Steep declines in undergraduate enrollment during 2020 and 2021 threaten to widen existing equity gaps in college completion and career opportunities. Reengaging students who have changed or delayed their plans for postsecondary education will require institutions to respond to the new concerns and priorities that have emerged for these young adults during the pandemic.
Drawing on a nationwide survey and interviews with 2020 and 2021 high school graduates who have delayed their education plans, we learned that while most students ultimately plan to enroll in postsecondary education, their experiences with the pandemic have prompted them to reassess their educational paths and sharpen their focus on career and financial outcomes.
Their insights point toward practices that will be critical for reengaging disrupted learners, such as personalized guidance and planning tailored to individual goals; work-based learning tied to career exploration; and financial support and advising to address concerns with existing financing options.
Students disrupted by the pandemic recognize that the world into which they’ve graduated differs dramatically from what they expected, and they question whether the education, career, and financing options that worked for other students are still relevant today.
Despite numerous stressors fueling anxiety about the future, students remain committed to postsecondary education. They are demonstrating resilience by actively exploring different education and career options and setting new goals for themselves.
Students need open-minded, personalized college and career guidance that gives them a window into future career options.
Removing financial barriers is a core priority for students. The sudden disruption of the pandemic contributed to a heightened awareness of the risks associated with accruing debt and led to more loan-averse attitudes.
Students know that connecting college and career will prepare them for an uncertain world of work. They want flexibility and career relevance infused into their educational experience so they can prepare for their intended career while being ready to pivot to other options as needed.
Amid severe disruptions to work and learning caused by the pandemic, two- and four-year college enrollment has sharply declined.1In fall 2020, immediate college enrollment for the class of 2020 fell by 6.8 percent on average, 4.5 times the rate of prepandemic declines. Jennifer Causey et al., “A COVID-19 Special Analysis Update for High School Benchmarks,” National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, March 2021. A significant challenge lies ahead for equitably reengaging thousands of young adults, who have experienced steeper enrollment declines than any other age group.2In spring 2021, enrollment dropped by 5 percent over the previous spring among 18- to 24-year-olds. This decline translated into half a million fewer students starting postsecondary education. At community colleges ‒ institutions that traditionally serve more low-income students and students of color ‒ immediate enrollment rates show the magnitude of loss: Spring 2021 enrollment for young adults dropped by 13 percent (or 365,000 fewer students), compared with a 9.5 percent decline at community colleges overall. National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, “Spring 2021: Current Term Enrollment Estimates,” June 2021. Stark equity gaps have resulted, with the greatest displacement among low-income students and students of color.3Enrollment rates fell at high-poverty schools almost four times more than at low-poverty schools (11.4% vs. 2.9%) and almost twice the rate at schools serving higher shares of students of color than those serving lower shares (9.4% vs. 4.8%). Jennifer Causey et al., “A COVID-19 Special Analysis Update for High School Benchmarks,” National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, March 2021. Early indications for fall 2021 enrollment suggest that these troubling trends could worsen.4FAFSA completions are down nearly 5 percent for 2021 graduates compared with 2020 graduates. For high schools serving more Black and Latino students, FAFSA submission declines were almost four times lower the rate of schools serving fewer students from these groups. For high schools serving more low-income students, FAFSA submission declines were almost twice as low. These staggering patterns underscore the racial and socioeconomic equity imperative to support the reconnection of recent high school graduates, especially as the pandemic continues to loom large. Bill DeBaun, “FAFSA Completion Declines Near 5%; Nation Loses 270k FAFSAs Since 2019,” National College Attainment Network, July 19, 2021.
These enrollment disruptions could define a generation of young adults. Delaying postsecondary enrollment immediately after high school not only lowers the likelihood of later enrolling in college, but also threatens long-term socioeconomic mobility through lifetime earnings penalties in the labor market.5Yuxin Lin and Vivian Yuen Ting Liu, “Timing Matters: How Delaying College Enrollment Affects Earnings Trajectories,” Community College Research Center, Working Paper no. 105 (2019). Ensuring equity in educational outcomes in the aftermath of the pandemic is critical given the challenges incurred by all high school students, but especially the devastating setbacks for students of color, low-income students, English language learners, students with disabilities, and other marginalized groups.6These groups face more learning barriers while also facing increased threats to their basic needs, risks to their mental and physical well-being, and identity-based harassment and violence. U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, “Education in a Pandemic: The Disparate Impacts of COVID-19 on America’s Students,” 2021.
To address this equity imperative and understand how to best engage students in postsecondary education, Strada Education Network began research in March 2021 to understand the experience of learners disrupted during the pandemic. Details about this project can be found in our Methodology section. We first surveyed over 1,000 students from the classes of 2020 and 2021 who changed or delayed their college plans. Next, featured in this report, we took a deeper dive into firsthand experiences of 17 recent high school graduates from across the country.7We recruited 17 students to participate in an online, interactive discussion board to learn more about their perspectives on their education plans during the pandemic. We subsequently asked 12 of these participants to take part in one-on-one interviews to further understand their perspectives on plans and goals for education and work. How did the pandemic affect their postsecondary plans? How have these disruptions shifted or changed their goals? What would make a difference for them as they reconsider next steps? We seek to inform how to reconnect students in the classes of 2020 and 2021 to postsecondary education in a radically changed world.
Students explain impacts of COVID-19 on their education plans.
