High School Students Are Changing College Plans

Colleges should expect more students to attend college close to home and to look for low-cost options.

June 28, 2021
 
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Two surveys of high school students are being released today -- and both suggest that the impact of the coronavirus pandemic will be with colleges for some time.

A significant portion of students report that their college plans have changed and that they want to study close to home and inexpensively.

One survey was done by America's Promise Alliance, a national coalition of education and other groups focused on "the barriers that stand in the way of young people's success." The other was by Strada Education Network, which is focused on findings ways to improve lives "by forging pathways between education and employment."

The America's Promise survey was planned before the pandemic but was restructured after the pandemic was underway. The survey was conducted in March and April 2021 among a nationally representative sample of 2,439 high school students. (It is not clear if the results would have been changed because of the more optimistic view of the pandemic that has taken hold in the last month or two.)

"Students have witnessed tremendous upheaval in their families, schools, and communities over the past academic year," a report on the survey says. "Broader influences including the nation's economy, disruptions to the higher education landscape, and looming public health concerns have imposed a great deal of uncertainty on students’ lives after graduation. Overall, approximately four out of five (78 percent) 11th and 12th graders reported that COVID-19 has impacted their plans after high school at least a little bit, with almost one in five reporting their plans were impacted a great deal."

The report says, "Most commonly, students reported changes to where they plan to attend college. For example, one-third (34 percent) of young people report changing their plans to attend college closer to home and one-quarter (24 percent) plan to attend a two-year instead of a four-year institution. Some young people (7 percent) report that they no longer plan to attend college, and 16 percent say they plan to attend college later."

Of the 11th and 12th graders who said their plans had changed, nearly half said that their plans have changed due to financial (47 percent) or family reasons (45 percent). Far fewer cited changes to their interests (24 percent), the report said, "suggesting that shifting plans are driven largely by constraints beyond young people’s control."

Sean Flanagan, senior director of research at America's Promise, said large proportion of students have changed their plans. "They are really grappling with what their postsecondary education will be like," he said.

Strada surveyed 1,212 high school seniors (half from last year's senior class) whose plans had been disrupted by the pandemic.

The survey found:

  • Most disrupted high school graduates have revised their postsecondary education plans in some way, with 35 percent of students saying they will choose a less expensive program, 31 percent looking for options closer to home, 21 percent a different major and 18 percent a shorter program.
  • Disrupted Black students are more likely than their white peers to have changed their future education plans -- with, for example, 40 percent of Black graduates saying they would look for less expensive options, compared to 33 percent of white graduates.
  • Sixty-nine percent of disrupted graduates still believe that additional education would help them get a good job and 63 percent believe they would be successful, but only 45 percent believe the benefits of education would exceed the costs.

“The high school Classes of 2020 and 2021 have experienced massive disruption to their educational experiences,” said Dave Clayton, senior vice president at Strada. “In order to help those students reconnect, educators and policy makers should listen to what those students say they need: better guidance, clear information on education’s connection to careers and an easier financial aid process.”

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