The pandemic has affected education in many ways, resulting in greater scrutiny around college and career decisions and ultimately altering some postsecondary plans. Students are increasingly weighing new and different economic, social, and academic considerations. Is paying full tuition for virtual learning financially sound? Is going to a large campus with crowded classrooms a smart idea when COVID-19 is still a threat? Is there strong evidence that high schools have been able to prepare their students for what they may encounter after graduation? To find out how the pandemic has changed students’ post-high school plans, we contacted three principals: Jerel Bryant, principal of George Washington Carver High School in New Orleans, LA; Teresa Hill, former principal of Walden Grove High School in Sahuarita, AZ, who retired in January; and Ryan Silva, principal of Cherry Creek High School in Greenwood Village, CO. Principal Leadership senior editor Christine Savicky moderated the discussion.

Given the pandemic and the last two years of interrupted learning, how have high school students’ post-high school plans changed? 

Hill: The biggest change that we’ve seen is that more kids are staying home. Students who were planning on going out of state to college or for post­secondary education have decided to stay close to home. They are choosing to maybe go to the community college for a couple of years and then look to see if campus life will get better, and then they can go to where they were initially planning on going. But it seems like they have just decided to stay close to home. 

Silva: The same has been true for us as well, where some students have stayed home, but what we have also seen is that some students have elected to not accept their admissions to schools and instead defer. We are also seeing more kids take a gap year. Some students decided to have adventures or do something before they start college that they maybe traditionally would not have done. This year, what we’re seeing is that more students are applying to schools that would be more defined as a “reach” school. And that’s because I think colleges have started accepting different types of students who they perhaps wouldn’t have accepted in the past. Additionally, with the changes in standardized testing, I think that has also empowered some students to think, “Hmm; maybe now, this type of college is more accessible to me.” 

Bryant: For us, the past two years have shed a light on what was already clear to us—but probably underscored it more intensely—the sensitivities of matching. Attending school virtually feels far different than going to a campus with a lot of bodies. That calculation has forced us, students, and their families to consider even more deeply, “Is that really the place I want to be?” I think with that have come some learnings, and it really, I think, has a lot to do with the subset of scholar that we’re engaging with. 

Have you seen students apply to the same higher-ed institutions at the same rates?

Silva: Yes, our students have applied to the same types of higher-ed institutions, and in some cases, at higher rates. They are applying at higher rates to the “reach” schools—the Ivy League schools, specifically. We’re seeing more kids apply there than we traditionally do for the same reasons that I referenced before, the testing being one of them, but then also the knowledge that colleges—at least last school year—would take some students who maybe traditionally did not fit their standards because of the school’s falling admissions rates. Students didn’t want to pay the Ivy League tuition rates and not get to be on campus, plus the lack of international students who typically attend the Ivy League school. Then that has trickled into this year, where some students still feel like there’s a possibility because of those changes.

Bryant: We have also seen what Ryan was saying about the “reach” schools, mostly with our highest-performing kids. But what we’ve also seen, and what we’ve known fundamentally for our population, is that postsecondary access is also an exercise in belief. We are an urban school district in New Orleans. And so, where we found the greatest drop-off in kids applying to postsecondary institutions were our kids who just needed more touchpoints. And I think I don’t need to say this to all of you (preaching to the choir), but it is far harder to engage a scholar who is on the fence about what they want to do next when you’re trying to track them down virtually, whereas when you see them each and every day. 

We found the challenges of that over the last 18 months of—if we were in person—these touchpoints would yield for the students that this or that particular college was right for them. Maybe if they could actually be on campus, they would also have that visceral impression that they really want to pursue a particular field. But without some of those physical markers, we did find a decline in our scholars whom I think most needed that belief. On the other side of it, though, to Ryan’s point, we saw our top 10%–20% of scholars apply to institutions and matriculate and persist in ways that were either reflecting what was happening pre-pandemic or even at higher rates than before. 

Hill: For us, definitely there was a decline in the 2019–20 school year of students applying and deciding to go postsecondary. Last year was much more of a normal average for us. We’re a rural area just outside of Tucson, AZ, so just trying to get our kids to even think of the Ivy League is a different story. We just started a program a few years ago—Red Wolf Scholar—so that kids are getting the prerequisites that they need to even move in that direction. But most of our kids tend to stay close to home. Tucson is “out of town” for them, even though it’s only 30 minutes away. 

Are fewer students able to afford a four-year college?

Bryant: In the sense that most Americans have been unable to afford things the way they did before the pandemic, I think globally, yes. But more critically, kids are just more sensitive to where their money is going. We always try to be sensitive to cost when we’re thinking about aspirations and matches. But when you’re weighing that against a virtual experience, let’s say, a couple of years ago (versus being in person), that changes the calculation for what kids and families are willing to spend money on. 

