When Back to School Meets Stay at Home

Anthony P. Carnevale
Jan 13 · 7 min read

By Anthony P. Carnevale and Megan L. Fasules

As the fall semester approached and the COVID-19 pandemic continued to wreak havoc, many students who had planned to take postsecondary classes faced difficult decisions. In past recessions, some students delayed entering a sluggish labor market by pursuing further education (Figure 1). In fact, college going increased in every recession since the 1960s, until now. In 2020, the combination of financial and health concerns caused by the pandemic prevented many students from starting or continuing their postsecondary education. Undergraduate enrollment has decreased by 4 percent (nearly 530,000 students) across public institutions, and by 10 percent at public two-year colleges. Moreover, many would-be first-year students are taking gap years instead of enrolling in college immediately after high school. Overall, first-year enrollment has decreased by 13 percent (about 327,500 students). These reactions could have major consequences for low-income students, who are more likely to delay or cancel their plans and to fall behind in their college attainment compared with high-income students, who are finding ways to continue with their postsecondary education. Students are less likely to earn a college credential if they interrupt their college going. Thus, the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to larger gaps in college attainment between low- and high-income students and result in fewer good job opportunities for low-income students.

Figure 1. Enrollment increased by 20 percent in the first year of the Great Recession.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of data from US Census Bureau, American Community Survey, 2000–2019.

Data from the Household Pulse Survey, a biweekly data collection by the US Census Bureau designed to assess the ongoing impact of COVID-19, demonstrate the extent to which households’ postsecondary plans changed. In all, plans changed in some way for 75 percent of households in which at least one household member intended to take postsecondary classes in the fall. In these households, students completely canceled their plans, changed the number of classes they took, enrolled in a different program or institution, or took classes in a different format. The most common change was taking classes in a different format (experienced by 39 percent of households with postsecondary plans). Most typically, households reporting this change indicated that a student’s institution had changed the format or content of classes. However, more than one-third (37 percent) of households with postsecondary plans reported that a household member had canceled their plans entirely. The reasons these households cited most frequently were having COVID-19 or concerns about contracting the virus and the inability to pay tuition because of pandemic-related income loss.

Plans were more likely to change in households with members planning to take classes in certificate or associate’s degree programs than in households with members planning to take classes in bachelor’s or graduate degree programs. Only 26 percent of households with a student planning to take classes in a certificate or diploma program that provides occupational training reported that a household member continued taking classes in a different format, while more than half (54 percent) of these households reported that a household member had canceled plans. Households with individuals planning to take classes in a bachelor’s degree program were the most likely to report that these individuals continued taking classes but in a different format (54 percent) (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Plans were most likely to be canceled in households in which individuals intended to take classes in certificate or associate’s degree programs.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of data from US Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey, October 14–26, 2020.

Note: Shares do not sum to totals because survey respondents could give multiple reasons for a change in plans. Not all reasons are shown here. Some households reported enrollment plans related to more than one type of postsecondary credential.

Members of lower-income households were more likely to change their fall postsecondary plans than members of higher-income households. Overall, among households with postsecondary plans this fall, 78 percent of households with incomes under $50,000 reported that a household member changed their plans, compared to 70 percent of households with incomes over $100,000. More striking, among households with postsecondary plans, 42 percent with household incomes under $25,000 reported that a household member canceled postsecondary plans, compared to 19 percent with household incomes over $200,000. Households with higher incomes were much more likely to report that household members continued taking postsecondary classes, although often in a different format. Meanwhile, households with lower incomes were much more likely to report a cancellation of postsecondary plans (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Lower-income households were more likely to have household members who canceled their plans to take classes, while higher-income households were more likely to have household members who continued with their plans in a different format.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of data from US Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey, October 14–26, 2020.

Note: Shares do not sum to totals because survey respondents could give multiple reasons for a change in plans. Not all reasons are shown here.

The pandemic caused students to change their postsecondary plans throughout the country, but households in Vermont reported the most disruptions in their plans (83 percent). Other states where households reported large changes to their members’ postsecondary plans included Massachusetts (82 percent), Rhode Island (82 percent), Oregon (81 percent), and New Mexico (81 percent). Households in South Dakota (59 percent), Montana (62 percent), North Dakota (62 percent), Alabama (64 percent), and Georgia (65 percent) were the least likely to report changes in the fall postsecondary plans of household members (Figure 4). Relative to households in other states, households in Alaska were the most likely to have members who canceled their plans (50 percent) and the least likely to report classes taken in a different format (27 percent). Households in South Dakota were the least likely to report canceled plans (24 percent). Furthermore, households in Massachusetts were the most likely to have members who took classes in a different format (49 percent).

Figure 4. Postsecondary plans changed for 83 percent of households in Vermont but only for 59 percent of households in South Dakota.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of data from US Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey, October 14–26, 2020.

Having at least some postsecondary education increases an individual’s likelihood of finding a good job and earning more over the course of a lifetime. Changes in students’ postsecondary plans can disrupt their long-term educational trajectories, particularly when they cancel their plans outright. Students who delay their enrollment are less likely to enroll in college, and students who take time off from college risk never completing their credentials. This scenario is particularly worrisome for low-income students, who were most likely to have canceled their fall postsecondary plans even though they stand to benefit most from the economic mobility associated with higher education.

An online format allows students to continue attending postsecondary classes, but it comes with several challenges. Some classes, such as workplace training and technical programs, do not translate well to an online or at-home format. Even when classes can make the transition to a virtual format, some students lack access to computers or the internet. The pandemic will continue to disturb the plans of postsecondary students as the spring semester approaches. Therefore, we must ensure that all students have the support they need to keep their postsecondary plans on track. It is particularly important to assist lower-income students to stay enrolled because they have been more affected by the pandemic and because they have more economic mobility to gain from attaining a postsecondary degree.

Dr. Carnevale is Director and Research Professor and Dr. Fasules is Assistant Research Professor and Research Economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. CEW is an independent, nonprofit research and policy institute affiliated with the Georgetown McCourt School of Public Policy that studies the links between education, career qualifications, and workforce demands.

Follow the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce on Twitter (@GeorgetownCEW), LinkedIn, YouTube, and Facebook.

Georgetown CEW

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce is a nonprofit, independent research institute that studies the link between education and the workforce.

Anthony P. Carnevale

Written by

Director and Research Professor at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, an independent, nonprofit research and policy institute.

Georgetown CEW

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce is a nonprofit, independent research institute that studies the link between education and the workforce.

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