College & Workforce Readiness From Our Research Center

Class of COVID: 2021’s Graduates Are Struggling More and Feeling the Stress

By Alex Harwin & Sarah D. Sparks — October 18, 2021 7 min read
College & Workforce Readiness From Our Research Center

Class of COVID: 2021’s Graduates Are Struggling More and Feeling the Stress

By Alex Harwin & Sarah D. Sparks — October 18, 2021 7 min read
Conceptual illustration of young adults in limbo
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While COVID-19 abruptly blew up the class of 2020’s senior year, its effects on this year’s graduating class have been in some ways deeper and more troubling.

While academically promising low-income graduates began to explore more college options in 2021 as campuses reopened, ongoing financial instability and health risks from the pandemic continue to temper their plans for college.

In both August 2020 and 2021, the EdWeek Research Center conducted nationally representative online polls of the postsecondary plans of new, high-achieving high school graduates. More than 4 in 5 of the students graduated with at least a B grade average, and more than 3 in 5 were in the top half of their graduating class. More than 65 percent took at least two advanced courses, such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate ones. Their responses paint a picture of new graduates still struggling to find their footing after a tumultuous couple years of high school.

Compared with the class of 2020, new graduates in 2021:

  • Were more likely to have seen their original postsecondary plans break down. Seventy-four percent of the recent graduates from 2020 who were planning on attending a four-year college followed through with their plans and ended up attending a university. Only 62 percent of the class of 2021 were able to do the same. Among students who had planned to attend a two-year college in 2021, only 44 percent succeeded in doing so, compared with 57 percent of graduates who wished to enter a two-year degree program in 2020.
  • Worry more about how attending college would expose themselves or their family members to the pandemic—and with good reason. More than three times as many 2021 graduates said they changed plans for college because they contracted the coronavirus themselves, 13 percent versus 4 percent in 2020. More than twice as many 2021 graduates said they changed their college plans to care for family members at risk of COVID-19, 18 percent versus 7 percent in 2020. Among low-income graduates in particular, 22 percent in 2021 changed their postsecondary choices over concerns about family members’ health—a nearly threefold jump from 2020. Sixty percent in the class of 2021 now report experiencing “some” or “a lot” of health-related stress, up from 50 percent last year.
  • Struggle more with how to pay for college and day-to-day living. The share of recent graduates who feel economic stress rose from 57 percent to 65 percent from 2000 to 2021. Compared with last year, a larger share of high school graduates of all income levels reported using their own money to support family rather than putting it toward college expenses. But the burden grew particularly for low-income students, from 12 percent in 2020 to 21 percent in 2021. Even so, compared with the class of 2020, nearly twice as many new graduates in 2021 who need financial aid for college had not yet started to apply for it by September.
  • Yet show more resilience than the class of 2020 as they try to adapt to pandemic life after high school. Nearly 80 percent applied to at least two colleges, and 23 percent applied to seven or more institutions in 2021. Only 70 percent of their 2020 peers applied to two or more colleges. Sixty-three percent in the class of 2021 were admitted to at least two colleges, up slightly from the prior year. Moreover, while 70 percent of 2021 graduates report “some” to “a lot” of anxiety about the future, that’s down 6 percentage points from last year.

The seniors who graduated during the first waves of the pandemic in 2020 faced sudden school shutdowns and canceled college-placement tests, but states also offered significant graduation waivers and flexibility that spring, which many states have not offered to the class of 2021.

Tupelo High School 12th grade Assistant Principal L.V. McNeal hands out a diploma to a graduating senior at Milam Elementary School, Wednesday, May 6, 2020, in Tupelo Miss. The school district divided up the graduation ceremony to five different locations over three days with no more than four guests in attendance.

Jeffrey Beckham Jr., the chief executive officer of Chicago Scholars, which provides college planning and transition support for high-achieving, low-income students in the Chicago public schools, said promising seniors in the cohorts since the pandemic began have in many cases had to scramble to prove their academic worth to colleges despite incomplete classes and extracurricular activities.