In Strada’s nationally representative survey with disrupted learners from the classes of 2020 and 2021, students indicated that changes to their postsecondary plans were driven by stress and uncertainty, college affordability concerns, and — especially among Black and Latino students — the need to care for family members and concerns about health risks. One of those students, Kitana, shared concerns about her health and safety and the potential impact on her education if she enrolled in additional schooling at this time: “I wasn’t sure of where the pandemic was going and if there would be more lockdowns, and I was afraid that it would affect my education and I wouldn’t do well.” For another student, Jeanine, frequent travel to take care of her grandmother who contracted COVID-19 took a toll, in combination with other stressors:
(COVID-19) was that one factor, and then it spiraled into a whole bunch of other factors. Because during the pandemic, it really just made you sit down and think about this and think about that and think about all these things that were happening around me. And instead of getting better, it was getting worse.
In addition to postponing education due to stress and anxiety, affordability, and health concerns, some students delayed their postsecondary plans to avoid learning in online environments. Vincent described how frustrations from learning online later shaped his desires to pursue hands-on training in barbering, eventually leading him to enroll in a trade school: “I wanted to just be in-person learning. It’s so much better. I hated online school the whole time. … You’re not, like, attached to it at all. That’s how I felt because it was on my laptop or iPad. I have a whole other life. I don’t care about this school life at all,” he explained. Jaime had aimed to attend a four-year institution, but the thought of online learning in the pandemic also shifted her thinking, noting “that would be, like, probably the worst thing.”
Overall, the unpredictability of the pandemic led students to reconsider enrolling in hopes of later being able to have the college experience they envisioned. Tesahe reiterated his desire for “going to college eventually” but delayed his enrollment “because I didn’t want COVID to be a thing at all during my freshman year in college and affect my experience. It was better to just stall a year, take a year off.” Destiny felt similarly, noting the emotional turmoil in making the difficult decision to take a year off:
It took a huge toll on me mentally and emotionally. I wasn’t ready to get hit with the pandemic for a whole year and not go to school. I think just having a year to prepare myself for school, it benefited me, but it also took away from a little bit of the experience I was going to have for being a college student.
Students discuss finding opportunities for self-exploration despite disruptions.
Students’ responses to these challenges uncovered a counterintuitive finding: The pandemic afforded them more time to gain clarity on their future. The extra time helped them reflect and think about their goals and selves in new ways. As Janae elaborated, while her educational plans were disrupted, her mindset became more determined in thinking about the future:
I know the mindset that I have now and the mindset I had in the beginning of the pandemic are like two separate mindsets. I was way not motivated at all or determined at all to move forward or go to college or anything like that. Of course, I was going to finish high school, but when it came to college, or what am I going to do after high school, my mindset wasn’t about that. It was just about, “Wow, I’m really not going to have a senior year.” But then I realized there’s more to the picture than that. I can’t just be stuck in this hole.
Olivia became “a lot more self-motivated” and more ready to “handle things on my own” in making the decision not to enroll immediately after high school:
The benefit, I think, in not going to a university immediately or not doing that right after high school is I have more time to think. I have more time to really give thought to what I want to do in my future because I don’t feel that high school was the place for me to even decide that. There was not enough support in that sort of environment. It’s a great benefit, and this is definitely having that time to really confidently figure something out.
Taking a gap year before attending college also provided some learners with a boost of confidence in their new paths. For Kelly, an extra year gave her “another year of thinking.” She changed her goals from attending medical school to majoring in film even after “seriously studying for the medical school entrance exam, like, several years ahead of time” and emphasized: “But since I had the extra year to think on my career, it definitely, I’m a lot more confident in my career choice to go into film. … Now I know the specifics and my path for that, and my plan B if that doesn’t work out.”
We found that alongside major setbacks and barriers in the chaos and uncertainty of the past year and a half, students demonstrated resilience by shifting their mindset, reframing their goals, and gaining more confidence in being able to make decisions about their own futures.
Given how the pandemic has altered students’ postsecondary plans, what needs to change to help students reconnect to education? Previous research points to four areas that determine whether and where students enroll: the availability of financial resources; academic preparation and achievement; support from significant others in a student’s life; and knowledge and information about the college-going and financial aid processes.8Laura W. Perna and Elizabeth R. Kurban, “Improving College Access and Choice,” in The State of College Access and Completion: Improving College Success for Students from Underrepresented Groups, ed. Laura W. Perna and Anthony Jones (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 10-33; Lindsay C. Page and Judith Scott-Clayton, “Improving College Access in the United States: Barriers and Policy Responses,” Economics of Education Review 51, (2016): 4-22. For historically excluded students, including students of color, first-generation students, and low-income students, the availability of different financial, social, cultural, and other academic and advising supports are even more critical to closing large and sustained opportunity gaps in moving to and through college and the workforce.9Martha J. Bailey and Susan Dynarski, “Inequality in Postsecondary Education,” in Whither Opportunity? Rising Inequality, Schools, and Children’s Life Chances, ed. Greg J. Duncan and Richard J. Murnane (New York: Russell Sage, 2011), 117-132; Margaret W. Cahalan et al., “Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States: 2021 Historical Trend Report,” The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, Council for Opportunity in Education (COE), and Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy of the University of Pennsylvania (PennAHEAD), 2021; Anthony Carnevale et al., “The Unequal Race for Good Jobs,” Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, 2019.
Although these themes resonate with our participants’ experiences, we found that the pandemic also has spurred a new, pronounced need to understand how the steps they took toward attending college would serve their larger goals relating to education, career, and their ultimate satisfaction and happiness. As students reflected on ways they could reconnect with higher education, they spoke to three actions that would help them most:
In Tables 1, 2, and 3, we summarize what students said they need and offer potential ways forward to act on their advice.
