Much of the focus on schools in the age of COVID-19 has focused on learning loss, measured by declining student test scores. Crushing proof show that this is event—With each new study, we see additional evidence that students have learned far less than they would without COVID-19. This is important, of course, but there are other key signals of skills, knowledge and development. In particular, high school graduation and college entrance are at least as strong as test scores as predictors of long-term success in life. How has the pandemic impacted these results?
To fill this gap, we—along with Ann Bernhardt, Rylie Martin, Chris Marsicano, and Paul von Hippel—set out to study the effects of COVID-19 on high school graduation and the transition from high school to college. We answer four main questions:
- First, how has the COVID-19 pandemic affected high school graduation rates? Using data from 25 states, covering 57% of the nation’s school population, our results suggest that high school graduation rates increased slightly in the spring of 2020, followed by a return to the previous level in 2021. This trend is not the result of reporting bias. Overall, it appears that, of all commonly measured educational outcomes, high school graduation has been affected the least so far. We find evidence that several factors were at work, in particular the temporary relaxation of standards was likely one of the contributing factors.
- Second, how has COVID-19 affected the transition from high school to college? We see a 16% drop in immediate transitions to two-year colleges and a 6% drop in transitions to four-year colleges. Based on the results above, we know it’s not because there were fewer high school graduates who could enter. This drop could signal a reduction in future university degrees.
- Third, did these trends vary across student subgroups? High school graduation rates have actually increased for students with disabilities, English language learners, and black students. However, college entry declined the most at colleges serving large proportions of people of color.
- Fourth, why has college enrollment declined even as high school graduation has (temporarily) increased slightly? Although this question is more difficult to answer, we present a theory that could explain not only high school graduation and college entrance outcomes, but also other trends in enrollment from kindergarten to 12th grade. This theory is centered on the main differences between the onset, persistence and completion of educational degrees.
This blog post presents our findings. The technical report associated with this work, which provides much more detail, is being published in the Russell Sage Foundation Journal in 2023.
Question 1: How has COVID-19 affected high school graduation rates?
We used data from 25 states that reported high school graduation rates (weighted by enrollment). Figure 1 shows that the graduation rate increased a little more than the previous trend would have suggested in the spring of 2020, before returning to a level just above the 2019 graduation rate. In short, the total number of high school diplomas, added together in the two COVID-19 graduating classes, appears to be very similar to what it likely would have been without the pandemic.
The slight increase and general stability in the graduation rate is probably due to states have lowered their standards. Essentially, every state reduced standards immediately after the pandemic. These fell into three broad categories: relaxation of credit requirements, relaxation of graduation test and exam requirements, and relaxation of attendance requirements. Even apart from changes in state policies, there were declines in teachers’ expectations of student work.
In this regard, it should be clear that stable graduation rates, relative to almost every other measure, is not exactly a victory. These COVID-19 era credentials signal a lower overall proficiency level than before the pandemic. On the other hand, by remaining somewhat engaged in school, students likely developed more skills than they would have had they dropped out.
In further analysis of the technical report, we find various factors in school districts that explain these results: different teaching styles in districts, changes in state standards, changes in labor market opportunities for students and risk of COVID-19. Our results indicate that reduced state standards and mode of instruction played a role in high school completion, but not COVID-19 risk and labor force participation.
Question 2: How has COVID-19 affected college entry?
Figure 2 shows college enrollment trends based on IPEDS data. In this case, we only have one year of data after the onset of COVID-19. As above, “2020 data” is for the 2019-2020 school year, but since we are now looking at initial enrollment, this means the data was collected in the fall of 2019, prior to COVID-19. Thus, 2021 is the only post-COVID-19 year for college entry.
Unlike high school graduation, community college enrollment is significantly lower in 2021 than all previous years — 16% lower.
We also tried to explain the variation between colleges. How colleges teach was a key factor, but again we saw no evidence that local transmission of COVID-19 affected on-time college entry and mixed evidence on the role of opportunities in the labor market.
Question 3: How did changes in high school graduation and college entry vary across student subgroups?
Figure 3 shows trends in high school graduation for various subgroups of students. This shows that the 2020 increase was greater for English language learners, students with disabilities and black students. Many different factors could have contributed to this trend. For example, author Harris spoke with a special education administrator who said state exams were especially difficult for students with disabilities before COVID-19, so relaxing that standard made it easier graduation. This is just one example of many possible policy changes at the state or local level that could have disproportionately affected the graduation rates of students from these groups.
Although we do not have college admissions data by student subgroup, we can report trends by institutional demographics. Figure 4 presents the results for community colleges. It separately shows trends for colleges whose enrollment is at least 50% Black, 50% Hispanic, and 50% White (as well as other community colleges). This clearly shows that the steepest declines were for Hispanic-serving institutions, followed by Black-serving institutions and other institutions.
To keep it short, we’ve omitted the four-year college version of this figure, although the basic patterns are similar.
Question 4: Why are the results so different for high school graduation and initial college entry?
In some respects, we might have expected the results in Figures 1 and 2 to be more similar than what they showed. They both focus on teenagers (aged 17-19). Also, with more high school graduates after the pandemic began, there were more potential college entrants.
Although the reasons for these divergent trends require further attention, we argue that they may be partly explained by inherent differences between entering an educational institution for the first time and pursuing or obtaining of a diploma. Especially in times of upheaval and stress, people depend on their existing social relationships. The teenagers are particularly dependent on their friends. In this case, high school students had been in school with their classmates for many years. They wanted to stay. In contrast, the idea of starting a new educational path – university – was probably less appealing.
This same basic theory could also help explain some other patterns related to COVID-19. First of all, it may explain that the college entrance dived more than college registration in two-year colleges and (especially) in four-year colleges. (The difference between the two sectors is likely due to the fact that a larger share of total enrollment comes from early entrants in the two-year sector compared to four-year colleges.)
The theory may also explain similar enrollment declines at the K-12 level. Figure 5 below shows the New York Times K-16 enrollment trends. (We note two other studies on K-12 enrollment.) This shows that the biggest drop in enrollment, by far, was in kindergarten. As with middle school, children may start kindergarten at different times. The idea of starting school for the first time, with the stress that comes with it even without a pandemic, may have seemed like too much. Also, there were no social ties or habits to break at that time, as we saw with entering college.
We still have a lot to learn about educational decisions amid COVID-19, and we’ll have to wait and see if declines in initial college enrollment in 2021 are offset by later adjustments. Maybe high school grads just redshirted college like kindergarten kids often did. even before the pandemicand they will be back next year.
Schools and colleges also have a role to play in bouncing back from the COVID-19 crisis. We shouldn’t think of students returning to schools and colleges that are set in stone. Although it would have been unreasonable to expect them to be prepared in advance for a once-in-a-century pandemic, faculty and staff learned a great deal about how to use ( and not to use) online tools in the context of environmental education. It creates new opportunities that, if done right, could give students a new reason to enter, persevere, and earn graduate degrees — and counter the challenges we’ve seen so far. .