The high school class of 2023 had an experience that was inevitably shaped by COVID-19. The pandemic hit when they were freshmen and many students endured over a year of remote learning, with limited access to school counseling services and extracurricular activities. Now, as the COVID cohort graduates and gets ready for higher education, a new report shows how the pandemic affected their college and career choices, both positively and negatively.
The report, released by ACT, the nonprofit behind the standardized test, is based on a survey given to a random sample of over 1500 high school seniors last September. It found clear impacts from the coronavirus: over two out of five students said that the pandemic affected their thoughts about at least one college or career-related choice, including whether to attend college, what type of school to go to, what to study, and what career to pursue. One third of students changed their thoughts about two or more choices.
Many of these changes were in response to COVID’s challenges, such as greater financial difficulties from family job losses and increased costs. These factors made students consider less expensive schools, two-year rather than four-year programs, and courses of study that offer quicker monetary gain.
Another challenge was changing academic circumstances, with less motivation and productivity resulting in worse test scores and grades.
“Although I still have decent grades, the pandemic took a toll on me academically,” said a student who was surveyed. “Once I got behind in one class it was almost impossible to catch up. If my grades from the 2020-21 school year turned out differently in just one class, I’d feel more open to applying to other schools.”
COVID’s mental health impacts also affected college choices.
“The pandemic really unmotivated me with being successful,” said one student. “There was so much negativity in the world and the focus on social media had become huge because of how lonely we all felt from being isolated.”
“The pandemic made me reconsider where I want to be in life and in the future,” said another. “I was struggling to even pick a major and I felt lost.”
Others doubted their ability to get into college or questioned the need for higher education at all.
The effects of the pandemic appeared to be stronger for lower-income and minoritized students. Roughly 40% of students whose families earned under $36,000 a year said that the pandemic changed their thoughts about which school to attend and what subject to study, compared to around a quarter of wealthier students. And about 1/3 of Black, Asian, and Latinx students said that COVID altered their ideas on which school to attend, in contrast to only 1/5 of white students.
To Dr. Sherry Molock, an associate professor of clinical psychology at George Washington University who has studied the impacts of COVID on minoritized students, the results were unsurprising.
“These communities were more vulnerable anyway,” she said. “They’re more likely to live in home environments where people’s employment might be more precarious, [and] they’re more likely to live in a multi-generational family—that alone makes you more exposed to COVID.”
Lower-income and minoritized students are also more likely to have spotty internet access, she added. And the impacts from changes in college choices might be long-term.
“If you have to change your major or the school you’re going to attend for economic reasons, the potential earnings that you might have four or five years from now is altered significantly,” she said.
However, the news was not all bad. For some students, the pandemic allowed them to find new interests or to reflect on what would fulfill them.
“Sitting in isolation, I found a passion for computer science and STEM related fields,” said one student. “Due to the free time, I would spend hours learning new ways to program something simple or challenge myself with problems.”
“I realized I wanted to switch from a STEM focus to theater/media,” said another. “Being separated from the immense pressure at school and from my STEM friends allowed me to think about what I actually wanted to do.”
These positive findings were unexpected for Dr. Becky Bobek, a principal research scientist at ACT and an author of the report.
“[The pandemic] really allowed these students to engage in the kinds of activities that support informed choices,” she said. “I was really pleasantly surprised that they took time and had the opportunity to do that outside of the school setting.”
The report also included recommendations for how colleges and universities can help this unique group of students. These include providing financial opportunities, such as scholarships and work-study, offering resources for unfinished learning, such as tutoring and summer bridge programs, and addressing mental health concerns. Molock thought that this last measure was particularly important.
“I think young peoples’ perception about how confident they can feel about the future is undermined,” she said. “The transition to college is already a stressful event anyway. Students might need a little more support in their first year or two.”
Bobek, along with her co-author Dr. Joyce Schnieders, is working on another study about the COVID cohort, this time focusing on their college preparation experiences. It is expected to be released in the fall. Bobek and Molock agreed that long-term research needs to be done to learn how the pandemic has affected this group.
“I think that these young people need to be followed for a couple of years,” said Molock. “I don’t think we have a full understanding of the impact of COVID yet on the education of young people.”
Jon Edelman can be reached at JEdelman@DiverseEducation.com