We found some families less inclined to want to engage and spend money on a virtual education where the child was sitting at home, but I think it also forced us to really think about the economics of the degree and how we were matching kids in ways that were most deliberate and most resourceful. We found ourselves looking at bridge-year programs more than we had previously. We found ourselves looking at two-year options and diversifying them beyond New Orleans more deliberately. We found ourselves looking at four-year options but expanding to, let’s just say, more “liberal arts” institutions to see if money for scholarships could be there. So, I think in many respects, it actually has compelled us to move faster on some equity measures and steps that were necessary to get our kids going places.

Hill: School is definitely more expensive and kids are thinking about that, and they are thinking about how they’re spending their money. What Jerel said about virtual versus in-person learning is something that families discuss and think about and is part of the decisions that they’ve made to stay home and not travel elsewhere or do school online. I agree with Jerel that it has forced us as high schools to do more things to give our students more on the high school level. In the last couple of years, we’ve really increased the number of dual-enrollment classes that we have here on campus. Our goal is—by next year—for a current freshman to be able to get an associate degree by the time they graduate high school if they take all of the dual-enrollment classes that we have available to them. As schools, I think we are forced to look at other avenues and other options for our students so that they can proceed in that way and not have a $100,000 debt when they finish. 

Silva: Both Teresa and Jerel are correct that economic situations have changed for all families. There are some students who, in the past, had a certain amount of money set aside for higher learning, but they no longer have that same amount. What’s interesting for us is Colorado has strong postsecondary public education, but it’s very low-funded. Meaning, tuition is expensive. So, we actually have a decent number of students who leave the state because, depending on where they will go, it might be the same price as going to the University of Colorado, for example. Lately, the South has gotten quite a bit more popular with our students, and part of that trend is the fact that there’s a lot of value in Southern schools in terms of price point, compared to what the University of Colorado costs. That even happened before the pandemic, where students are just aware, and families are aware, of what they’re spending and what they’re getting. Certainly not a knock on any of our in-state schools, because they’re very strong, but they do have a higher price point, and it’s because the state funding for higher-ed learning is very low. 

Some of my students, however, have been able to get into schools even with a lower GPA. They can because the admissions process has changed; colleges have fewer students applying. But then the student who has under a 3.0 is getting into a school that doesn’t take a student with under 3.0, but they have to pay the whole tuition with no scholarships or grants. My high school is in a higher socioeconomic area, and so I have seen some kids get into and go to schools because they can pay without any aid. There’s a lot that I’m seeing around this in terms of resources, but I do think that it’s true that students and families just have less than what they have traditionally had.

Are more students choosing to work right after high school graduation, maybe taking a gap year, or just moving into the workforce?

Hill: As I said, we saw that more with 2019–20, where our kids decided to take a gap year and work and help the family. Just like everywhere else, the pandemic has hit people hard personally and has forced our students to decide to stay home, work, help the family out before they move on. Our admissions rate went up last year with last year’s graduates. So, I think it’s getting back to our “normal” rates.

Silva: I would say yes; if students aren’t certain about what it is that they want to do, they’re being more thoughtful and starting to work before they decide to go to college. That agenda has also been pushed more by the parents than what we’ve seen in the past, where they don’t want to see their student go to school for a year without having some kind of idea, some kind of plan. In the past, students could go to college and figure out what they wanted to do while they were there. Now, doing that seems like a waste of money. So yes, we are seeing more students who are going into the workforce after high school.

Bryant: We’re seeing similar trends. I think that for a student who goes to school for a year and then drops out, the magnitude of the incurred debt feels even heavier now than maybe ever before. So, we’ve shifted our narrative a little bit and our approach to, “Yes, let’s find a place for you to go to school,” but also continue the narrative with, “If you don’t match with that school, then what’s the bridge year? What’s the opportunity? What’s a two-year opportunity that’s going to actually put you on a professional track that’s most beneficial for you and your career?” 

Again, it underscores the economics of the pandemic and just how precarious it can be for students if they don’t end up persisting and earning a degree. As school administrators, our thoughts for these students are, “What can we do to get the kids on the appropriate track and stay there? For the kids who don’t go on to an educational institution right away, we want to ensure that not going right after high school will lead to a greater outcome a year or two years down the line.

Has virtual learning played a part in students waiting to continue their education after high school?

Silva: I believe it has, especially in the 2020–21 school year, where students decided, “If I’m going to go to college X, and it’s not going to be on their campus—it’s going to be a virtual type of environment—then I’d rather defer. I’d rather wait than pay the same tuition that I would if I were on campus.” But additionally, besides kids just waiting, some have decided to go the junior college route: “It’s here and I’ll get my education in a different way before I go to this university.” I’ve seen it work both ways. That path has waned a little bit this year compared to last year, but I think that people are cognizant of their learning environment. 

Now, I also think, though, that one of the silver linings that came out of the pandemic is every high school student—maybe not every, but most—has now had some kind of online learning experience that maybe they wouldn’t have had before graduating. The kids are much more open to the idea of taking the 15 credits their freshman year, and one of them being packaged as an online class. But they don’t want to be told when they have to take an online class. If they’re going to a school that is going to start fully online, I think that students are giving serious thought to whether they want to be in that learning environment.

