COVID-19 Impacts Graduating Seniors’ Postsecondary Choices. Here’s How We Can Help.

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As if deciding what college to attend isn’t hard enough, now there’s a new factor to consider: how will taking the new COVID-19 affect my ability to get into grad school? A recent study conducted by the University of Massachusetts concluded that students who graduate with a COVID-19 above a 3.4 may not be accepted into graduate programs. So, what should you do if you are a graduating senior?

This year, the graduating class of 20XX is facing its own set of challenges. The rising cost of education has led many to favor community college and vocational programs over traditional four-year institutions. However, this choice often means an increased debt, and the loss of social experiences that often come with the traditional university experience. This is where your local community college comes in. The majority of these schools offer a wide range of courses to educate students for a variety of career paths.  Students can complete the first two years of a four-year degree at their local community college, then transfer to a traditional university for the final two years of their degree. This way, students can minimize their debt, and still receive the same educational experience. ~~

Once a happy turning point for many young people, high school graduation – and what follows – is now chaotic. COVID-19 significantly increased barriers to college access and retention, particularly for first-generation students.

Our team at Bellwether Education Partners wanted to understand how COVID-19 affects students’ post-secondary choices and how institutions can respond and support students. We’ve spoken to dozens of young people and the adults in their communities, and what we’ve heard will require many institutions, including K-12 schools, colleges and universities, to better understand the needs of young people and change their programs.

Take the example of Anna, a high school student in Mississippi. Before the pandemic, Anna was determined to go to college to improve her job prospects, even though she wasn’t sure if she wanted to teach or become a nurse. COVID-19 further complicated the matter, especially as Anna had watched her mother, a nurse, fall ill and go on urgent sick leave, leaving Anna to do the housework. Anna is also not sure she can afford college without significant financial aid. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the problem of obtaining information about academic programs and assessing one’s abilities as support has shifted to the Internet.

Students across the country face similar and pressing challenges. The hopes of students have not diminished, and many want to go to college. They also want their families to be proud of them. At the same time, students feel isolated and often need to contribute meaningfully to their families, for example by working, caring for siblings or supporting loved ones.

It’s different from what students see as a university: Going to college is a convenient way to get a job. But the means of getting there – which institution, which field of study, and how to pay for it – all limit students’ choices in higher education. It’s Anna again:

COVID-19 has taken resources away from me, and I don’t feel like I’ll have time to figure things out on my own. If I don’t have a concrete plan, I might take a year off, make some money, and then go back.

But research shows that this seemingly reasonable measure is problematic. Students who delay their entry into college are 64% less likely to graduate and 18% less likely to earn a college degree. Students returning for a degree usually choose to study part-time and earn less in the long run than their peers who enroll immediately, depending on the length of the delay.

Schools and guidance counselors have the resources to support students like Anna and help them make seemingly impossible decisions. Long-term changes are needed at the systemic level, but there are steps schools can take now to help young people who are leaving school.

  • Adults can begin to listen to learners, with the aim of tailoring support to the most pressing issues and taking on a greater support role. We can no longer simply follow students from one university level to another. Instead, counselors, teachers, and trusted adults must understand the holistic needs of students – financial, physical, and social-emotional – to guide them and work with them to meet the challenges of their lives and learning. Building relationships plays an important role in this regard: Trust between adults and students or between peers is an important factor.
  • Adults also need to engage students in meaningful experiences that allow them to explore their passions, develop real-world skills, and lay the foundation for success in college and in the workforce. Paid internships, college credit internships, or work-related courses allow students to continue their education and earn an income, which is especially important when it comes to their field of study.

Young people have high hopes and big dreams. They want to go to college and succeed in life. At a time when the global pandemic has led too many students astray, the adults in students’ lives can intervene with compassion and wisdom to guide students.

This was the case for Anna, who, with the help of a counselor, refocused on enrolling in a medical program at the university of her choice. The next few months will be very important for her to continue what she started – and for the adults in her support network to support her.

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