Survey: How did COVID affect high school seniors’ college plans?

A report released recently by YouthTruth, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, shows how the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected the career and college aspirations of English learners, LGBTQ+ students, and students of color, among other underrepresented groups. Analyzing responses from more than 28,000 high school seniors in the classes of 2019 and 2022, researchers found that, overall, one in four seniors in the class of 2022 had changed their post-secondary plans since the beginning of the pandemic.

That rate was even higher among English learners (35%), LGBTQ+ students (34%), Latinx students (32%), and Indigenous students (41%).  In comparison, 24% of white students and 22% of Asian or Asian American seniors reported their plans had changed.

Related: Campus closures pose added risks for LGBTQ+ students >

Changing college aspirations

The YouthTruth data also revealed disparities in how the pandemic changed the college and career desires and expectations of Latinx and Black students, LGBTQ+ youth, men, and seniors attending high-poverty schools. Reflecting the undergraduate enrollment loss seen in recent years, the report shows that when asked, “Do you want to go to college?,” 71% of Latinx students in the class of 2022 said “yes,” a drop from 79% in the class of 2019. The percentage of Black students with college aspirations similarly fell from 79% in 2019 to 72% in 2022. The decline was even sharper among male students: 74% said they wanted to go to college in 2019, compared with 67% in 2022.

Related: Decline in Latinx enrollment sparks concerns about long-term effects >

When asked, “After you finish high school, what do you expect to do next?,” 54% of white students in the class of 2022 said they expected to attend a four-year college, while only 36% of Latinx students and 28% of Indigenous students expected to do the same. Thirty-six percent of students who attended a high-poverty school expected to attend college, compared to 49% of students who did not attend high-poverty schools. Asked about community college, which typically enrolls a large percentage of Black and Latinx students,19% of students in the class of 2022 said they expected to attend community college after high school, compared with 25% in 2019.

Role of adult support

These numbers in part reflect the consequences of a strong job market and increased college costs, researchers say. “The opportunity cost of going to college for low-income, first-gen Latino students, and especially for men of color, is much more acute right now with inflation, low unemployment, and increasing costs of going to college,” Deborah A. Santiago, CEO of Excelencia in Education, tells Inside Higher Ed.

In addition, educators say the lack of in-person college fairs, internships, and college and career counseling from high schools during the pandemic may have also dampened interest in postsecondary education and increased disparities in college-going expectations, The 74 reports. In the YouthTruth survey, 40% of respondents from the class of 2019 said they received career guidance from their high schools. Just 33% of this year’s respondents said the same. There was a similar decline in the percentage of rural, Latinx, and male students who said there were adults they could ask to write college recommendation letters.

Respondents also reported missing out on financial aid counseling. One in four students in the class of 2022 said they received guidance on how to pay for college, compared to one in three in 2019. Students have tried to acquire financial aid and career counseling on their own through online sources, Geoff Heckman, head of the counseling department at Platte County High School, tells The 74, but they’ve had to do it “without the genuine face-to-face conversation that is so helpful in making that determination about which direction they really want to pursue.”

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