Students explain their guidance, financing, and career connection needs.
Students indicated that the presence or absence of advising supports influenced their ability to navigate the complexity of the college-going process. Whether students felt that supports were sufficient or lacking, they agreed that being able to rely on a network of teachers or counselors at school was key to staying motivated in times of personal angst, frustration, and stress. Janae, for example, understood that having a dependable school-based support system helped her maintain motivation despite the tumultuous year. “It’s all about your support system for me. So it’s always been hard, but I made it through for obvious reasons because people helped me through it,” she explained. Others, like Tesahe, felt isolated from different supports, especially during the pandemic. This feeling of isolation made it difficult to maintain his motivation to explore and continue his college search process. Tesahe noted, “The worst parts were that I was alone. It would have been easier if I was in a classroom, and the counselors could give us a presentation, or working with other people and stuff like that. But it was pretty bad.” When students considered the forms of support that would be most useful, they spoke to the importance of personalized guidance, peer models, and opportunities to explore a range of post-high school pathways.
Students desired support in which they could receive nonjudgmental advice that encouraged multiple paths best suited to their goals. Kevin felt so much pressure from his school to enroll in a four-year institution that he expressly chose against this path later on. As he explained, “It disgusted me how I was seen as lesser of a person for not making the same decisions as everyone else. Not everyone needs an education after high school to be successful.” Another student, Janae, urged others to acknowledge individual differences and avoid judgment as a way to combat the pressures students may feel to choose a particular path:
And because that’s pretty much what I’m trying to do, even though I know I want to go to college, I don’t want me or somebody else that looks up to me to rush into something that they don’t really know what they want. That’s pretty much the main thing. So I would just tell them to move at your own pace. Don’t let what’s around you discourage you, basically. … It’s just that everybody is different. Some people have to take their time on certain things.
Jack emphasized the desire to be an agent in his own decision-making, and for his school to encourage independent thinking in planning for the future. He explained:
It’d be nice to actually give students the opportunity to actually explore themselves and actually make decisions based on oneself. Not because someone said this or because you feel others are doing this ‒ I can actually do something. It should be something you’re comfortable with and a decision you would make on your own.
Kitana also noted that making decisions about her future has to come from her. As she states, “It just feels like something I should take initiative of and lead and not have so many people helping me. I should start making some of the decisions on my own.” Olivia offered this advice to educators:
Not only be open-minded and listen to the student and what they are considering for their future, but to be considerate of everything that they share and try and give actually solid advice that is not, “You must do it this way, or you must do it this other way,” but to really give them options because in the end, which is kind of a big deal, it’s the student’s decision, not that of another person.
Overall, these perspectives reveal a core desire from students to be heard and understood as individuals. The pandemic made this more difficult for schools and counselors to deliver on — offering limited opportunities for one-on-one meetings, for example — but at the same time made it even more necessary for students to feel respected as experts on their own experiences.
Barriers in completing college and financial aid processes, such as confusing questions on applications or understanding where to submit information on websites, added to student anguish. Destiny described feeling “really lost” at times in trying to interpret what application questions meant. Knowing where to start in scanning websites also “can be very difficult,” Olivia mentioned: “You really have to give some thought to it and figure out, ‘Where do I go?’” Jaime did have this kind of personalized guidance available during the application process. She described how “taking the opportunity that I was given” to have one-on-one attention from her counselor made a difference in her navigation. She explained how her counselor “mostly, like, held my hand through the whole process. So I would share my screen and they would be, like, ‘Oh, click that,’ or, ‘Don’t click that.’ And they would show me where to find all the information, as well. And it was almost like they were there guiding me.” For her, this guidance contributed to feeling less stressed: “I knew that I had that person to rely on.” Other students found ways to push through these difficult processes, but as Janae offered, “It’s kind of discouraging when you don’t really know what you think you know.” Having to work through these challenges without sufficient access to their counselor or other guides figured into students’ struggles to complete college and financial aid processes.
Students who felt lost or unguided in their college-going process most desired support that felt personalized to their specific needs. For Destiny, while she had access to school counselors, those counselors were often “pulled in thousands of different ways” in serving their student caseloads. Even so, Destiny felt counselors “could have done more” and should “focus on the students,” primarily to help “validate” questions, big and small, that were coming up in her college-going process. She expressed a wish for advising that “doesn’t make the student feel unnoticed and unheard.” Echoing the need for college counseling to be customized to the unique needs of a student, Kelly said it seemed counselors have “just been taught to say general advice and not really go into the specifics of each student,” echoing the need for college counseling to be customized to the unique needs of a student.
Postsecondary institutions can better serve students by ensuring they have someone they can count on in the enrollment process. Vincent, who first attended a local community college before switching to a trade school, reflected on his experiences with figuring out enrollment details at both institutions. For him, signing up for classes at the community college was frustrating for its impersonal nature online: “It shouldn’t have been that hard. But there’s nothing in person. Everything was online. They had no people to contact these people interested in the classes.” Conversely, the one-on-one attention that Vincent received in understanding the program and classes at his trade school made the process “just so much easier.” Jaime, who benefited from one-on-one guidance during high school, worried that she wouldn’t receive that kind of attention in college. She said:
If somebody could tell me it was going to be OK all the time and, like, explaining the process of actually doing classes and handling your work all by yourself. Because it kind of all fell on your shoulders, and it was kind of hard because you would get guided during high school more.
