The public health and economic crises caused by COVID-19 have created additional challenges for students who are navigating the transition from high school to postsecondary school or to the workforce. High school seniors in spring 2020 found it difficult to visit schools, complete the necessary tests, apply for financial aid, and discuss their college plans with their teachers and counselors. In a nationwide survey of high school seniors conducted in April 2020, 65 percent expressed significant doubt regarding their ability to attend their first-choice school, primarily due to financial concerns and an inability to visit schools.
Ultimately, COVID-19’s disruption to the college application process resulted in fewer students enrolling in postsecondary school for the 2020-21 school year. One in six high school seniors who responded to the survey reported that they had planned to attend a postsecondary institution prior to the pandemic but were now changing their plans. For comparison, in the 2018-19 school year an estimated 39 percent of D.C.’s high school students graduated within four years and enrolled in postsecondary education. As of this fall, new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center confirmed enrollment among first year college students was down by 16.1 percent.
Students who did matriculate at postsecondary institutions for the 2020-21 school year encountered a range of experiences – none of which resemble a traditional first year at college. They are either attending virtual classes from home or facing strict social distancing guidelines on college campuses. They’re struggling to engage in classes, make friends, and meet professors, increasing their isolation.
Students who were planning to join the workforce this year likely found it difficult to get a job. Since the public health emergency was declared in March, D.C. experienced its highest unemployment rate in recent history – 11.1 percent in May 2020 – and younger workers faced the most devastating job losses. Between March and May, workers under the age of 22 who receive unemployment benefits increased 19-fold – this includes high school aged workers. High unemployment among this age group is due in part to low hiring activity in occupations requiring minimal education. For example, the most common jobs in D.C. for those working with less than a high school diploma are in the Combined Food Preparation and Serving Workers, Including Fast Food category. The most common jobs for high school graduates include security guards and cleaners or janitors. Between January and May 2020, postings for all of these jobs declined by 76 percent.
To learn more about how D.C.’s former high school students are navigating this transition, the D.C. Policy Center reached out to university leadership, college and career program leaders, a parent, and a student to ask the following question: How did the pandemic impact the transition to postsecondary or the workforce?
Ronald Mason Jr., President of the University of the District of Columbia
Long-standing race and social inequities that the pandemic has magnified were evident in students’ abilities to transition…Ronald Mason Jr.
The answer depends on the student. UDC pivoted to telework and online instruction well. Our technology had recently been upgraded and almost all of our faculty are certified to teach online. Based on survey results at the beginning of the pandemic and the end of the spring semester, enrolled students navigated the transition and completed the year without compromising academic integrity.
However, long-standing race and social inequities that the pandemic has magnified were evident in students’ abilities to transition to college. Our retention rate continued to rise, but fall-to-fall enrollment loss in Fall 2020 was approximately 11%. Almost all of the loss was among Pell grant eligible D.C. public and public charter school graduates who were admitted but failed to start the semester.
Perhaps life challenges normally faced by many of our students rendered education a secondary priority. Feeding families, paying bills, managing a fragile future made more uncertain by the virus, or technology challenges, were the tipping point in an already tenuous education future.
Similarly, the transition to the workforce varied depending on the students. Our 2020 graduates in technology, engineering, and healthcare had ample opportunities. Others were either pressed into essential worker status or sidelined by the depressed economy.
As an independent District Agency, we are engaged in District planning for the post-pandemic recovery. Our role is to keep as many students as possible in the learning process. Our value added is that we are building seamless talent production pathways, from workforce certification, through associate degrees, to bachelor’s degrees and beyond. We are prioritizing technology, healthcare, and teacher training, all of which will be critical to recovery.
As the District’s public system of higher learning, our Equity Imperative strategic plan envisions all of our diverse students attaining their highest levels of human potential. Many have life hurdles to overcome in order to do so. Supporting them in that effort, at every step along the path to success, is why we are here. COVID-19 is one more hurdle to overcome.
Dr. Erin Bibo, Deputy Chief, College and Career Programs, D.C. Public Schools
The pandemic has absolutely shaped how our students are making decisions about their futures.Dr. Erin Bibo
At D.C. Public Schools, our commitment to students doesn’t stop when they receive their high school diploma — it extends to college and meaningful career pathways. And the pandemic has absolutely shaped how our students are making decisions about their futures.
The College and Career Programs Division works with students and families starting in the middle grades to expose them to postsecondary opportunities, empower them with information, and provide programming and supports that meet all students’ individual needs, no matter their pathway after high school. This includes helping students access what we call “Smart College Choices” — colleges across the country that have a proven track record of success with DCPS alumni. Unfortunately, the pandemic hit at a very particular time in the financial aid cycle. In March, many DCPS families had already completed their FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), and colleges were in the process of making financial aid awards based on information that was true in 2019 — but now may be radically different, as the economy and employment changed nearly overnight. Some students needed to make college decisions driven by finances instead of the best possible fit for them. We are concerned about the long-term impact of this on our students.