“There has been a shift to students really looking at colleges that provide support for the whole person,” he said. “There are great young people who qualify for the right schools, but maybe they had a rough year, the last year and a half. We’ve asked our college counselors who work hand in hand with our students to directly talk to the admissions advisers and work through the ideas of students as a whole person.”

Daniela Andrade, a first-generation college-goer who graduated from high school this year in New York and just started her first semester at Harvard University, said the process wasn’t easy for her or her classmates. “Obviously, students must be proactive in their own education, pushing through getting into the college [application and transition] process. But my school is predominantly a minority-dominant school where students are first-generation college students, where we’ve never done this before,” she said. “I definitely feel like the college process isn’t only about applying for college: It’s about how you’re going to fund college ... and the mental aspect of it. Like the stress, the fear, the anxiety. Even though I did submit, it was a lot of anxiety, and I feel like your guidance counselors don’t talk to you about that in school.”

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The diminished in-person opportunities for college-going support during students’ junior and senior years may have had an impact. Early data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that as of September, nearly 652,000 fewer students enrolled in college in fall 2020 than in the previous fall, a drop of more than 3 percent. Similar data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center suggested traditional-age college students, students of color, and young men had the sharpest drops in enrollment.

Schools, community groups work to keep students on track

The turmoil puts extra pressure on schools and universities alike to get students back on track, as research shows many students who put off entering college or choose a less-rigorous program than they qualify for are at much higher risk of never completing their degrees.

“Momentum really matters to get to college completion,” said Robert Balfanz, the director of the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University, “and COVID, as we know, is very disruptive to momentum.”

NCES preliminary data already show the percentage of part-time college students who stayed on past their freshman year dropped 3 percentage points, to 43.5 percent, while full-time students’ retention rates also ticked down slightly from 76.1 percent to 75.7 percent.

“We had so much attention around students’ lost contact with teachers” during the pandemic, said Bridget Terry Long, the dean and a professor of education and economics at Harvard Graduate School of Education, “which I think is true, but there’re also so many other supports that they get in schools, such as counselors, after-school programs, and nonprofit organizations that work with and through the schools, who end up being really key in terms of everything from the college prep up to entry.”

The EdWeek survey data also show, however, that, during this third year of pandemic instruction, schools are keeping a closer eye on students’ mental health, which has suffered in the past two years during the college transition. While more than 1 in 3 graduates in 2020 said their schools never checked on their well-being, fewer than 1 in 4 of the students who graduated this year said that was the case for them.

Nick Watson, the executive director of CollegePoint at Bloomberg Philanthropies, said his organization’s virtual college-guidance and -mentoring initiative has seen an increase in both the number and diversity of low-income, high-achieving students using the service—including 29 percent more Black students and 51 percent more Hispanic students—and they’re asking for mentoring for longer stretches than in prior years.

“A lot of our students that we worked with in the class of 2020, 2021, they used their advisers from June all the way through September,” he said, “and there’s still so much uncertainty right now.”

Mary Giunta, a college and career counselor at the 700-student Afton High School in St. Louis, said a majority of her seniors who attended classes online last year also started working full time. “They were just doing their classes in the evenings and on their free time, but their main focus was to make money,” she said. “So when they graduated, … here they were working full-time jobs, making good money, right? For an 18-year-old, they think they’ve made it, but they don’t look at it in the long term. … But I’m already having quite a few [2021 graduates] come back and ask me for help.”

Giunta’s caseload of class of 2022 seniors and prior graduates seeking help with postsecondary planning jumped from 165 last year to 206 this year, and many did not participate in the college planning and visits that normally occur in lower high school grades.

“When they leave here, [graduates] sometimes think, I’ve got this, this is what I’m going to do,” Giunta said. “And then they get lost and they don’t know how to get back into higher education. “I think that’s really important for us in education right now—to let those kids know they can come back” for more postsecondary transition support well after graduation.

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Conceptual Illustration of young person sitting on top of a financial trend line.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Klaus Vedfelt/DigitalVision<br/>

Coverage of the education of exceptionally promising students who have financial need is supported in part by a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 27, 2021 edition of Education Week as Class of COVID: 2021’s Graduates Are Struggling More and Feeling the Stress


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