Hearing stories from others going through the college decision process was valuable for students in their own decision-making. For Tesahe, the physical and social isolation during the pandemic meant that much of his information-seeking about college depended on what he could glean from school websites and YouTube. He sought out “advice from people who’ve already done it, and how to apply, how to write the best college essay” and relied on these types of videos to guide his decisions. Vincent also wished that schools provided more opportunities to learn about careers in trades and get people who actually work in the industry in these schools. “Tell their personal experience. Talk about the benefits of it and why maybe it’s a better option than college or why maybe you should go to college,” he recommended.
Students also wanted to preview their future college lives, hear what they might learn, and get clear advice on next steps. When Kelly was unsure about which college to commit to, a virtual panel of students majoring in film hosted by her eventual college choice was “revolutionary” in her decision to select that college and switch majors. Feeling as though the school “already planned it out for me” contributed to Kelly’s sense of excitement for the future. Jaime hoped that future college advisors would help shape her connections to her desired field: biology.
I hope to know what places they’d recommend and if they have experience in those fields, like where a lot of graduates are going so that I could go there, too, to have a lot of peers from the same college. … So I would like to know if there are positions available in the field as I go to college.
What We Heard
How We Can Act
Students repeatedly discussed needing individualized guidance from school and institutional staff in their college-going process, which was not surprising considering that advisors have substantial influence over students’ postsecondary decisions.11Nichole Torpey-Saboe and Melissa Leavitt, “Reconnecting Recent High School Graduates With Their Education Aspirations,” Strada Education Network, June 23, 2021. The need for ongoing guidance even after high school graduation is also critical, given that an estimated 10 percent to 40 percent of high school students experience summer melt,12Jeremy R. Raff, “How School Districts Can Harness Data to Combat Summer Melt,” National College Attainment Network, November 5, 2019. a phenomenon when high school seniors planning to attend college do not matriculate into their selected institution in the fall. Low-income and racially minoritized students especially are hindered by the compounding effects of limited college knowledge, financial struggles, failure to meet matriculation requirements, not getting classes desired or needed, inadequate support, and unclear communications.13Raquel M. Rall, “Forgotten Students in a Transitional Summer: Low-income Racial/Ethnic Minority Students Experience the Summer Melt,” The Journal of Negro Education 85, no. 4 (2016): 462-479. Structural barriers for providing one-on-one attention, like high student-to-counselor ratios, are real, however. While not a panacea, schools and districts partnering with nonprofit programs that use near-peer mentors can positively impact college enrollment for low-income students and racially minoritized students in particular,14Eric P. Bettinger and Brent J. Evans, “College Guidance for All: A Randomized Experiment in Pre-College Advising,” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 38, no. 3 (2019): 579-599; Benjamin Castleman and Joshua Goodman, “Intensive College Counseling and the Enrollment and Persistence of Low-income Students,” Education Finance & Policy 13, no. 1 (2018): 19-41. as can those that also offer other financial incentives.15Nicholas A. Bowman et al., “Improving College Access at Low-income High Schools? The Impact of GEAR UP Iowa on Postsecondary Enrollment and Persistence,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 40, no. 3 (2018): 399-419; Susan Dynarski and Judith Scott-Clayton, “Financial Aid Policy: Lessons from Research,” The Future of Children 23, no. 1 (2013): 67–91. Programs providing even a few hours of extra counseling to low-income students over the summer may also help smooth the handoff for students in their next steps.16Benjamin L. Castleman, Lindsay C. Page, and Korynn Schooley, “The Forgotten Summer: Does the Offer of College Counseling after High School Mitigate Summer Melt Among College-Intending, Low-income High School Graduates?,” Journal of Policy Analysis & Management 33, no. 2 (2014): 320-344. In addition, using text messaging and artificially intelligent chatbots to provide guidance may fill in these advising gaps,17Lindsay C. Page and Hunter Gehlbach, “How an Artificially Intelligent Virtual Assistant Helps Students Navigate the Road to College,” AERA Open 3, no.4 (2017): 1-12. augmented with a personal touch and human contact.
At the same time that students sought more personalized guidance, they also wanted the support to define their own paths. They have gained a sense of independence, sometimes forced upon them given the sudden shifts in learning and supports. Consequently, they desire to be recognized for their agency and self-sufficiency in making tough choices about their futures. Students are negotiating stages of self-authorship, a developmental concept where young adults begin to seek internally defined measures of their beliefs, values, and sense of self instead of relying on external authorities (e.g., parents, teachers, advisors) to guide them.18David C. Hodge, Marcia B. Baxter Magolda and Carolyn A. Haynes, “Engaged Learning: Enabling Self-Authorship and Effective Practice,” Association of American Colleges & Universities, 2009; Marcia B. Baxter Magolda, “The Activity of Meaning Making: A Holistic Perspective on College Student Development,” Journal of College Student Development 50, no. 6 (2009): 621-639. Higher education practitioners recognize their role in developing the self-authorship capacities of undergraduates through academic advising and other educator practices,19Marcia B. Baxter Magolda and Patricia M. King, “Toward Reflective Conversations: An Advising Approach that Promotes Self-Authorship,” Association of American Colleges & Universities, 2009. but the shock caused by the pandemic may be a “provocative moment” propelling more young adults to reconsider their assumptions about formulas for success for more self-defined ways of knowing.20Jane E. Pizzolato, “Creating Crossroads for Self-Authorship: Investigating the Provocative Moment,” Journal of College Student Development 46, no. 6 (2005): 624-641. This may mean retooling advising and coaching models to better support students in a new phase of their young adult development, improving upon models that validate students as knowers and co-constructors of their learning.21Kari B. Taylor and Marcia B. Baxter Magolda, “Building Educators’ Capacities to Meet Twenty-First Century Demands,” About Campus 20, no. 4 (2015): 16-25.
