Sharp drop in share of high school graduates headed straight to college

A new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) indicates that nearly 22 percent fewer high school graduates went straight to college this year compared to the class of 2019. Among the 2,324 high schools studied—not a representative sample, NSCRC notes—the class of 2020’s overall immediate enrollment rate was 27.7 percent, down significantly from 35.3 percent the year prior. Meanwhile, the pandemic had essentially no effect on high school graduation rates, NSCRC said. 

Some high schools post disproportionately large declines

High schools serving large populations of students of color and low-income students were disproportionately impacted. Graduates who attended what would be considered low-income high schools had a nearly 30 percent drop in immediate college enrollment; their peers at high-income high schools had a 17 percent drop. Urban high schools saw a 25 percent decline, compared to 20 percent at suburban schools.

“These are really staggering numbers. To see something of this magnitude is frightening,” Doug Shapiro, the center’s executive director, told The Chronicle of Higher Education. “People talk about a lost generation, and for many of these students, especially the ones from lower-income families who were headed to community colleges, they’re really at risk of falling off the track and never being able to get back on.”

Among institution types, community colleges, which enroll large numbers of low-income and minority students, saw the harshest decline; just over 30 percent fewer high school graduates immediately enrolled at community colleges this year. Unlike their more affluent peers, many community college students don’t have the luxury of taking a gap year to intern or volunteer. Instead, they’ve had to make difficult decisions due to financial constraints caused by the pandemic. 

“The students that we serve—the gap year means a full-time job that now mom and dad can use the income and the likelihood of them going back is slim to none,” Catalina Cifuentes, executive director of college and career readiness at the Riverside County Office of Education, told EdSource. “Our students don’t have necessarily that luxury to take a gap year. They’re not exploring their options or doing an unpaid internship. If they’re not going to school and working part-time, they’re most likely going to work full time.

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