The pandemic changed the plans of many 2022 high school graduates

Almost 1 in 3 students graduating in 2022 say the unique experience of the COVID-19 pandemic changed their post-high school plans.

High school graduation ceremonies have begun and every speaker is certain to remind the class of 2022 how unique their experience has been. They had the heartbreaking and unprecedented experience of spending more than half their high school time under the cloud of COVID-19, much of that time not in school.

How has that pandemic experience affected their plans for the future? Are these students different from the class of 2019, the last to graduate before the pandemic? What racial, ethnic, gender and other differences might there be between graduates?

To get answers to these questions, YouthTruth, a national nonprofit, conducted an online survey of 28,240 high school seniors in English and Spanish. It included 271 urban, suburban and rural schools in 119 school systems across two time periods, 2021-2022 and 2018-2019. The survey incorporated an open-ended question to which 11,294 students responded: “Is there anything that you think your school should know about how this change has been for you or that your school can do to help you during this period of change?”

Here are five insights from the survey:

First, nearly 1 in 3 seniors, or 28 percent, from the 2022 class changed their post-high school plans since the pandemic began, up from 18 percent in a previous survey in spring 2020. As a 12th-grade Hispanic girl wrote, “Before the pandemic I was very excited to go to college and have a full on career. Now I don’t know what to do with my life. It scares me.”  

High schoolers who are English language learners, members of the LGBTQ+ community, persons of color, and Hispanic students were more likely to change their plans than their peer groups.

Second, 3 out of 4, or 74 percent, of the 2022 seniors report that they want to go to college, though they’re now facing new challenges. A 12th-grade white girl wrote, “Basically, COVID has just ruined my whole life plans. Now, I won’t be able to go to college or get that job because I don’t want to be vaccinated.”

Here, too, there are significant differences across student groups. Additionally, high school seniors who are Hispanic, Black, and boys are less likely to want to go to college than those who were seniors in 2019.

Third, almost half of 2022 high school seniors, or 47 percent, expect to attend a four-year college, with smaller percentages of students who are not white, don’t speak English, are boys, and qualify for free and reduced lunch expecting to do so.

There are also fewer seniors considering two-year degree programs than in 2019, decreasing from 25 percent to 19 percent, though for some minority and disadvantaged groups a higher percentage of this year’s seniors report they plan to attend two-year colleges.

Fourth, fewer 2022 seniors say they participated in career counseling and college financial counseling than in 2019, with significant drops for those who are Hispanic, multi-racial, boys, and in rural schools. Overall, less than half (43 percent) feel positive about their college and career readiness. As one 12th-grader wrote, “As a senior I feel like I have not gotten the preparation I need for after I graduate.”

The good news is those who did receive counseling gave that service what the report calls “a helpfulness rating” of nearly 4 out of 5.

Fifth, this analysis looks at only those seniors who are still attending school and doesn’t include those who dropped out of high school. Of those still in school who say they are on track to graduate, nearly 2 in 10 (18 percent) say they seriously considered dropping out of high school. A higher percentage of some groups, especially LGBTQ+ youth, considered dropping out as compared to their peers.

The unique experience of the pandemic has affected what 2022 high school graduates think about their future — almost 1 in 3 changed their post-high school plans. Across a variety of issues, certain groups of students are faring worse than others.

All this makes it critical that, during this high school graduation season and going forward, adults listen with special care to the voices and experiences of this pandemic graduating class as they map their pathways into adulthood.  

Bruno V. Manno is senior advisor for the Walton Family Foundation’s education program. The Foundation provides support to YouthTruth though not for this survey.

Tags Class of 2022 COVID-19 pandemic post pandemic virtual education

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