Considering that students also want to hear from more peers, mentors, and others who share their interests and passions, institutions and organizations can reconnect students through outreach campaigns that meet students where they are. Education providers can use social media platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok22Brooke Auxier and Monica Anderson, “Social Media Use in 2021,” Pew Research Center, 2021. to create digital storytelling content, while at the same time ensuring face-to-face connections with willing and able mentors.
Financial concerns were a primary reason why students changed their education plans during the pandemic.23Nichole Torpey-Saboe and Melissa Leavitt, “Reconnecting Recent High School Graduates With Their Education Aspirations,” Strada Education Network, June 23, 2021. For some, worrying about money was an immediate cause for delaying education; for others, worrying about money was a new concern that emerged after taking the time to reconsider their plans. In some cases, the economic disruption caused by COVID-19 had a direct and swift impact on college decisions. When Thomas’ father lost his job, Thomas lost his main source of financial support for college. He had been planning to work to supplement what his father would pay, he said, but “it had to change when dad lost his job because I had to work more than I expected.” In other cases, financial concerns were the final straw atop a growing pile of doubts. For Jaime, knowing that her courses might be virtual pushed her to decide it wouldn’t be a good use of her family’s resources. “It’s hard to expect them to pay lots of money for me knowing that’s not a great way for me to learn and be educated,” she explained. With the pandemic leading students to reconsider their education and career plans, some are taking the opportunity to reflect on what would make college worth it. For many we spoke with, every financing option came up short, especially when pressure-tested against the deep uncertainty students feel about their futures.
One student, Jack, considered a lack of funds to be an insurmountable barrier to college, saying, “basically, the main issue is finances.” However, he considered finances to be the only real barrier standing in the way. Once tuition and fees are paid, he continued, “every other thing can be secondary.” Working to earn enough money for school was one strategy students considered for overcoming this barrier. For some, that meant earning enough to put resources in place before enrolling, rather than trying to work and attend school at the same time. “I have no qualms about getting postsecondary education,” clarified one survey respondent. “I just want to pay for it after I am established in my career so that I can pay for it without needing loans.” When Thomas imagined what life would be like trying to juggle work and school, he decided it would be impractical, if not impossible. “Working, going to school in the morning, going to work in the evening, I don’t have time to rest or eat, study,” he worried. Weekend time would be taken up with chores, church, and making time for friends, he added. He decided to postpone enrolling so he could work now and start saving money, hoping to avoid this balancing act.
For students who already were questioning the decision to enroll in college, worries about finances may have been the tipping point that pushed them to change their plans. For those without a clear vision of their education or career goals, uncertainty about their future fueled their financial concerns. Our initial survey asked students to choose words that captured their feelings about their education and career plans. Feeling “confused” or “overwhelmed” by the process seemed to put extra pressure on students to ensure college was worth the investment. One survey respondent explained, “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.” Responses from others expanded on this idea, painting a worst-case scenario of taking out loans to pay for college but graduating unprepared for career success. As another student from our initial survey said, “post-high school education … 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.”
Many students we spoke with saw no good options for financing their education. The usual suspects — scholarships, loans, and working while in school — all had disadvantages. When students considered loans, they were put off by the prospect of being trapped in debt long into adulthood. One student from our survey said, “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.” For another student, Olivia, seeing others take out loans affirmed her own decision to delay her education. Initially she doubted her choice not to enroll. “It made me not only feel like I was making the wrong decision, but like I was being foolish,” she recalled. “But even looking back at … when I felt awful for a split second, I said to myself, ‘They’re going to be paying off that student loan … into how many years in their future?’” Obtaining scholarships or financial aid could be a better alternative, allowing students to focus on school in the present while avoiding long-term debt. Yet students struggled with the application process. Tesahe found the process of understanding scholarship eligibility to be “overwhelming” and wished that there were more supports to help keep track of deadlines. Kitana also pointed out the numerous qualifications needed for different scholarships. Not having teacher recommendations further made the scholarship process “rather challenging,” she said. When asked for advice on what would be helpful for students applying to college, one student, Kaedin, suggested “making applying for scholarships guaranteed and easy to apply for.”
Students’ explanations of how financial challenges have influenced their education decisions — such as an unemployed parent unable to pay tuition, or demands on family resources making it difficult to save — align with what we already know about the influence of income on postsecondary access and completion.24Donald E. Heller, “The Role of Finances in Postsecondary Access and Success,” in The State of College Access and Completion: Improving College Success for Students from Underrepresented Groups, ed. Laura W. Perna and Anthony Jones (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 96-113. For low-income students, finances are a barrier that keeps them from enrolling and graduating at the same rate as their higher-income peers.25Margaret W. Cahalan et al., “Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States: 2021 Historical Trend Report,” The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, Council for Opportunity in Education (COE), and Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy of the University of Pennsylvania (PennAHEAD), 2021. Alert to the drawbacks of existing financing models, students offered their own views of how to bring down financial barriers in a way that addresses their concerns. Their insights point toward the improvements and innovations that could make a difference.