It’s one of many reasons why I’m so grateful for DCPS Persists, our new initiative that provides DCPS alumni with a support network as they navigate college. Many college-bound members of the DCPS Class of 2020 have been matched with a coach who works with them one-on-one, steering them around potential obstacles like renegotiating financial aid and helping them connect with support when campus is on the computer. Coaches share that our graduates are missing that in-person campus experience; they feel lonely and disconnected. We are working to combat this by introducing DCPS alums to one another through efforts like a four-day College Success Summit in August that featured virtual networking sessions for students at specific colleges in the D.C. area.
The DCPS Persists Coaches are relentless in fighting alongside our students. Too many low-income and first-generation students across the country lack access to the critical support and mentorship they provide.
Barrie Moorman, College & Alumni Success Counselor, E.L. Haynes Public Charter School
Many of the challenges our students face in the transition this year are not new, but they are amplified, with a heightened degree of uncertainty and without the typical roadmap to guide us toward answers.Barrie Moorman
The end of senior year of high school is a time with strong traditions and milestones we tell our seniors they’ll remember forever. Our 2020 graduates found themselves with virtual substitutes for these physical markers, making the transition hard to distinguish and harder to manage. Students found themselves dealing with health and economic crises in their families and holding personal and collective grief alongside joy and anticipation.
Many of the challenges our students face in the transition this year are not new, but they are amplified, with a heightened degree of uncertainty and without the typical roadmap to guide us toward answers. There are significant questions that loom large: Will my college help me thrive? Where will I find my community? How will I manage the costs of college? This year, these questions have taken on new urgency with fewer resources available to find answers. Questions about community and safety feel particularly salient as students bear witness to ongoing racial injustice and political unrest and want to know that they are part of communities that will affirm and uplift them and take a stand for justice.
Our students have already overcome personal and systemic challenges and inequities by the time they reach this transition and, what should be a concrete step forward is further complicated by the pandemic. College students are navigating their school’s COVID protocols, managing younger siblings’ virtual learning, figuring out how to pay for college during an economic crisis, and managing their own time and rigorous coursework without the space, freedom, resources, and sense of community that they can access on campus under normal circumstances. The relationships and connections that typically sustain them through this transition are that much harder to form in a virtual or socially distanced environment.
There’s still a lot of unknown time ahead and we will continue working to support our students through the uncertainty, connecting them with available resources to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. None of us know exactly what the future holds; I hope that when we return to something resembling normalcy, our institutions – both K-12 and higher ed – will look more equitable and accessible to ensure our students can thrive.
Janae LP, Former Student at Theodore Roosevelt High School
I’ve been applying to all sorts of jobs, and the process has been frustrating. Last month, I applied to 35 jobs and only received two calls.Janae LP
This year has been challenging for many reasons. After spending the last few months of my time in high school adapting to distance learning, I graduated into a really tough job market. I was hoping to start a career in the hospitality industry because I enjoy customer service roles. During my senior year of high school, my counselor connected me to Career Bridge, a DCPS program that provides job readiness training. They helped me build my resume, write a cover letter, prepare for interviews, and eventually find a job as a front desk assistant at the Hilton. I was really happy with it and was hoping to continue working there after graduating, but when the public health emergency began in March, I was laid off.
Since then, I’ve been applying to all sorts of jobs, and the process has been frustrating. Last month, I applied to 35 jobs and only received two calls. An additional challenge is that I don’t have a driver’s license, so I can’t work in Virginia or Maryland–or anywhere that would be hard to reach via public transportation. I was recently hired in a seasonal role, so hopefully that goes well.
To increase my chances of finding a permanent position in my preferred industry and to do something more productive with my time, I’ve decided to take a free class on hospitality and tourism at UDC in the spring. I think it’ll look good on my resume, and I’m really excited about it. My grandma says I should be persistent and put my best foot forward, so that’s what I’m trying to do.
Anise Walker, PAVE Parent Leader
Since she doesn’t live in the dorms, she’s not allowed to visit the campus because of social distancing guidelines, which increases her isolation.Anise Walker
My daughter graduated from high school this past spring and enrolled at Georgia State University, her top choice. She is hoping to become a nurse, and I’m so proud of her. She’s my only child, so I was looking forward to celebrating her high school graduation with the traditional ceremony, but due to COVID-19 restrictions, we weren’t able to do that. Concerns about COVID-19 also prompted my daughter to opt out of living in her college dorm. She thought it would be unsafe and uncomfortable. Luckily, my brother lives in Atlanta, so she was able to stay with him during her first semester.
She has experienced several big challenges this year. All her classes are online, which is tough because she’s a social individual and that doesn’t translate well to distance learning. She misses being around her friends and is finding it hard to make friends in college. Since she doesn’t live in the dorms, she’s not allowed to visit the campus because of social distancing guidelines, which increases her isolation. Halfway through the semester, she decided to come back home and continue has coursework here. I’m happy she’s communicating with me about her mental state, and I’ve noticed an improvement in her mood and in her grades since she’s returned to the District, but I’m worried about the rest of her college career. I want her to be able to meet her professors and make friends. This year has been a big adjustment for both us. We’re doing well now, and I hope the rest of her college career will be everything she wants it to be.
Read more about the impact of COVID-19 in the District of Columbia.