The lives of students graduating from high school this year were transformed by the pandemic: It changed the careers they wanted to pursue, what type of college they wanted to attend or whether they wanted to go to college at all. Many are struggling to maintain their mental health, while others find themselves more adaptable to change.
“These kids have never had a normal year,” said Geoff Heckman, a counselor at Platte County High School in Platte City, Missouri, who is also chairperson of the American School Counselor Association’s board of directors. “We’ve seen so much change, the first one being with mental health.”
Of this year’s graduating class, who were ninth graders when the health crisis began, more than 40% of students changed their thinking about their college major or future career because of COVID, according to new research published Wednesday from the ACT.
“Before the pandemic I always looked towards college and furthering my academics, but once the pandemic hit, it changed the way I looked at college,” one student told ACT researchers. “It made me struggle in my high school years and made me doubt whether or not college was the best choice down the road.”
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How did COVID-19 change high school seniors?
One in 3 high school seniors surveyed by ACT researchers said the pandemic changed their thinking about their future career; about 1 in 4 changed their ideas about what major to pursue and which college to attend; and roughly 1 in 10 said it made them wonder whether they should go to college at all. The conclusions are based on a survey conducted last fall of 1,549 12th-grade students.
High school graduates even before this year were already changing. The class of 2022, also profoundly affected by COVID, were more likely to go to work compared with students who graduated in 2019, before coronavirus became a household term, according to new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And then there are students who aren’t graduating at all: Separate research has found that hundreds of thousands of public school students nationwide who left the education system during the pandemic are still unaccounted for, even after taking into consideration changes in the population of school-age children, private school enrollment and the number of homeschooled children.
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Beyond decisions about college and work after high school, Heckman said these students’ social norms are too different.
At his school, he and colleagues first noticed something wasn’t right when students in the class of 2023 were still sophomores. During one of the first spirit assemblies to celebrate winter homecoming, they observed that students didn’t seem to know how to participate.
“They didn’t know how to act in an assembly,” said Heckman, who has been a counselor for 20 years. “Some were making poor choices. Some didn’t know to cheer for the athletes.”
For the oldest students that year, whom the younger students might have looked to for guidance, enough time had passed since their own experience at a large-scale school gathering, he said, that “there was no one to establish these routines.”
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The ACT researchers found the biggest pandemic-related challenge affecting students’ college and career plans was some kind of financial obstacle. They talked about their families’ small businesses being damaged by COVID, for example, and how community college was a better choice because it’s less expensive than a university. Students from low-income households were more likely to say their future career, choice of school or planned major was affected by the pandemic.
But their observations of society influenced their plans too.
“I was between education and pre-med, and during the pandemic, I saw the way that teachers are treated in today’s society,” said one student. “I wouldn’t want to go through that.”
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Did COVID also change students’ lives for the better?
While the pandemic certainly altered many students’ plans, it wasn’t all bad, Heckman said.
“We’ve noticed a huge increase in students who want to be part of our career center program – getting college credits before leaving high school,” he said.
COVID also created students who can adapt to sudden changes and find a way to thrive, he said. Some students at his high school, for example, were encouraged to work harder in their classes given that many colleges shifted away from requiring an ACT or SAT score as part of their application. They wanted a strong high school record to share with colleges so they could worry less about the tests.
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ACT researchers, too, found the students they surveyed were also influenced in surprising ways.
“Sitting in isolation, I found a passion for computer science and STEM-related fields,” one said. “Due to the free time I would spend hours learning new ways to program something simple or challenge myself with problems.”
How should colleges work with students still recovering from the pandemic?
The ACT researchers offered advice to colleges about how to better support students from this year’s high school class:
- Given that many students may still be struggling financially, colleges should work harder to connect them with opportunities for scholarships, work-study options and financial aid.
- Some students’ math and reading skills diminished because of remote schooling ushered in by the pandemic. Colleges should figure out how prepared students are for their courses and offer short classes, tutoring, summer programs and other options to make up for what has been called “unfinished” learning.
- As students’ mental health needs grow, colleges should be sure to make mental health resources available to students and add other supports that show they are cognizant of pandemic-related health concerns.
- With some students’ thinking about their future clouded by the pandemic, colleges should direct them toward activities, courses, career-planning programs and early internships to help them find their way.
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