Students’ requests for help with understanding and applying for financial aid could be met by expanding proven pilot programs that offer support with aid applications.26In a study of the effects of providing personalized support with FAFSA completion, those who received support were more likely to submit their aid applications, receive aid, and enroll in college. Eric Bettinger et al., “The Role of Application Assistance and Information in College Decisions: Results from the H&R Block FAFSA Experiment,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 127, no. 3 (2012): 1205-1232. This practice is particularly helpful for low-income students.27Andrew Barr and Benjamin Castleman, “An Engine of Economic Opportunity: Intensive Advising, College Success, and Social Mobility,” Working paper, June 2018; Benjamin Castleman and Joshua Goodman, “Intensive College Counseling and the Enrollment and Persistence of Low-Income Students,” Education Finance & Policy 13, no. 1 (2018): 19-41. Providing guidance and information to students weighing other options, such as loans and working while in school, also can be effective. Previous Strada research shows that when students look back on their decision to take out a loan, whether they felt it was the right move depends on the career support they received while in school.28Nichole Torpey-Saboe, “Alumni Perspectives: Are Student Loans Worth It?,” Strada Education Network, April 7, 2021. Students who feel that their schools provided them with resources and support to find a good job are more likely to consider their loans to be worth it.29Ibid. Getting this career support seemed especially important for Black borrowers to view loans as worth it.30Ibid. Typically, students of color, especially those who are first-generation college students, are more loan-averse than white students.31Angela Boatman, Brent J. Evans, and Adela Soliz, “Understanding Loan Aversion in Education: Evidence from High School Seniors, Community College Students, and Adults,” AERA Open 3, no. 1 (2017): 1-16. Worries about accruing debt32Almost a quarter of high schoolers, and one in five recent college graduates, say that living debt-free is a top priority for them. “2021 College Savings & Student Debt Study Fact Sheet,” Fidelity Investments, 2021. can potentially be addressed through improved financial literacy advising that helps students assess the risks of taking out loans in light of the long-term career value of a degree.33Gail Markle, “Crushing Debt or Savvy Strategy? Financial Literacy and Student Perceptions of their Student Loan Debt,” Journal of Student Financial Aid 49, no. 1 (2019): 1-20.
The challenges of working while in school that Thomas and other students imagined match the reality of many students, especially lower-income students. Working while in school is common, with almost half of full-time students and more than 80 percent of part-time students having some kind of job.34More than 80 percent of undergraduates attending college work part-time, while 43 percent of full-time undergraduates work. “The Condition of Education: College Student Employment,” National Center for Education Statistics, 2020. But the experience and effects of working can vary dramatically. Where and how much students work can have a large bearing on long-term academic and career outcomes.35Anthony Carnevale and Nicole Smith, “Balancing Work and Learning: Implications for Low-Income Students,” Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 2018. Integrated approaches to working and learning provide a more effective way of balancing education and employment that doesn’t jeopardize degree completion.
Career goals can be a powerful inspiration for attending college, especially for high schoolers who are dissatisfied with their past schooling and doubtful about the future. Kelly explained that it was the opportunity to meet alumni already working in her dream career that reinvigorated her plans for postsecondary education. She said, “It’s very motivating to move on after graduation because even though I didn’t get a real graduation, it was still like I was moving on to a next step and that made me look forward to education in the future and it felt like there was something to move on towards.” Students look to colleges to support their career exploration and development, and they expect that, as a result of going to college, they’ll be able to find a good job in their area of interest. Jeanine described it as a feeling of “security”: “I want to know that I have the security in that school that if I need extra help, or if … it’s certain that this career that I want, I’ll be able to graduate and get that career.” As they weighed whether to immediately pursue postsecondary education, the students in our study considered how going to college would support their career growth and what kinds of experiences or courses they would need to achieve their aims. Some doubted that college would be relevant to their career interests or whether college offered the only, or the best, pathway to a career. Others reacted by thinking strategically about how to enhance their core academic college experience with other forms of work and learning.
Many students we spoke with do not see choosing a career as a one-time event. Instead, they’re preparing for a lifetime of job changes, backup plans, and pivots. The sudden economic upheaval of the pandemic provided an up-close view of what it means to suddenly be out of work and have to navigate an uncertain employment landscape. Students’ career plans reflect a sense of keeping their options open — out of interest and out of necessity. One student, Thomas, explained that he is looking for a career where he’s not going to be “kicked out” and can instead “grow higher and higher.” Students expressed that they want to find a career that matches their passions and interests and see college as the key to doing so. Destiny described earning a degree as “the extra loop on my belt to help me in getting a job that I love.” At the same time, even though they want to feel personally invested in their work, they’re hedging their bets and studying more broadly so they can pivot into another field if needed. With this in mind, students are looking to postsecondary education to help them navigate twists and turns on an unknown career journey. For students who aren’t yet sure what field they want to enter, college can be a place not just to explore possibilities, but also to prepare for a range of options. “I don’t really have a certain passion for my future, but I still want to know a lot about different things,” Janae explained. “But I want to be able to say, ‘Oh, if my career doesn’t work out … I still have knowledge about another career,’ so that I cannot be feeling I’m stuck in one tunnel.”
