What hurdles get in the way of attending and completing college — and how have COVID-19 and local dynamics made things even harder?
Today, more young people from all races and income levels aspire to attend college than in any previous generation. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, the share of low-income high school students who expect to earn a bachelor’s degree has increased from just 19% in 1980 to over 90% in 2009.
But these aspirations are not met with equal results. Wealthy students are five times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree compared to the lowest-income students, and Black and Hispanic students compose 37% of the population but only 24% of bachelor’s degrees. Low-income students, first-generation students, rural students, and students of color face significant barriers to completing a degree. And without a college education, young people’s earnings, prospects, and life outcomes fall short of their full potential.
Young people navigating to and through college amid the pandemic face many, many challenges, from the academic to the financial to the logistical. Some hurdles can be mitigated with the help of caring adults, but other pitfalls are deep and systemic and largely out of any one individual’s or organization’s locus of control. Reimagining the Road to Graduation outlines steps that supportive adults can start implementing right away and envisions a long-term postsecondary system that is more seamless for students.
Supporting students through postsecondary transitions should not rely on extraordinary humans — it requires an extraordinary system. Such a system needs adults across the sector to understand their role, listen authentically to students, and collaborate across organizations and initiatives to design supports that are coherent and navigable — so that the onus of sorting through multiple resources doesn’t fall on the shoulders of students furthest from opportunity. Regions that have a coordinating entity, such as a college access and success intermediary or a collective impact “backbone” organization, may be a step ahead. In regions that do not have this coordinating point of contact, funders can either play this role or can champion the creation of an organization that serves this purpose.
Jump to: Fragmented Systems / Impact of COVID-19 / Local Examples
As we interviewed young people and adults across the country over the past year, we heard stories about urgent and fundamental hurdles to college readiness, access, and success due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the reality is that postsecondary systems were already frayed even before the stressors of COVID-19.
The path to and through college requires students to build academic foundations, clear logistical hurdles, meet application deadlines, and finance the cost of college. As one student told us:
“Can you empathize with all the competing priorities?”
The graphic below illustrates the five key phases along this complicated journey: readiness, access, persistence, completion, and early career.
- Readiness: During the first three years of high school, students build academic and social-emotional skills required to meet college readiness standards and enroll and succeed in college without needing remedial support.
- Access: High school seniors rely on support to build balanced college lists, meet application deadlines, choose the best-fit college, manage the logistics of enrollment, and finance their education.
- Persistence: Students enrolled in higher education look to fit in and build relationships while navigating complicated choices about coursework, finances, employment, and self/family care.
- Completion: Enrolled students who complete a degree or credential and graduate, ideally on time, rely on early exposure to possible career paths as they determine next steps.
- Early Career: Graduates and degree/credential holders choose an occupation, access a job or internship/apprenticeship, build skills, and begin to pay off any student debt.
Many students rely on a web of adults and organizations to help navigate transitions and avoid pitfalls on this journey. The best supports are ones made seamless by adults: counselors who follow students from college preparation through graduation, high school leaders in frequent touch with college admissions and career offices about their graduates’ performance, or employers that collaborate with K-12 schools and institutions of higher education to provide early exposure to career opportunities and skill-building experiences.
Still, even with all these forms of assistance available, the onus often falls on students to knit together supports across fragmented systems. Frequently, teachers, counselors, deans, and employers serve as stopgaps rather than intentionally working in concert. As an example, consider a student who wants to transfer colleges. He might have multiple resources — advice from peers and family, college websites that outline transfer policies, and guidance from an academic dean or faculty member.
But the experience of navigating all the resources (some of which offer conflicting advice!) ultimately falls to the individual student. His counselor can help navigate the challenges, but the counselor can’t reduce the complexity of the transfer process. Truly addressing the systemic pitfall requires intentional coordination among colleges to streamline their transfer policies.
The impact of systems fragmentation is the greatest for students who face the greatest barriers to college and career success. For example, most first-generation college-goers do not have family and peers who can share informal college knowledge. As one student told us:
“I'm a first-gen student. Parents didn't have a lot of guidance for me. Friends were busy with their own stuff. It was sometimes hard to catch counselors. I navigated a lot on my own.”
