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Enabling Underserved Students to Progress Through Postsecondary Schooling: Webinar Recap

July 1, 2021 | Linked Learning Alliance

High schoolers have experienced massive disruption to their education due to COVID-19. After over a year of school closures many are disengaging from learning and postponing or canceling their postsecondary plans. Steep declines in postsecondary enrollment will exasperate existing attainment gaps among low-income and first-generation students, as well as students of color — groups that are already underrepresented in higher education. The Johns Hopkins University’s Everyone Graduates Center hosted a timely conversation highlighting recent research on postsecondary transitions, featuring Dr. Bob Balfanz, Director of the Everyone Graduates Center, Jenny Nagaoka, Deputy Director of University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, and Roneeta Guha, Vice President of Strategy & Impact at the Linked Learning Alliance.

Dr. Balfanz grounded the conversation in the current context: uncertainty is the only certainty many students have at the moment due to COVID-19 and the economic crises that followed. The opportunities for young people are shifting – many are finding less value in higher education in part thanks to the agency employment opportunities can provide. As Dr. Balfanz pointed out, these employment opportunities may create short term paychecks for young people, but in the long term rarely lead to family-sustaining incomes that can support them in the long run.

Jenny Nagaoka presented new research from Chicago Public Schools (CPS) that underscored some of this uncertainty and instability, even from before COVID-19. Her research looked at the paths CPS students take when they leave high school and enter into postsecondary, either at a 4-year or 2-year institution. The research found that nearly 90% of students who do not immediately enroll in college upon graduating high school never go on to complete a college degree or certificate, only 20% of 2-year college enrollees go on to transfer to a 4-year institution, and of those students only 7% graduate with a bachelor’s degree. Higher education is fraught with transitions, starts and stops, and barriers for young people especially after COVID-19. Now more than ever, Nagaoka notes, there is no postsecondary pipeline; there’s a postsecondary maze. While this research followed Chicago students’ postsecondary journeys, we know that the trends identified likely apply to a larger number of students.

Roneeta Guha presented research conducted by SRI Education and University of California, Los Angeles’ Center for Community Schooling that provides some insight into what too many young people experience in the transition from high school to postsecondary. While Linked Learning students were just as likely to enroll in a 4-year higher education program and persist to a second year as their peers, their journeys were often not a straight path forward. When determining how to proceed from high school into postsecondary opportunities, the research found that students were juggling an enormous number of factors, including the cost of higher education, their legal status, and family obligations. If they got to a postsecondary institution, students were often faced with a culture of competitiveness and sense of disconnectedness that was vastly different from their Linked Learning experience.

With COVID-19 disrupting and complicating many young people’s decisions about their postsecondary journey, it will be important to leverage the recommendations from this research, including providing young people with detailed information about all their postsecondary options, improving postsecondary services and resources, and addressing resource disparities that disproportionately low-income, first-generation, and minority students.

The Linked Learning Alliance thanks the Everyone Graduates Center for hosting this important conversation. For more resources on keeping young people connected to their purpose during COVID-19 recovery, be sure to explore A Summer Like No Other: Accelerating Learning for High School Students.