Leading for Recovery: Preventing a Lost COVID Cohort

Thursday, December 10, 2020
Ryan Reyna

This fall, the percentage of students enrolling in college immediately after graduation fell by 21.7 percent, an astounding and devastating statistic for our nation, and more importantly, each student who has had their dreams delayed or denied. Sadly, based on early FAFSA completion rates and other indicators, the outlook for next fall doesn’t look much better. At a time when economic mobility is largely defined by postsecondary credentials of value, COVID is threatening to deprive a generation of students of their best chance at a stable future. Without significant, immediate action, current high school juniors and seniors are at risk of becoming a “lost COVID-19 cohort.” The incoming Biden administration, working collaboratively with state and local leadership, needs to act quickly and dramatically to reverse this trend. We cannot sit on the sidelines and let a generation of students miss out on a future of economic opportunity.

Nationwide, the pandemic is leading to significant learning loss and financial uncertainty for K-12 students and their families, with the greatest burden befalling Black, Hispanic, and low-income students. These devastating impacts are having major spillover effects as students consider whether to continue their education and training beyond high school. As of October, more than 40 percent of households report that students either enrolled or intending to enroll in community college had canceled their plans, with low-income students having to cancel plans at more than two times the rate of their peers. Overall undergraduate freshman enrollment declined by 16 percent compared to the previous fall. Compared to White students, the year-to-year decline in undergraduate enrollment this fall was two times as high for Black students, three times as high for Indigenous students, and nearly five times as high for Hispanic students. And the preliminary numbers for direct enrollment in college immediately after high school graduation were even worse. The decline for students in low-income high schools was nearly 30 percent, or approximately double that experienced by students in higher income high schools. Early indications, such as significant declines in FAFSA completion rates, suggest that without dramatic intervention, enrollment numbers next fall will be just as devastating.

This is an unfathomable tragedy for our most vulnerable youth; access to higher education is their best chance at a ticket to the middle class.

To help counteract the COVID-19 postsecondary transitions slide, Education Strategy Group, with the generous support of the Joyce Foundation, has developed a playbook of high-impact, targeted interventions to better support students in preparing for, applying to, and transitioning to postsecondary education and training. It will take federal investment, coupled with state and local leadership, to act quickly and dramatically to support students. As a starting point, here are three immediate strategies that we believe can help stem the tide of the pandemic’s impact on student success — and counter the widening equity gaps.

Launch national and state college advising corps. Expanding access to postsecondary advisors can lead to dramatic increases in enrollment and attainment. We encourage the new administration to make this a national priority, prioritizing the reauthorization of the Serve America Act and expanding funding for recent college graduates to serve as mentors for high school students—especially first-generation college students—as they prepare for and transition to postsecondary education and training. Either through the creation of a national college advising corps, or incentive funding for the development of state advising corps, this could serve the dual purpose of employing recent college graduates (who are being hit hard by the economic fallout of the pandemic) and creating critical social networks for traditionally underserved high school students.

Dramatically expand summer academic bridge programs. “Summer melt” is a challenge every year; approximately 20 percent of high school graduates who are accepted and plan to enroll in higher education do not show up in the fall. And many of those who do enroll are academically underprepared to succeed. The pandemic has substantially exacerbated these issues, and there is an opportunity for federal leadership in freezing summer melt. The Biden administration should consider immediate investment to help states launch summer academic bridge programs that provide students additional instruction and support and increase their likelihood of matriculation. For instance, Texas College Bridge, funded through the initial CARES Act funds, expanded summer advising support and provided financial incentives to students for completing coursework over the summer that enables them to place directly into credit-bearing courses upon college enrollment statewide.

Prioritize the most predictive measures of postsecondary access and success. There are nearly 7,000 high schools in America in which Black, Hispanic, or low-income students have less than a 50 percent chance of enrolling in higher education after graduation. That is tragic, and it was the case before COVID. To change the trajectory of these “coin flip” high schools, there must be a greater focus on the most predictive measures of postsecondary enrollment, persistence, and success. The Every Student Succeeds Act helped move some communities to raise their aspirations and shine the spotlight on student outcomes after graduation, but not nearly enough have done so. The collection and public reporting of disaggregated data on a set of “Momentum Metrics” that predict students’ ability to successfully transition into and through college should be the new normal for every state and district. The Biden administration should create incentives for states and districts to target supports to students centered on these high leverage metrics. For instance, they could make new resources available to target FAFSA outreach and support in the communities experiencing the greatest declines as a result of the pandemic. And they could partner with the philanthropic community to galvanize related efforts across the country.

Over the next few months, ESG will be working with K-12 and higher education leaders in Indiana and Minnesota to roll out emergency COVID postsecondary interventions at scale. The goal will be identifying those students at greatest risk of opting out of the system and providing the appropriate resources and supports to ensure they successfully continue their education and training beyond high school. We hope that other states will follow their lead in making this a top priority, and look forward to sharing our playbook and lessons learned with other community and state leaders. And we encourage the Biden administration to put significant resources on the table to support this work in more communities, recognizing that building back better starts with helping more individuals earn the educational credentials they need for economic success and mobility.