students having made it as far as receiving an acceptance letter, what happened that caused them to choose not to enroll in college? When asked about the largest influence on their decision not to get more education right away, the two biggest factors far outweighing the others were stress, anxiety, or uncertainty (39 percent) and financial pressure or affordability (26 percent). Stress and anxiety and financial pressures are also the largest challenges identified by currently enrolled college students in the fall of 2020. Just as the pandemic led to intertwined health and economic crises, these factors can be exacerbated by one another.
Given the complexity of attending high school during the pandemic, it’s not surprising that for many students, multiple factors contributed to their decision not to pursue further education immediately after high school. A majority of students reported that stress and anxiety and financial pressures were extremely or very influential on their decision not to get more education. The types of factors driving students’ decisions also differed by race and ethnicity. Black students were more likely than other students to cite the health risks of attending classes in person as extremely or very influential, and both Latino and Black students were more likely than white students to say that the need to care for a family member was an influential factor in their decision to delay their education.
Class of 2021, West Virginia
Class of 2020, Pennsylvania
What will it take to reconnect these learners to education pathways? The insights that disrupted students shared in their survey responses point toward solutions in the areas of guidance, affordability, and connecting education to career. These areas are reflected in the highest-ranking solutions, as chosen by these recent high school graduates.1
Having an advisor to help with financial aid, choosing classes, and finding a career path was the most helpful solution. Second-most important was the ability to get an education while still earning money, and third-most important was an easier process to get financial aid to pay for school. Fourth was clear information on the jobs people can get with different education options.
Having more guidance could potentially help alleviate students’ No. 1 barrier: stress, anxiety, and uncertainty. Students ranked having an advisor as the most helpful support they could have in their pursuit of further education, as seen in the chart above. Most of these students (58 percent) would be the first in their families to pursue any type of post-high school education, and only about half say they know people who could help them find a way to get the education after high school that is right for them. Guidance from an advisor could fill in these knowledge gaps with information students are not receiving from their families or communities. Lack of social capital is more acute for Black and Latino students; only 42 percent of Black students and 46 percent of Latino students say they know people who can help them in this way.
Furthermore, students believe COVID-19 has made it more difficult to find information about options for education, how to apply, and how to pay for education after high school. This feeling is particularly strong among low-income graduates, 61 percent of whom believe it has become more difficult to find information about how to pay for education, compared to 45 percent of graduates who do not identify as low-income.
Class of 2020, California
Class of 2021, New York
Both students and higher education leaders are pointing toward the same solutions. In a panel of experts convened by Strada in March, key solutions identified for supporting learners were: providing as much clarity and consistency as possible to make enrollment easier to navigate for students and reduce stress; making a greater investment in advisors to support prospective and current students; and training faculty to advise students in their postsecondary pathways and connect them to resources to support their mental health. Clearly providing navigation and guidance is key to re-engaging learners on their education pathways.
At the same time that many students find it harder than ever to find information about how to pay for school, a majority name financial pressure as an extremely or very influential factor in causing them to delay their education.
Concerns about cost carried over into the ways in which some students have revised their education plans. Among those still likely to enroll in additional education in the future, 35 percent said they would choose a less expensive program. Almost as many (31 percent) said they would choose a program closer to home than what they originally had considered.
Black students were most likely to have changed their plans in these ways, with 40 percent of Black students indicating they would choose a less expensive program, compared to 33 percent of white students. Likewise, 37 percent of Black students said they would attend a program that was closer to home, compared to 29 percent of white students.2
Finally, students say that ways to earn money while learning and easier access to financial aid would be among the most helpful supports to their future enrollment. Finding ways to alleviate financial barriers is essential to helping these students achieve their education aspirations.
Class of 2021, Illinois
Class of 2020, Kentucky
Students prioritize education as a means to a better job. And they believe in its promise. When considering future education, most students believed that it would help them get a good job (69 percent). Students also indicated they are seeking more information to help them understand how education would prepare them for a career: Clear information on the job opportunities associated with different education options is ranked among the most helpful supports. Yet uncertainty about whether education will be worth the cost is widespread among disrupted learners, with 55 percent saying they are either unsure or do not believe education will be worth the cost. Prior Strada research has shown that among prospective students, current students, and alumni, clear connections to career are powerfully linked to beliefs that education is worth the cost.
Class of 2020, Arizona
Class of 2021, Iowa
Even among this group of high school graduates who decided not to pursue their educational plans, the vast majority still want to come back. Almost two-thirds say they are very or extremely likely to continue their education in the future, while almost all are at least somewhat likely to do so. Their aspirations sound a hopeful note in a year when postsecondary enrollment has experienced historic declines. Given the progress that so many disrupted learners made toward achieving their college dreams — especially students of color, who were more likely to have applied and been accepted to college before abandoning their plans — the right interventions, provided quickly, could bring these students back.
Survey responses from these disrupted learners indicate they already are thinking about the solutions they would need to continue on to postsecondary education. Many of the same solutions they point to are already priorities for higher education leaders focused on how to reconnect with students and create more equitable access to educational opportunity. These solutions — such as better guidance in navigating the education journey, expanded access to financial aid and other supports, and stronger connections between education and career pathways — can help students stay enrolled, achieve their goals, and realize the value of postsecondary education.
Strada and its research partner, Heart + Mind Strategies, conducted this online survey from April 30 through May 16, 2021. Responses were drawn from recent high school graduates of the classes of 2020 and 2021 who had wanted to get additional education after high school but decided not to enroll immediately. Total n=1,212. Class of 2020=626, Class of 2021=586.
A theoretical margin of error based on a probability sample of size 1,200 would be +/- 2.8 percent at 95 percent confidence. This is not a probability-based sample, and a margin of error cannot be estimated. Based on experience, we believe the sampling error would be at least this number.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
Recent high school graduates share why their education plans were disrupted, and what types of support could bring them back.
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