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The pandemic is shattering the dreams of high school seniors

Since the onset of the pandemic, far too many Michigan high school seniors––particularly non-affluent seniors––have had their dreams shattered. By either not enrolling in college or enrolling and then dropping out or enrolling in post-secondary education at a level below what they aspired to and were qualified for these students have had their life chances diminished.

Under Enrollment

Using data from the Michigan Center for Educational Performance and Information, Bridge calculated that 17,500 fewer high school graduates enrolled in college in 2020 and 2021 combined compared to the average for the three previous years. The college going rate declined from 62.9 percent from 2017-2019 to 54.6 percent in 2020 and to 53.5 percent in 2021.

Dropping Out

In an article entitled More students are dropping out of college during Covid––and it could get worse, the Hechinger Report found “of the 2.6 million students who started college in fall 2019, 26.1 percent, or roughly 679,000, didn’t come back the next year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. That was an increase of 2 percentage points over the previous year, and the highest share of students not returning for their sophomore year since 2012.”

Under Matching

Maybe most discouraging is the effect the pandemic has had on high-achieving high school seniors, particularly low-income high-achieving students attending predominantly non-affluent high schools. These are students who are qualified for, and increasingly are being admitted to, the most selective universities in the county. Where college graduation rates are the highest and where getting a degree can change lifetime and generational outcomes.

The chance of these students getting into the most selective universities went up with the pandemic largely because of many colleges dropping college entrance exam scores as a major criteria in the admission process. But as Paul Tough writes about in a New York Times Magazine article entitled Her school offered a path to the middle class. Will Covid 19 block it? far too many non-affluent high school seniors who had the academic success needed to get into highly selective universities are not taking advantage of that life-changing opportunity because of the pandemic. Either not enrolling at all or severely under matching.

We have a moral obligation to the high school seniors who because of the pandemic have under enrolled, dropped out or under matched. In addition, there will be a deleterious effect on the Michigan economy for decades to come. The seven figure lifetime earnings reduction from earning a high school degree rather than a B.A. or more depresses spending in local businesses. And Michigan employers––already faced with too few high-skilled professionals and technicians––will be face with even greater high-skill labor shortages.

The good news here is we know what works to help all students enroll in and graduate from post secondary education: high-quality college enrollment counseling, summer melt prevention counseling, a suite of college completion services and financial support for expenses beyond tuition.

The high school college success playbook is laid out in Richard Whitmire’s the B.A. Breakthrough. What colleges can do to significantly increase completion is detailed in Andrew Gumbel’s Won’t Lost the Dream: How an Upstart Urban University Rewrote the Rules of a Broken System.

In a time of unprecedented state budget surpluses and federal aid, restoring the dreams and improving the life chances of these high school students needs to be a state priority. We can and should provide direct financial support and the proven suite of support services to all students of the classes of 2020-2022 who did not enroll in college, dropped out, or under matched. Doing less means that we will not realize our commitment to equal opportunity and upward economic mobility for all of Michigan’s children.

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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.

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