Not all students we spoke with are certain that having a degree is an asset in an unstable job market. Some questioned how relevant a college education would be to their future employment. Olivia worried about finishing a degree only to find a mismatch between her qualifications and her job prospects, leaving her in debt and adrift. Seeing others in that situation prompted her to delay her own college plans. She explained, “They had gone to college and they couldn’t find work, so they ended up working for a job that they were overqualified for and not making the money that they needed to pay off student loans. And I don’t want to be in that space, so I’m really trying to figure that out right now.” Vincent also worried he wouldn’t experience the career value of college, leading him to leave community college to train as a barber. He began questioning the relevance of education in high school because “all the classes I was taking just didn’t have anything to do with the real world.” His impressions remained unchanged in community college, where he felt he lacked career support. He felt that trade school offered him a better match for the career direction he’s seeking. “If you go to these trade schools, they already set you up with jobs while you’re still in school,” he explained. “You have a plan afterward, whereas in college … that’s all on you.” Some students are weighing the value of formal education against the possibility of getting on-the-job training from employers. Bennett questioned whether it was a good idea for someone to spend “four years of learning things that they probably didn’t need to be learning.” Posing a question to employers, he wondered, “Why not spend four years with an employee who you could mold and make him or her into exactly what you want?”
Whether or not they ultimately decide to enroll in college, many students we spoke with feel that a degree alone is not enough for career success. They’re already planning how they can integrate career preparation into their college experience. Thomas, for instance, anticipates needing additional credentials on top of his degree. He hopes to go to college to study accounting, and when he does, he plans to layer on training or certificates in programs such as QuickBooks. These additional qualifications will give him an “edge in the labor market,” he explained, and improve his chances of getting a job. Another way students are ensuring they graduate with work-ready skills is through internships and other on-the-job learning experiences. For Destiny, work-based learning is such a critical aspect of the college experience that she worries not having it will chip away at the value of her degree:
People that earned a degree in the pandemic, how valuable really is it? Because I know for some degrees, you have to get hands-on experience in the field. People will question how qualified you are for the job that you get. That does scare me a little bit … how people will think that, well, “Does she really have what it takes?”
She wasn’t alone in voicing the need to enhance the value of a degree through applied learning and work experience. Olivia, whose concerns about underemployment caused her to rethink her college decision, is hoping to integrate on-the-job learning into her education. She believes this would enhance her education and give her a taste of what everyday life in a career is like. She explained, “I’d also like to experience an environment where I’m actually (in a) working position … like an internship so I can really immerse myself in what I might have to endure in the future and how I can move forward with experience.”
Students just beginning their college and career journeys are focused on finding the right job and giving themselves the edge they need to land it. When they speak to the importance of exploring options and finding a career they can grow with, they’re likely informed by both the economic fallout of the pandemic and the career trajectory they may have witnessed for their parents and older siblings. Millennials born in the early 1980s already have had an average of eight jobs from age 18 through 32.36“Americans at Age 33: Labor Market Activity, Education and Partner Status Summary,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 5, 2020. They’re on track to far outpace Baby Boomers’ career tally of 12 jobs through age 5037“Baby Boomers Born from 1957 to 1964 Held an Average of 11.9 Jobs from Ages 18 to 50,” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, August 28, 2017. — and Generation Z could clock in with the most jobs yet.
Many of the career-focused strategies students are looking for are already in practice at postsecondary institutions. These strategies are preparing students for an uncertain world of work by integrating work-ready skills and work-based learning into college curricula. Employers are increasingly seeking workers who have both industry-specific skills and the foundational skills traditionally associated with liberal arts degrees, such as critical thinking and communication.38Michelle Weise et al., “Robot-Ready: Human+ Skills for the Future of Work,” Strada Education Network, 2021. Students who earn both a degree and a nondegree credential — showing employers that they have both sets of skills — are more likely to report that their education makes them an attractive job candidate, compared with those with only a degree.39Andrew Hanson, “Robot-Ready: Human+ Skills for the Future of Work.” Strada Education Network, July 28, 2021.
Partnerships between colleges and industry make it easier for students to complete degree requirements while at the same time obtaining knowledge required for job-specific qualifications.40Roy Swift et al., “Embedding Certifications into Bachelor’s Degrees: Certification-Degree Pathways Project,” Workcred, Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, University Professional and Continuing Education Association, and Coalition of Urban Serving Universities, November 2020. Work-based learning experiences while in college also can help students build relationships with future employers and ensure students are learning the skills they’ll need in the workplace.41Ilke Inceoglu et al., “(How) Do Work Placements Work? Scrutinizing the Quantitative Evidence for a Theory-Driven Future Research Agenda,” Journal of Vocational Behavior 110 (2019): 317-337. Internships, for instance, can help students find a career-oriented job more quickly, earn more, experience greater job satisfaction,42Jack Gault, John Redington, and Tammy Schlager, “Undergraduate Business Internships and Career Success: Are They Related?,” Journal of Marketing Education 22, no. 1 (2000): 45-53. and find a job related to their field of study.43Nathalie Saltikoff, “The Positive Implications of Internships on Early Career Outcomes,” National Association of Colleges and Employers, May 1, 2017. Other practices that offer real-world learning experiences for students, such as service learning and capstone projects, also support better career outcomes such as earlier job attainment.44Angie L. Miller, Louis M. Rocconi, and Amber D. Dumford, “Focus on the Finish Line: Does High-Impact Practice Participation Influence Career Plans and Early Job Attainment?,” Higher Education 75 (2018): 489-506.
A student explains her eagerness to prepare for her career.
