College & Workforce Readiness

COVID-19’s Disproportionate Toll on Class of 2020 Graduates

By Alex Harwin — October 20, 2020 6 min read
Magdalena Estiverne graduated from high school this past spring during the COVID-19 pandemic. She is currently taking online community college classes.

Among the most academically promising students in the class of 2020, the coronavirus is hitting those from low-income families the hardest.

According to an EdWeek Research Center poll, these students are nearly twice as likely as their peers from wealthier homes to have had their post-high school plans disrupted by COVID-19 and its resulting economic fallout. Some opted for less-expensive schools or colleges closer to home or chose to sit out the first year of college altogether. Their families also suffered in disproportionate numbers from the health and economic fallout of COVID-19, including layoffs, pay cuts, and the underlying health conditions that make exposure to the virus a greater risk.

The EdWeek Research Center conducted its nationally representative online survey in mid-August of 2,135 recent high-achieving graduates from the class of 2020. Eighty-seven percent of those polled completed high school with an overall GPA of at least a B, and 67 percent were in the top 50 percent of their class. Sixty-eight percent had taken two or more advanced courses, like Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate. Education Week’s goal was to understand the pandemic’s impacts on students most likely to transition successfully from high school to college—the potential leaders for the next generation.

Overall, most of the students polled were still pursuing their college aspirations, despite the pandemic-related upheavals that marked the second half of their senior year. But 47 percent of the students who said they had at one time or another qualified for subsidized school meals said they had changed their plans due to COVID-19. Among the students who had never participated in the federal free- and reduced-meal program, the share was just 28 percent.


The various economic and health-related concerns that emerged from the pandemic have taken an emotional toll, most of the students reported. Seventy-five percent of those polled said they worried to “some” degree or “a lot” about their future.

Justin Barton, 18, a recent high school graduate from Nampa, Idaho, who is currently studying web-design, described being asked about the future during his last school year.

“A lot of people were like so ‘what do you do now? How’s it all going to work?’” he said.

“I’m just as clueless as you are, I don’t know how this is going to some of the career people (at my school) were just like, OK, ‘just make sure to go to college’, but a lot of us were thinking ‘is there going to be college this upcoming semester?’ ”

Where They Landed

In the end, 88 percent of all those who took part in the survey applied to one or more colleges, and 86 percent managed to get accepted to one or more schools. More than half—55 percent—filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, a ticket for many to a wide range of college scholarships as well as federal financial aid.

For most of the students polled, health and the economy were key concerns. Only 1 out of 5 recent graduates said that health concerns associated with the coronavirus did not affect their college and job plans. Just 30 percent of students noted that their families experienced zero impact from the economic downturn associated with the pandemic.

On a variety of indicators, though, low-income students suffered the harder hit from the pandemic. Compared with their wealthier peers, they were:

  • 1.4 times as likely to have changed plans because they did not want to risk paying for online courses even though they signed up to attend college (11 percent versus 8 percent).
  • 1.4 times as likely to have changed plans to move out of their home, and instead live with their family (21 percent versus 15 percent).
  • 2.3 times as likely to have changed their plans so they could care for family members who have COVID-19 or are at risk of suffering severe consequences from it (8 percent versus 4 percent).
  • 1.5 times as likely to have chosen a college closer to home (20 percent vs. 13 percent).
  • 1.6 times as likely to switch their plans from a four-year college to a two-year college (9 percent vs. 6 percent).
  • 1.9 times as likely to forgo previous plans to attend college altogether in 2020 (9 percent vs. 5 percent).

Rhode Theodore, 18, a child of immigrants, is among the recent graduates who had to make a difficult decision because of COVID-19. She wanted to move to New York before the pandemic, but now is going to college locally in Stroudsburg, Pa.

Rhode was looking forward to moving because she feels a lot of pressure to help her family, from taking care of her grandmother to helping her Haitian-born parents translate the world around them.

“I wanted to be by myself. ... A lot of the things rely on me in my house, so I kind of wanted to get away from having all that responsibility,” she said. “But now that we are all together, I realize how much it would actually affect everyone if I left, so now I was like maybe I shouldn’t leave.”

Long-Term Consequences

Whether or not the disruptions experienced by the class of 2020 will have long-term financial, career, or academic impacts is an open question. Some research shows that delaying college for financial reasons negatively affects a student’s earnings. The longterm impact may be akin to the wage hit experienced by millennials during the Great Recession, said Anthony Carnevale, the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education.

Rebecca L. Boylan, a researcher at the University of Texas, who studies students’ post-high school transitions, said changing post-high schools plan often is OK, especially for those who have the resources.

“But who follows those paths and who turns them into success is influenced by your background. Movement is not a bad thing. Movement across institutions, short-term gaps is not actually a bad thing if it’s engaged in by students able to get back on the primary path (to college),” she said. But the success odds are lower for students from low-income homes.

“A highly ambitious wealthy student would be expected to be better at staying on track because they have more protective background factors that lead to success even when one diverges from a traditional four-year route through postsecondary (i.e. they can successfully navigate an alternative route that involves switching schools, but still leads to a BA),” she wrote in an email to Education Week. “In contrast, a highly ambitious, but a poorer student who diverges from a traditional path is more likely to experience a path where they spend time at multiple postsecondary schools without getting a degree or to exit postsecondary entirely.”

Students See Uncertain Future

Justin Barton, who is now attending a more affordable college than he originally intended, often finds himself wondering what’s next. He and his family caught the coronavirus over the summer while on vacation in Oregon. His mother, now recovered, landed in the hospital. Now, he worries about his family’s health and his future.

“We just feel like our senior year was taken, and now we are forced to go on,” he said.

Many graduates also reported a sense of disconnection from the high schools they left behind. Only 18 percent of recent graduates reported that anyone from their school had contacted them about their post-high school plans between March 2020 and graduation. After graduation, only 9 percent said they had anyone from their school connect with them.

Less than a quarter of students’ report receiving any emotional support during the pandemic from their schools. Thirty-six percent said they received no emotional support at all.

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 21, 2020 edition of Education Week as COVID-19’s Disproportionate Toll on Class of 2020 Graduates


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