Bryant: Much of students’ virtual learning experiences come down to belief. Kids, in some cases, don’t believe that virtual learning is “real school.” That was an idea that came about a couple of years ago and has persisted. To Ryan’s point, the silver lining was that kids also reported that, in many ways, their experience freshman year of college was more like their high school experience, in part because of this virtual component in which there’s seemingly a greater sort of semblance of recognition for many of our kids after leaving high school. But going back to the belief piece—it’s just fundamentally harder to sell a kid on the college experience when so much of the college experience is in person.

Hill: I agree with both Ryan and Jerel. I can add that what we have seen, because we focus so much on our climate and culture in our school, is that the pandemic has hit that piece of school, so our kids really see the difference between being in person and being online. They would absolutely rather be in person, and that is affecting their decisions as they move on. And I think that’s why they stay home and are closer to here, exactly like Ryan and Jerel said; they don’t want to pay more when it feels like you’re getting the exact same experience, whether you’re in community college or you’re in the Ivy League. 

What are high schools doing in the wake of the pandemic to support students as they transition from high school to life after high school?

Bryant: In many respects, the pandemic and virtual world sped up some actions that I think—at least in our landscape—we had considered but hadn’t acted on yet as urgently. What that looks like for some local schools here is stronger partnerships with employers, stronger partnerships with two-year colleges, getting more specific about what programs they offer, and stronger partnerships with bridge-year programs that had both an academic and career focus. And I think really trying to actualize the reality that every kid who wants to do this deserves the opportunity to engage in postsecondary education. 

In some ways, this virtual world sort of leveled the playing field, and I think leveled some of the inequities in a way, or certainly accentuated them to more and more people. I think more schools walked away from this experience as more critical of “how are we preparing kids for this next step?” And even when we do send them to elite four-year universities and institutions, there’s a whole new world there with a whole host of variables. Are we preparing them for that as well? 

In the shortest of terms, these partnerships have been really helpful for us both with bridge-year programs, employers, and two-year colleges and universities. Thinking of the big picture, I’m not sure if Ryan and Teresa had this same thought, but we do so much to prepare our kids. We give them everything we think they might need, and then a pandemic happens, and there’s a whole set of skills that we hadn’t considered fully or planned to teach, which gives even more weight to the importance of competencies and soft skills. We have to know and anticipate the components that our kids will need regardless of the workforce or where we are in the world today.

Hill: The biggest thing we’ve done is to build our partnership with our community college to increase our dual-enrollment classes. If our kids are taking those dual-enrollment classes while they’re on our campus, they’re more apt to have the confidence to continue on to postsecondary. They think, “Ok, I’ve already gotten all these credits, and I understand. I’ve been doing this while I’ve been in high school, so I can do it at college.” 

With the pandemic, one of the biggest things that we are trying to do to help our kids prepare is, honestly, helping them be more mature. We have seen such a difference in their maturity level. Many students are two years behind in their maturity. Our freshmen are acting like seventh graders, and our juniors are acting like freshmen. So, really just trying to get some normalization, even though we’re still in the middle of the pandemic, trying to have that balance. 

Silva: I love hearing Teresa say that, and I think that Jerel nodded his head when it comes to the maturation comment. When I talked to principals in other areas, hearing that made me feel a little bit better because we areseeing things with our students that we haven’t seen before, especially around the social and emotional types of behaviors and needs. The academic holes certainly exist, but the bigger holes that I think we are trying to address more quickly are the social and emotional holes. There are some skills that we just count on our students coming to us with from middle school that they just don’t have because they didn’t have the face-to-face experience. 

If you think about it, for ninth graders, the last time they were in school without COVID being part of the equation, they were seventh graders and they were 12 years old. The amount of arrested development that has happened with our kids is real. I worry about how long it’s going to take to fill those holes. Teachers are working really, really hard to identify them and figure out the best ways to address those needs. Part of our conversation right now is, should the final exams look normal, cumulative? One argument is no, because things aren’t normal. But the counter­argument is if we don’t, eventually the kids are going to need that type of skill set because they will definitely need it when they get to college. Or when they are a senior, they’re going to have this type of test. Are we doing right by our students if we don’t expose them to a cumulative exam? 

We will need to continue having conversations about everything that we’re doing, and then seeing if the way that we’re doing things is appropriate for the kids who are in front of us right now and for what they’re going to see when they leave us for college or for life after high school. It’s a challenging time, but I think we can take comfort in knowing that it’s not just a Colorado thing, or it’s not just an Arizona thing; it’s an everywhere thing. Five years from now, we’re going to look back and say, “Wow. We got this part right, and that part we didn’t get right. What were we thinking?” I have to wonder what hindsight will bring because I know that that’s going to happen.