Supporting College and Career Readiness in the Wake of COVID-19
By Lia D. Falco and Brian Calhoun
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted almost every aspect of life in the United States and across the globe, and this is especially true for school-aged youth who experienced disruptions to their education in unprecedented ways that included rolling school closures, online or hybrid-learning, and social isolation. These disruptions coincided with broader economic uncertainty when many Americans left the workforce either voluntarily or involuntarily as a direct result of the global pandemic. Not surprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on students’ college and career readiness. For many K-12 students, this event created many challenges and was also the catalyst for new opportunities. In this article, we discuss what the current research tells us about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on K-12 students’ college and career readiness and how career counselors can use this information to support students at all levels to plan for a successful post-secondary transition.
Fast Facts Reveal Trends
Current NCES (2022) data and other research provide insight into the effect of the pandemic on students’ educational experiences and learning and highlight some noteworthy trends. It is important to keep in mind that the pandemic has had varying impact on students from different demographic groups, and it has had a disproportionately negative impact on students from lower socio-economic backgrounds and students of color (Donnelly & Patrinos, 2021). Most studies to date have found evidence that students did not progress academically during school closures and online learning - a term now called “learning loss” - and that this was pronounced for students living in underresourced communities (Moskoviz & Evans, 2022). During the 2020-2021 academic year, the United States experienced increases in high school graduation rates but declines in Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) applications and college enrollments. The increase in graduation rates seems to have leveled off, but college enrollments continue to decline especially for low-income students (Hoover, 2020). Recent high school and college graduates are entering a favorable job market, especially for the service sector and entry level positions. However, record inflation and ongoing uncertainty about the future leave many students questioning major life choices, such as whether and when to attend college and/or enter the world of work.
Effects on College and Career Readiness
Enough time has elapsed since the beginning of the pandemic for educators and researchers to have some insight into the effects on students’ college and career readiness. There is evidence of negative effects on students’ academic achievement, and the existing achievement gaps between higher and lower income students have been exacerbated (Moscoviz & Evans, 2022). Students have had fewer opportunities to interact with school counselors and, in turn, have had reduced access to college and career-readiness activities. Perhaps, most importantly, a significant number of K-12 students have experienced mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression that have impacted their desire and ability to set and achieve goals beyond high school (Correa & First, 2021).
However, it’s not all bad news. The transition to online learning coupled with rapid changes in the labor market created new opportunities for students to access information and employment that were previously limited or unavailable (Crompton et al., 2021). And, the American Rescue Plan (ARP, 2021) provided schools with an infusion of resources to support access to technology and employ additional school counselors. In light of this information, career practitioners can employ a variety of strategies to continue to support college and career readiness.
Implications for Practice
Career practitioners serving K-12 schools may note that currently there are several post-secondary planning strategies that continue to be effective considering the challenges:
- Stay current on the changing post-secondary landscape. The pandemic has accelerated changes to the labor market and higher education, and providing students with information on trends and data can help assist them to make informed decisions.
- Keep a strong, future-orientation and focus on school-to-career pathways. Fostering a sense of optimism and purpose can help students stay motivated during challenging times.
- Work with families to support student success. Engaging parents and caregivers in the post-secondary planning process can help career practitioners better identify and respond to individual student needs.
- Help bridge achievement gaps and respond to learning loss by working to integrate college and career readiness activities with the academic curriculum. It is likely that the achievement gap will only widen in terms of college and career planning if it is not deliberately included in core instruction going forward.
- Identify and connect students with mental health services and school supports. When students are better able to cope with stressors, including those brought on by the pandemic, they will be better able to prepare and plan for a successful post-secondary transitions.
Career counselors have had to make many adaptations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and practice will almost certainly continue to evolve rapidly as a result. Identifying and centering student needs is especially germane in light of the effects on college and career readiness (Anderson & Hira, 2020).
Anderson, E., & Hira, A. (2020). Loss of brick‐and‐mortar schooling: How elementary educators respond. Information and Learning Science, 121(5), 411 – 418. https://doi.org/10.1108/ILS-04-2020-0085
Correa, N., & First, J. M. (2021). Examining the mental health impacts of COVID-19 on K-12 mental health providers, school teachers, and students. Journal of School Counseling, 19(42), 1-26.
Crompton, H., Burke, D., Jordan, K., & Wilson, S. (2021). Learning with technology during emergencies: A systematic review of K‐12 education. British Journal of Educational Technology, 52(4), 1554- 1575.
Donnelly, R., & Patrinos, H. A. (2021). Learning loss during COVID-19: An early systematic review. Prospects, 7(30), 145-153.
Hoover, E. (2020, Dec 10). The real Covid-19 enrollment crisis: Fewer low-income students went straight to college. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/the-real-covid-19-enrollment-crisis-fewer-low-income-students-went-straight-to-college
Moscoviz, L., & Evans, D. K. (2022). Learning loss and student dropouts during the covid-19 pandemic: A review of the evidence two years after schools shut down. Center for Global Development, Working Paper, 609.
National Center for Education Statistics. (NCES, 2022). Coronavirus pandemic information and resources. https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coronavirus/
Lia D. Falco, Ph.D. (Educational Psychology) is an associate professor of Counseling in the College of Education at the University of Arizona. Her expertise is in the area of career development with research that explores how adolescents view themselves as future workers and how career issues are related to motivation and identity. Her specific focus is STEM career choice, and her scholarship seeks to identify and evaluate educational practices that are effective at supporting students who are under-represented in STEM occupations. Dr. Falco is a member of the American Counseling Association and National Career Development Association where she serves as chair of the research committee. She can be reached at email@example.com
Brian Calhoun is an Associate Professor of the Practice. He teaches classes with the College to Career series in the undergraduate college. His professional interests include career counseling and development, and he serves as a member of the National Career Development Association (NCDA) research committee. Mr. Calhoun also participates as a senior faculty fellow in the first year residence hall (South residence hall). His research agenda focus is on career interventions that assist students with developing and learning more about their career options in the world of work. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org