Research Review: Postsecondary Education Plans Upended by the Pandemic

Almost every American has a story about plans that were upended because of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. For many Americans, that story involves plans for postsecondary education. While some opted to continue their postsecondary plans but take fewer classes either online or at a different school than they were initially enrolled, more than 19 million Americans cancelled their plans altogether and, for the time being, did not enroll at any institution (Education Table 6). Among the nearly 60 million Americans surveyed by the U.S. Census Bureau, 30 percent of White Americans cancelled their postsecondary plans while 37 percent of Latinx Americans and 37 percent of Black Americans cancelled their postsecondary plans. This data point continues to emphasize the inequitable impact the coronavirus pandemic has had in America. 

Previous analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) further illustrate the inequitable impact of the coronavirus pandemic on postsecondary enrollment plans. According to Georgetown CEW’s analysis, Americans in lower-income households were more likely to have members of their household cancel postsecondary plans compared to Americans in higher income households, who were more likely to have a member continue with their plans but in a different format (i.e. virtual instruction). 

The analysis also shows a disparate impact for prospective Career Technical Education (CTE) learners, as 54 percent of households with a member planning to pursue a credential from an occupational or technical school cancelled their postsecondary plans compared to 25 percent of households with members planning to pursue a bachelor’s degree or 31 percent with members planning to pursue a graduate degree. 

This data is concerning, as previous research has found that many learners who delay their postsecondary plans take at least five or more years to return to postsecondary education or do not return to complete a postsecondary degree at all. Advance CTE has written previously on the importance of postsecondary credential attainment, which is now a requirement for most job opportunities in most industries. This is especially true for Black and Latinx Americans and Americans with low-income who have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. 

The U.S. Census Bureau identified several reasons why learners cancelled their postsecondary plans (Education Table 7). The top concern was not being able to pay for classes or educational expenses due to a change to income because of the pandemic, followed by a fear of contracting the virus. 

It will be important in the post-coronavirus economic recovery for state and local leaders to develop plans that address learner concerns about continuing their postsecondary education. The decisions these leaders make today will have significant, and potentially lifelong, consequences for learners who delay or cancel their postsecondary enrollment plans. Leaders should maintain communication with these learners and continue to encourage and support them while they contemplate their career paths. 

Brian Robinson

Policy Associate

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