Our current postsecondary education system allows students to fall through the cracks. There are exceptions, but given that postsecondary education dramatically increases the likelihood of employment and economic success, these supportive networks need to work well at all times, not just for some students.
Communities bearing the brunt of intergenerational poverty and systemic racism have suffered disproportionately during the COVID-19 pandemic. And the crisis is making the pathway to and through college even more difficult for the students furthest from opportunity, especially as the safety net that supported some, but not all, frayed virtually overnight.
Because of the pandemic, it is harder than ever for students to engage deeply in their coursework, complete the FAFSA application, choose the best fit college, find relevant internships or work opportunities, and complete many other milestones in order to access and persist in college. As one student told us:
“It's nearly impossible to be in the right headspace to do all your work.”
Students are struggling to meet their basic needs, as echoed by a survey from May of 2020:
- Food insecurity affected 44% of students at two-year institutions and 38% at four-year institutions
- Half of students struggled with at least moderate anxiety, and 30% struggled with severe anxiety
- Roughly 1 in 5 students lacked a functional laptop or did not have reliable internet access
- Physical space is in short supply, with many students lacking access to a safe place to focus and de-stress
We heard this urgency directly from young people across the country:
“Some people in my class didn't even have housing for this semester. … They had to live at home. For some people, that's a safe place, but for some it's not.”
“My school loaned me a Chromebook — I've cherished this with my life. Without it, I would be doing all my homework on my phone.”
“It's difficult to be home and do everything online ... there are times when my dad says I didn't help him cut the grass today. And I'll say I had a meeting. And he'll say I'm making excuses.”
At the same time, supportive adults and organizations are completely disrupted by the pandemic. At schools, universities, and college advising programs, processes are in flux. Institutions and organizations face strong financial pressures (e.g., lost tuition dollars or grant funds amid declining enrollment) alongside rapidly changing admissions, matriculation, and graduation policies and requirements. The adults working in these programs are stretched thin, entirely unavailable, or experiencing their own personal disruptions, including mental health strain.
We heard these challenges directly from students and adults as well:
“Students had a hard time reaching different offices, including the financial aid office. If they couldn't place a phone call, an email had to be sent. There were no quick answers for anything. They would be told they'd get a response in three to five days.”
“Since COVID, I've felt a little on my own. … It's harder to email professors, who may not get back to you. You feel your email's been getting lost with the hundreds of kids who are emailing.”
“With hybrid classes and others that are completely online, school and my classes are all I have time to think about. I can't even take care of my personal needs. I don't want to take 30 minutes to go make a meal or buy groceries. I don't own a car and public transit puts you at risk of COVID. It just becomes inconvenient to do a lot of things.”
Some of the challenges the COVID-19 crisis has amplified are universal, meaning they affect most students regardless of their geography or their stage along the postsecondary journey:
But students at transition points, like high school seniors, first-year college students, and those hoping to transfer out of two-year colleges, face additional challenges. Because of remote learning, graduating seniors may feel academically unprepared for college and are dealing with fluctuating deadlines. Those considering college enrollment or transfer to a four-year institution may be balancing new pressures and expectations from family. As a result, students are making tough choices between paying college tuition for a virtual experience or pausing schooling to join the workforce, whether they planned to or not. Indeed during the COVID-19 pandemic, first time undergraduate enrollment fell 13%, with the steepest declines affecting community colleges.
The response to COVID-19 cannot end when vaccines are distributed. The mental health impacts will linger, especially for students who lost a family member, experienced economic hardship, or suffered social isolation. Students whose schooling has been disrupted may experience gaps in their academic preparedness. Many students have been entirely disengaged during this school year, and some may drop out permanently.
Research has shown that students who delay college are less likely to graduate than students who enroll in college directly after high school graduation. Even students who return and finish college tend to earn less in the long run. So it’s urgent that adults build safety nets and pathways to help students complete high school, enroll in college, and stay in college once they get there.
