College & Workforce Readiness What the Research Says

Pandemic High School Grads Are Sticking With College. States Want to Make Sure They Finish

By Sarah D. Sparks — August 31, 2023 7 min read
Harvard University freshman Daniela Andrade on campus October 12, 2021 in Cambridge, Mass.
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Three years after the pandemic upended the college careers of many students, new data show higher education students are back on track and persisting in college at the same rates they were before COVID-19 came on the national scene.

But experts say high schools and higher education institutions alike need to provide better guidance, support, and alignment between the courses provided in high school and needed in college to ensure students complete their education, as well as to build momentum for the students whose K-12 experiences were disrupted during the pandemic.

Overall, enrollment in higher education is still well below pre-pandemic levels. As of May 2023, the most recent data, the National Student Clearinghouse finds just under 16.9 million students enrolled across public and private two- and four-year degree programs. That’s still well below the 18.2 million students enrolled in higher education in spring of 2019, and still declining year-over-year.

However, for the newest high school graduates, the college picture is less bleak. Among young people age 24 and younger, 11.3 million were enrolled in higher education in spring 2023, up from the prior year though still below the 11.9 million enrolled before the pandemic in 2019. The rising enrollment and increased persistence among the youngest college-goers suggests higher education may be starting to recover from pandemic interruption.

Of the 2.4 million students who entered college for the first time in fall 2021, more than 3 in 4 continued in higher education for a second year, according to data from the clearinghouse, a national nonprofit that tracks college enrollment and persistence. That’s nearly a percentage point higher than the persistence rate for the incoming class that started in fall 2020, in the thick of the pandemic, and it matches the average share of students who stuck around into the next year from the incoming classes of 2016, 2017, and 2018.

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The data showed improvements both in the number of students who stayed at their original college and those who continued higher education at all. Both two- and four-year degree programs improved their retention rates.

Even so, persistence rates varied widely by state, with a little more than half of Alaska students who started higher education in 2021 returning for a second year, compared with more than 9 in 10 college students in the District of Columbia.

“There’s a fine line where we want to be encouraging, because it’s great that people are making progress, but through a combination of not having enough resources and not always doing the right things, [college persistence rates] remain low,” said Charles Ansell, vice president of research and advocacy at the Complete College America, a nonprofit providing research support for the state network.

“The learning loss in K-12 that’s happening because of the pandemic,” Ansell said, “is going to mean a tidal wave of preparatory needs for higher ed. to consider.”

That’s why 11 states—Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, South Carolina, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin—this week launched the Complete College Accelerator, a network supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and intended to develop and share best practices to improve college persistence and completion, particularly among first-generation, low-income, and minority students.

(Education Week also receives support from the Gates Foundation for general operations and coverage of math education.)

In addition to exploring ways to improve dual-credit programs and transitions from high school to college, the states will also explore more holistic supports for college students who may lose services like food, disabilities accommodations, mental health supports or English-language development when they leave K-12.

“We always knew that food insecurity, housing insecurity, mental health were issues for students,” said Nia Haydel, vice president for institutional transformation at Complete College America, which is operating the accelerator network. “But COVID just really amplified those things. If [college students] don’t have a way to manage those things, then it’s very difficult for them to focus on their academic programs and to complete.”

While persistence rates in different majors have improved more in two-year programs than in four-year programs since 2019, students are still significantly more likely to persist in bachelor’s degree programs than associate degree programs in the same career field. For example, more than 83 percent of students who entered a four-year degree program in a health profession in 2021 returned for a second year of college, while only 61 percent of students studying for an associate degree in the same fields did the same.

Ansell and others suggested students may have a harder time sticking with majors and degree programs in which students must take prerequisite classes that offer no credit before beginning courses that can count toward their majors.

Math is typically one of those subjects, and two-year colleges often have two to five times the remediation rates of four-year programs.

“The data show that students who begin [college] in remedial education, with courses where they are not getting college credit and cannot use financial aid to pay for them, are not persisting and not completing [degrees],” Haydel said. “So we are trying to help institutions to rethink how they remediate students so that they can receive credit at the same time as they are being remediated and move to their programs.”

Similarly, Haydel said states such as Arkansas and Maine are working to improve the quality and usefulness of dual-credit programs in high school. For example, students could get more information on which dual-credit courses to take to earn credit in the degree they want to pursue in college.

“Historically dual enrollment has not been available across entire K-12 systems and even the quality of the offerings vary from high school to high school,” Haydel said. “There is a national recognition right now that we need to be more intentional in partnering [higher education] institutions with K-12 systems” to ensure that students take the dual-enrollment classes that will actually provide credit in their chosen major.

Better guidance needed in high school and college

In both high school and college, experts say students from underrepresented groups also need better and more holistic guidance counseling to choose the right degree programs and to manage their finances, course loads, and well-being once on campus.

A new report from the National Center for Education Statistics finds 83 percent of students who meet with a guidance counselor in high school attend college within three years of graduating—23 percentage points higher than the college-going rate for students who didn’t meet with a counselor. And the students least likely to have families with college experience were also least likely to get such guidance from school: Students whose parents had not attained a college degree were 10 percentage points less likely to meet with a guidance counselor than those whose parents had at least a bachelor’s degree. But among first-generation students, those who met with a high school counselor were 25 percentage points more likely to attend college within three years of graduating high school.

For example, first-generation college student Daniela Andrade entered Harvard University in fall 2021 to study neuroscience and health, after losing several family members and friends during the pandemic. Andrade credited a nonprofit virtual college guidance program, CollegePoint, for helping her make the transition.

Still at Harvard, Andrade has since co-founded a group developing an artificial intelligence-based mental health app, and works with groups to boost enrollment and persistence of underrepresented groups on campus and in public service.

“I have witnessed firsthand the impact of the language barrier. I also observed (not only in my [high] school but in society in general) there are low achievement expectations for Hispanic students,” Andrade wrote in a post on the need to smooth the college transition.

Even if they persist through their first years of higher education, less than half of first-generation college students and a little more than half of Black and Latinx college students earn a degree within six years, national data show.

Andrade said first-generation college-goers and English-learners in particular have to have more than just information about colleges and scholarships in their high school years. They also need a space where they can feel “comfortable asking questions and gaining knowledge from peers in an engaging learning environment,” Andrade said.

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