College & Workforce Readiness

Fewer Students in Class of 2020 Went Straight to College

By Dalia Faheid — April 06, 2021 6 min read
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Amid a sharp decline in college enrollment during the pandemic, graduates of low-income, high-poverty high schools were disproportionately affected, with their enrollment dropping most steeply, new data reveals.

“If you’re a low-income kid, a kid of color, a first-generation college-going kid, the actual process necessary for you to get from high school to college is incredibly fragile, even in the best of circumstances,” said Derrell Bradford, the executive vice president of 50CAN, a national nonprofit that advocates for equitable schools. “The tiniest hiccup can mean that your entire college experience is derailed. The focus it takes to make sure that an underprivileged kid gets to college, matriculates, and manages to stay there for all four years is immense.”

The eighth annual “High School Benchmarks” report from the National Student Clearinghouse found that, as of Nov. 16, college enrollments dropped by 6.8 percent—more than quadrupling the pre-pandemic rate of decline, a pattern magnified based on poverty level. Overall, 56.5 percent of the 2020 graduating class enrolled in postsecondary school immediately after graduating, compared with 60.5 percent for the 2019 graduating class.

Notably, schools with high populations of poor students of color experienced a much greater decline in enrollment, compared with those from whiter and wealthier schools, a reversal of pre-pandemic trends. High-poverty high schools sent 46 percent of 2020 graduates to college this past fall, compared with 70 percent of graduates from low-poverty schools. In 2019, high-poverty high schools sent 51.5 percent of graduates to college, compared with 72.6 percent of low-poverty schools. The results support Edweek findings that the coronavirus has most disrupted post-high school plans of students from low-income families.

Experts fear inequities will grow

“These declines that we’re seeing now are going to deepen the inequities that already exist within our education system,” said Mamie Voight, interim president at the Institute for Higher Education Policy. “Americans who can benefit the most from the mobility that a higher education provides are the least likely to be able to attend right now.”

The research from the National Student Clearinghouse is drawn from about 3,500 public high schools that pay for its StudentTracker for High Schools service, a group that represents 14 percent of U.S. high schools. Low-income high schools are slightly overrepresented in the data.

Experts say two factors have likely contributed to the uneven decline in college enrollment last year for high school graduates. The first is virtual instruction making learning less accessible and engaging, especially for low-income students who may not have broadband access and other learning resources. The second is the economic and health fallout of COVID-19, which has hit students who are Black and Latino and their families the hardest, sometimes requiring students to work and provide caregiving for their families and making it increasingly difficult to afford a college education.

“When a major crisis hits, the students in low-resource high schools are going to have no resources at home to compensate for that gap,” said New York University higher education professor Stella Flores. “It’s an arms race, in that no matter how they move forward, those with more resources are going to move forward faster.”

Decline seen as ‘perfect storm’ of pandemic, existing trends

Prior to the pandemic, Flores said, she was predicting a decline in higher education enrollment within five to 10 years. But the COVID crisis forced that decline to start much earlier than expected. There’s also been a shift in the demographic groups affected by that decrease. According to her research, the decline was going to affect mostly white college enrollment, but with COVID-19 affecting minority groups most, Black, Latino, Native American, and Asian American students are now joining in the enrollment decline.

“It’s a perfect storm of a lot of expected and unexpected declines,” she said. “The face of higher education might look a little different for the next five years. We were supposed to make some progress in minority enrollment pre-COVID, and that part of the progress is going to be stifled.”

Community colleges hit hard

According to the clearinghouse’s research , community colleges were hardest hit by enrollment declines, while public four-year colleges were the least affected.

“The students who are not enrolling in community college are the same ones who need to support their families, who are working our essential worker jobs, who have had family members who have died from COVID,” said Nancy Lue, a co-founder of the Advanced Education Research & Development Fund. “They can’t focus on going to college, because they have all the other challenges happening in a pandemic and they don’t have the privileges that students from less disadvantaged families have.”

The decline in community college enrollment is particularly worrying, experts said, because it’s usually the most accessible option for graduates of low-income schools.

“When you have fewer students going to college from a community, it becomes harder and harder for the students that come after them to go to college,” Lue said. “They should have a pathway to continue their education, and it shouldn’t be dependent on how much the families can afford.”

Opting out of higher education directly out of high school makes those graduates less likely to do so in the future, Lue said. “The further you are away from going immediately, the harder it is to get back on track,” she said, because students won’t have the same support structures they had in high school with peers and counselors. Lue said schools should continue to be in touch with students that have graduated and provide support for them to apply to and attend college.

How schools can help

Another way high schools can help students transition, Voight said, is by strengthening access to broadband and providing child-care options, both of which would make online learning more accessible.

Bradford expects that the lasting effects of the pandemic on immediate college enrollment will be even greater in the coming years. To help disadvantaged students transition to higher education, he said, they will need an academic safety net.

Rather than loosening up grading standards and standardized testing, as some high schools have done during the pandemic, experts recommend giving students the option to repeat a grade so they can catch up on lessons they missed during the pandemic or provide individual tutoring to fill those learning gaps.

It’s more important than ever, clearinghouse researcher Mikyung Ryu said, for schools to monitor students’ educational progress and provide personalized college advising early on.

In the meantime, clearinghouse researchers say they will continue to track immediate college enrollment for 2021 graduates as well as check back to see whether the 2020 graduates who didn’t immediately enroll in college last fall will do so later on.

“My biggest fear,” said Christopher Edley, co-founder of the Opportunity Institute, which promotes social and economic mobility in education, referring to disadvantaged students, “is that the disruption will damage the academic mindset that’s needed for post-secondary success, as well as affect social emotional development, which was already too slow and too little.”

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