Although the pandemic has disrupted their educational plans, the students who participated in our study remain largely committed to some form of postsecondary education. Out of the more than 1,000 students we surveyed, almost two-thirds say they are very or extremely likely to continue their education, while almost all are at least somewhat likely to do so.45Nichole Torpey-Saboe and Melissa Leavitt, “Reconnecting Recent High School Graduates With Their Education Aspirations,” Strada Education Network, June 23, 2021. The difference now, however, is that the prescribed trajectory they assumed they would follow — from high school, straight into college, and onto a career — must be replaced by new pathways to education and career success.
Despite experiencing enormous upheaval in nearly every aspect of their lives, students still believe in college’s promise to drive social mobility and personal growth. They see its necessity and value for achieving their career outcomes, and they trust it can lift them and their families to a better life. As Janae explained, education is “all about breaking generational curses.” Vincent’s comment that “you need some form of education to continue on in life and just become a better person” reflects the persistent perception of higher education as a mechanism for self-improvement. Olivia, too, expressed confidence that education will be essential to the future she wants to create for herself:
Education connects me to who I want to become by laying a framework for my future. Education is the foundation for where I want to go. I pretty much need to have an education to move forward in the future that I’d like to have in the role that I’d like to play in the world around me. And I think that I can gain a lot from getting further education not only becoming a more thoughtful person and really understanding how the world works, but also just becoming a better person overall.
For these students, the hopes and aspirations they associate with college are not abstract concepts. They expect their education to translate to an immediate and tangible impact on their lives. While broadening college access and supporting completion remain critically important priorities — and areas where much can improve — the students we spoke with have their sights set on what happens after graduation. As Jeanine explained:
I’m just ready for my career, really. Although I’m really interested in education and learning more skills and opportunities, I’m just ready for my success. I feel like I’m prepared for it and I’m just waiting for the next step. And I feel I don’t need to wait because I’m stepping into it by going to college, by researching these opportunities.
Enrolling in college must be a step toward a career, not a delay or a detour. The more certainty these students can feel about their post-college outcomes, the more likely they will be to invest in education in the first place.
Having felt an immense and abrupt global disruption reverberate through their lives, the classes of 2020 and 2021 look to postsecondary education as a safeguard against the uncertainties of the future. The urgency of readying themselves for lasting career success permeates every aspect of their college exploration and planning, from identifying the right program and choosing the best financing options, to looking for ways to infuse their education with real-world experience. Their stories and insights make a strong case for institutions to implement practices that bring together guidance, financial support, and career preparation to support the new vision students have for their future.
To overcome persistent inequities in education and career outcomes, we must reengage today’s disrupted learners quickly. Responsibility for helping students achieve their goals in learning and work spans the entire education journey, from primary and secondary school to postsecondary education, and enlists institutions, employers, and community organizations. Guiding students in navigating pathways through college, helping them assess returns on their financing options, and blending learning and work in a way that brings the promise of a future career forward can provide a way back in for these students whose resilience has kept them committed to their goals. In the next phase of our research, we plan to further explore those practices that students indicate would help them reconnect to college, discovering and sharing some of the best evidence-based solutions and emerging models that foster success. We will engage our community of researchers, practitioners, and innovators in identifying and sharing these practices.
The resilience we see in students can inspire future directions in higher education, where forging new pathways and approaches becomes a means to thrive through changing times. To truly be mindful of what today’s recent high school graduates have gone through, we must do more than just set students back on the paths they already left. We must recognize that stepping off the path has pushed them to reevaluate their education and career plans, reshaping what they want and what they expect from their next stage of learning. To reengage these learners, postsecondary education must expand pathways into and through education and career opportunities to meet the needs of students in this pivotal moment, to plan for changes to come, and, most importantly, to advance equity beyond completion.
Research understanding the experiences of high school students graduating in 2020 and 2021 began in spring 2021 through a mixed-methods research design conducted in three phases. First, Strada researchers consulted a panel of experts on postsecondary and workforce transitions to identify their understanding of the greatest challenges, the most important ingredients of effective solutions, and the most important issues that additional research with these young adults should address. The second phase of the project, in collaboration with Heart + Mind Strategies, surveyed over 1,000 disrupted young adults directly to better understand areas of alignment between education leaders and the potential student audiences they serve, highlight where gaps may exist, and quantify the needs and decision drivers that are shaping the choices of young adults who have yet to enroll in postsecondary education in the time of COVID-19. The survey was conducted online with a nationally representative sample of participants April 30-May 16, 2021.
In the third phase of the project with Heart + Mind Strategies, we recruited 17 students to participate in an online, interactive discussion board to learn more about their perspectives on their education plans during the pandemic. We subsequently asked 12 of these participants to take part in one-on-one interviews to further understand their perspectives on plans and goals for education and work. Interviews took place virtually in June and July 2021 and ranged from 45 to 70 minutes. All but one of our 17 participants had plans to attend a two-year or four-year institution before the pandemic. Table 4 provides more details about participants across the survey, discussion board, and one-on-one interviews.
To analyze data, we coded interview transcripts, using three analytic questions to help guide our analyses: What barriers did students perceive in changing their postsecondary plans? What would have been helpful to students in their college process? What did students say they want from their education? We organized codes to create themes and subthemes and used the constant comparative method with discussion board posts and survey responses to further refine and inform our thematic conclusions in ongoing collaborative discussions as a research team. A draft of the report also was shared with student participants to ensure we accurately captured the meaning and intent of their comments. We received one request for a name change, but no other requested changes.
Notes: Table represents column percentages. Percentages may not equal 100 due to rounding. All variables are based on student self-report.
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