Survey Highlights Strain Among High School Seniors In Pandemic Uncertainty

UC Davis Research Commissioned by California Student Aid Commission

Student working with adult
Researchers for the UC Davis California Education Lab found high school seniors they surveyed have experienced a lot of uncertainty about their future plans during the pandemic. (Getty Images)

As COVID-19 continues to disrupt educational experiences of students across the nation, newly analyzed survey research by the California Education Lab at the University of California, Davis, details the high level of uncertainty and financial stress experienced by California high school seniors as they weighed their college plans amid an unfolding pandemic.

“College Uncertainties: California High School Seniors in Spring of 2020” summarizes the results from a survey commissioned by the California Student Aid Commission that captured the perspectives of nearly 16,000 high school seniors who applied for college financial aid for the 2020-21 academic year. Researchers, who included UC Davis School of Education faculty, further analyzed the findings and released their analysis this week.

“We are deeply committed to understanding and supporting young people's transition to college in the midst of all this uncertainty, and our partnership with the California Student Aid Commission ensures that our research reaches policymakers and higher education leaders who are well positioned to address the enormous and numerous challenges college students are facing,” said Michal Kurlaender, School of Education professor and faculty director of the California Education Lab.

Responses to questions about shifting plans, personal and family financial status, overall well-being, and students’ viewpoints on remote learning revealed:

  • More than 70 percent of high school seniors reported concern about their personal and family financial situations, with higher levels of concern expressed by students of color.
  • 90 percent reported concern about personal health and well-being.
  • One in three reported concern about going to college far away from home as a result of COVID-19.
  • More than 80 percent said they were concerned about taking college courses online.
  • Fewer than 10 percent planned to delay college enrollment altogether; Black, white or those who had the highest levels of financial need were the most likely to say they planned to wait.

“These sobering findings highlight the ongoing pandemic’s upheaval on the lives of young people who continue to express high levels of stress amid the uncertainty,” said Sherrie Reed, executive director of the California Education Lab. “We wanted to better understand their experience, and our best approach was to ask them.”

More than 9,000 open-ended written responses captured high school students' struggles amid the pandemic in their own voice. Excerpts include:

  • “I am losing so much interest in going to college because it became so hard. I don’t have one-on-one help from anyone.”
  • “I might not have time anymore for college since my dad is not working, and my mom is receiving her paychecks two weeks after she’s supposed to. Now I have to work eight hours to support my family economically.”
  • “I wanted to go to a four-year university, but due to COVID-19 my parents aren’t working, and I can’t afford to pay so I changed my plan to attend community college then transfer.”

“We needed to understand how students were experiencing this extraordinary moment of uncertainty so that our state financial aid operation can properly adjust and advocate more effectively on their behalf,” said Patrick Perry, division chief of policy, research and data at the California Student Aid Commission.

Added Paco Martorell, associate professor at the School of Education and faculty co-director of the California Education Lab: “The challenges and suffering due to the COVID-19 pandemic have affected virtually all facets of society, and higher education is no different. This survey offers a unique look at the struggles, worries, and hopes of California financial aid applicants. We hope these results help policymakers craft responses to these extraordinary times.”

The College Futures Foundation and the Institute for Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, supported the survey research and analysis.

The California Student Aid Commission administers the state’s $2.8 billion portfolio of student financial aid programs and services, including Cal Grant, Middle Class Scholarship and California Dream Act Application. The commission serves as a resource for policymakers and the public on college affordability and financing issues, and advocates for policy changes to eliminate cost as a barrier to any qualified California student pursuing a higher education.

The UC Davis California Education Lab partners with California educators and policymakers across the K-12 and postsecondary sectors to research current issues in education. Learn more about the lab.

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