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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 Xavier

Xavier lives in the Bay Area with his mom and three younger siblings. His mom lost her job as a restaurant manager amid the COVID-19 shutdowns. Xavier and his family live in Berkeley near his mom’s former job, where rent has been increasing each year. With costs up and income down, Xavier feels pressure to work and support his family financially. “I worry about how I’m going to pay for college.”

Xavier got a job at a nearby grocery store, and his income has helped the family stay afloat.

“I have all these responsibilities. … I have to worry about not only schooling, but my family's well-being and my siblings' education.”

Even though he excelled academically, Xavier started to fall behind in his classes and he eventually stopped attending school altogether. “Being in quarantine has made us lose motivation to do anything, really — work, applying to college, or even cleaning the house.” 

As soon as his mom resumes working, Xavier plans to reduce his work hours, take classes at a local community college, and earn his GED. But since he is out of school, he’s worried about navigating those processes. “I’m dreading the application season. It will be weird not having a career center to go to, and having to navigate that area myself. I don’t know how to get my high school transcript. Those types of things, after taking time off, are nerve-racking.”

A college counselor who works at a local mentoring program and knows Xavier from the prior school year keeps in touch by text and shares resources that highlight the economic payoffs of attending college. Xavier’s dream is to attend college and study electrical engineering. 

The biggest question on Xavier’s mind is: “How can I finish high school and stay on track for college?”

Xavier’s Supporters

Peers: Several of Xavier’s friends attended college this year. In some ways, it’s been hard to stay in touch, given how different their day-to-day experiences are compared to Xavier’s, but these friends also help Xavier focus on his long-term plans. 

Community-based organization: Pre-COVID-19, Xavier benefited from after-school programming provided by a mentoring program that works with students at his high school. He felt particularly connected to his assigned counselor, who continued her outreach even after Xavier stopped attending school. Xavier hopes she’ll help him navigate decisions when it comes time to apply to college. 

Employer: Xavier’s manager at work is a source of motivation and support. She encourages Xavier to pursue his long-term goals, and she provides informal career mentoring during their shared shifts. She has been flexible when Xavier needs to change his hours to take care of his mom or younger siblings.

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

Xavier's Challenges

Disengagement levels are high. Faced with an array of challenges, from meeting basic needs to social isolation, many students have written off school. 

Students’ families are asking more of them. COVID-19 has created new pressures for students to contribute to the household financially and/or provide care for younger siblings.

High cost of living. The exceptionally high cost of living in the Bay Area creates additional financial pressure. For some students, particularly in the wake of COVID-19, this has meant deferring college.

Learn more about the challenges students are facing here

Recommendations for Supporting Xavier

K-12 schools can adapt college and career advising models to center on the student experience (e.g., including meeting basic needs, social-emotional supports, and family engagement) and integrate more than just college/career planning and navigation. 

Policymakers can pilot “5th year of high school” programs and other models that create structured “gap year” supports to keep students who did not graduate or did not apply to college on the postsecondary pathway. 

College access organizations can develop communication plans to reach out to students who paused their schooling due to COVID-19 and design program supports to get them back into school (e.g., texting reminders, counseling on financial aid forms, etc.).

View our full set of recommendations here.