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Reimagining the Road to Graduation

The Need for Extraordinary Systems to Get Students to and Through College

What are the lived experiences of young people navigating the road to and through college during COVID-19?



Mel   /   Anna   /   Xavier   /   Frankie   /   Alejandro


Meet Anna

Anna is a senior in high school in Mississippi. She wants to go to college not only to improve her career prospects, but also to continue her involvement in track and field. 

Anna’s mom is a nurse and her siblings teach special needs students, so these are the two career pathways she knows best. But she isn’t sure if these are just the career examples she’s seen up close or whether one could be her true calling. Because of COVID-19, nursing is an increasingly risky profession. When Anna’s mom contracted COVID-19 and had to take emergency sick leave, it left Anna worried and in charge of household responsibilities. “I’m questioning my career options. COVID has made me more cautious. I don’t want to endanger my family.”

When Anna’s family moved during high school, no one at her new school offered resources to point her toward courses and programs that could fit her interests. “They push the top kids in the class more. Some kids have potential and need a little extra push, but they leave them where they are and push the other kids in the special classes.” Where Anna lives in rural Mississippi, she has limited contact with college recruiters, who focus on larger high schools.

The pandemic has only intensified the challenge of getting information about college programs and evaluating her options, since now everything has to be done virtually.

“I don't know much about career paths. And because of COVID, those resources have been taken away. ... I wish adults would help me find my strengths.” 

Additionally, Anna is uncertain whether she can afford college without significant financial support, especially as she does not expect to be awarded aid based on her grades. 

Anna’s science teacher has been a source of support, checking in on her occasionally and even providing a few resources to help her think about her career options. It was in part due to his encouragement that Anna decided to focus on nursing, despite the risks. Since the start of the pandemic, Anna has also stayed grounded through her close relationship with her mother. They’ve been spending more time together now that her older siblings are working, and they have been more open about the concerns weighing on each of their minds. “I want to make my family proud,” she says.

The biggest question on Anna’s mind is: “Should I even go to college — this year or ever?” 

Anna’s Supporters

Family: Anna is really close with her mom, and during school closures that bond has only gotten stronger. Anna knows her mom has her back, and Anna wants to make her proud. 

K-12 staff: Anna’s track and field coach is a source of encouragement and a role model in her life. Her coach has helped her set goals for athletic performance, which helps Anna see how setting goals for college and career could pay off too. It’s been hard since the pandemic started, because track practice and competitions have been canceled.

K-12 staff: Anna’s science teacher from the previous school year is another adult she turns to for connection and help wrestling with challenges. Even though she doesn’t have any classes with him this year, he has checked in on her over text a couple of times, including when her mom was sick.

Learn more about these and other supporters in students’ lives here.

Anna's Challenges

Making college and career choices is harder without in-person experiences. Before COVID-19, many schools and community-based organizations (CBOs) embedded college exploration into the curriculum, but with most schooling happening virtually, the onus for college/career research is on students. 

Opportunities for self-discovery and goal setting are scarce for students. Many graduate high school or enter college without having explored their potential career interests, strengths, weaknesses, and goals — making them less likely to see a clear path to a college major or stepping stones to a career. 

COVID-19 has disrupted the college application cycle. Important deadlines like preparing college applications and completing financial aid forms have been crowded out by the struggle to simply attend school. Schools report that the usual processes are weeks behind schedule.

Learn more about the challenges students are facing here

Recommendations for Supporting Anna

K-12 schools can create the time, space, and supports to help students discover their strengths, explore their passions, and use those insights to inform and motivate their career pathways.

Employers and college access organizations can create new and immersive ways for students to experience and gain exposure to college and career explorations virtually.

Policymakers can revise financial aid policies and create incentives for colleges and universities to provide need-based aid.

Institutions of higher education can revise and standardize policies (e.g., application cycle deadlines, tuition deadlines, courseload requirements, etc.) to provide additional grace periods for cohorts impacted. by COVID-19.

View our full set of recommendations here.