High School Graduates Reassessing Postsecondary Plans During COVID-19, Prioritizing Real-World Skills and Alternate Career Pathways

Postsecondary enrollment has seen dramatic declines during the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, particularly for learners with low incomes and learners of color. A report recently published by the Strada Education Network sheds light on the experiences of high school graduates who have delayed their postsecondary education plans in 2020 and 2021. The report builds on survey data of 1,000 recent graduates previously covered by Advance CTE, as well as 17 in-depth interviews with learners. Strada finds that while these high school graduates remain committed to continuing their education, pandemic-related disruptions have caused them to reassess their initial plans and explore alternate pathways to career success. 

Learners across the board have experienced heightened uncertainty about college affordability and traditional career pathways as the labor market destabilized as a result of the coronavirus. Some learners said they were hesitant to enroll in coursework that would likely be conducted online, and concerns about taking care of family members amidst the health risks associated with the pandemic were also prevalent reasons for delaying enrollment, particularly among Black and Latinx learners. The report highlights three major priorities of high school graduates when considering when and how to re-engage with higher education: 

  • Personalizing college and career guidance. This includes learner-focused academic and career counseling services, peer models, and opportunities for open-minded exploration of diverse pathways. One-on-one attention from counselors centered on meeting learners’ unique needs and validating their goals and experiences is a crucial form of support. Learners also expressed a desire to hear and learn from the perspectives of alumni and industry professionals who have taken diverse college and career pathways.
  • Removing financial barriers. Financial concerns became even more pressing as the pandemic introduced more uncertainties for learners’ futures. A lack of funding to pay for college was a major factor in decisions to delay enrollment, and many survey respondents were no longer certain that a college degree would meet their needs. Learners increasingly fear accumulating student loan debt, and many found it difficult to navigate the application process for scholarships that might help to cover the costs. Streamlined and accessible financial aid is key to addressing these barriers.
  • Connecting college and career, and making academics relevant to real-world interests. Learners want to be prepared for a shifting and unpredictable workforce, and flexibility and career relevance in educational programs are critical concerns. Many recognize that a degree does not necessarily guarantee career success and hope to build work-ready skills through immersive hands-on and work-based learning experiences such as apprenticeships. Others hope that additional credentials and certifications will give them an advantage in the labor market. 

These priority areas shed light on effective supports that state Career Technical Education (CTE) leaders and educational institutions can implement to promote the success of aspiring postsecondary learners disrupted by the pandemic. Financial assistance, mentoring relationships and personalized advising supports are especially powerful tools for closing the opportunity gaps that hinder the success of learners with low incomes, learners of color and first-generation college students. Despite the uncertainties of today’s labor market, recent high school graduates still believe that postsecondary educational opportunities are essential for both personal and professional development, as well as preparing for and transitioning to meaningful careers. Recognizing the future-focused resilience of these recent graduates and addressing their central areas of concern are important first steps for re-engagement in postsecondary education and career pathways.

Allie Pearce, Graduate Fellow

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