Understanding the devastating impact of the pandemic is a crucial step toward designing college supports that can repair the damage done — and remain durable for the future.
The student experience of the broken road to and through college is also shaped by the geography where students live.
In California’s Bay Area, Minnesota’s Twin Cities, Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, and Mississippi’s Delta, students have different college access and enrollment outcomes, and their governments and communities provide differing degrees of support. The pandemic is also shaping students’ experiences in distinct ways within each location: rates of COVID-19 infections and death, the restrictiveness and duration of stay-at-home orders, the number of people without health insurance or employment, and the status of school reopenings are all factors that shape students’ experiences.
Read more on how the local landscape shapes students’ postsecondary pathways below, including quotes from students and adults in each region. For more data and details, you can download a comprehensive deck that looks at these four regions here.
Read about the Bay Area from the student perspective in Xavier’s story.
- Racially and economically diverse
- Strong K-12 outcomes on average but with striking disparities between poor and affluent students
- Robust state college/university systems
- Nearly all K-12 schools and local colleges started the new school year virtual due to COVID-19
Unique postsecondary challenges/opportunities:
- Exceptionally high cost of living, creating additional financial pressure; for some students, particularly during the pandemic in the wake of COVID-19, this has meant deferring college to help out financially
- Numerous college access and success organizations have a local presence; some students receive supports from multiple college access and success providers, while others fall through the cracks in the system
- Emerging efforts to coordinate across the numerous local college access and success organizations
“The average cost to live here is sky-high. It's untenable, and yet there is so much to the Bay with all the companies and start-ups. The kids that made the decision to come to the Bay are dealing with the high cost of living. Their colleges aren't reducing costs and they are still struggling to find jobs.” —Leader, intermediary organization, Bay Area
Read about the Twin Cities from the student perspective in Mel’s story.
- Racially diverse, with large immigrant populations
- Poor K-12 outcomes historically, especially for Black and Hispanic students
- Home to several leading colleges and universities
Unique postsecondary challenges/opportunities:
- Density of college access and success supports is relatively low compared to other regions, but college-going is an increasingly high priority of the local K-12 districts and there is a strong local coordinating entity in place
- Community unrest since George Floyd’s murder
“We have dual pandemics. Minneapolis has COVID but also the aftermath of George Floyd's death. You can't talk to a student here and not hear about COVID and how the violence here is affecting their lives and their choices. It really is the political aftermath that is having ripple effects in the community. The tensions between police and communities that are showing up.” —Leader, intermediary organization, Twin Cities
Read about the Rio Grande Valley from the student perspective in Alejandro’s story.
- Predominantly Hispanic community
- Close-knit community and support systems
- Strong K-12 education outcomes
- Service-based economy hard hit by COVID-19
Unique postsecondary challenges/opportunities:
- Strong coordination and collective impact efforts across K-12, postsecondary, and workforce
- Many local job opportunities do not require a college degree, increasing the short-term appeal of entering the workforce after high school, even if the available jobs do not offer long-term career growth
“When you look across the workforce in the Valley, there are still a lot of jobs you can get that do not require a college credential. … They don't pay a living wage and there isn't job growth. But the immediacy of needing to work is a big driver of not going to college.” —Leader, intermediary organization, Rio Grande Valley
Read about the Mississippi Delta from the student perspective in Anna’s story.
- Predominantly rural community, with rich cultural and intergenerational history
- Historically under-resourced K-12 and postsecondary systems
Unique postsecondary challenges/opportunities:
- Relatively few local college access supports and career opportunities
- Rural areas less able to draw college recruiters; fewer college-level career examples for students
- Several financial aid programs in the state target high-achieving students only, and many institutions provide low levels of aid; this means many students’ financial need is often not fully met by aid packages
- Longitudinal data on postsecondary outcomes is limited
“When you're in the Delta, you can get in a little funk — you see the same stuff every day and the same people every day and there aren't many success stories.” —Student
More information on these four ecosystems is available in the resource below: