(EDITOR’S NOTE: Over the next year, Idaho Education News will provide in-depth, ongoing coverage of the challenges facing higher education during the coronavirus pandemic. Here’s our latest installment in this project.)
When it came time to enroll in college this fall, in the middle of a pandemic, a startling number of Idaho high school graduates stayed home.
And the state’s “go-on rate” dropped precipitously. Only 38 percent of Idaho’s high school graduates continued their education this fall, a one-year decrease of 7 percentage points.
Put another way, a 7 percentage point drop translates to about 1,400 young adults. Some of them might be sitting out college for now, with every intention of enrolling after the pandemic recedes. But there are no guarantees. And for state leaders who want to see more high school graduates continue their education, that’s a looming concern.
“I think we’re seeing a lot of students taking a gap year,” State Board of Education Executive Director Matt Freeman said Tuesday. “(But) time is not a student’s friend. … Life happens.”
This year’s numbers, explained
Idaho has tracked the “go-on rate” for years — and at several mileposts. The state looks at how many students go straight from high school to college or a career-technical program. That’s the current, and “immediate,” 38 percent rate for Idaho’s high school class of 2020. But the state also tracks the go-on rate for students who are one to three years removed from high school, and the rate invariably increases as students enroll after a gap year, a church mission or military service.
The 2020 numbers provide a snapshot into the decisions high school seniors made over the last few months — as the global pandemic disrupted education and all facets of daily life.
Health concerns and economic upheaval surely contributed to this year’s dropoff. Other factors are less obvious. As high schools abruptly moved online during the spring, students fell out of touch with academic advisers, who are hired to help seniors navigate the application process. They also lost connections with their classmates — and support from peers making the transition from high school to college.
“The May 2020 graduates, we’ve got to figure out some ways to reengage them,” said Byron Yankey, the State Board’s college and career advising program manager.
The dropoff in the go-on rate didn’t come from out of nowhere. This fall, nearly every two- and four-year school reported a decrease in first-year, in-state students — the same cohort measured by the go-on rate.
“It’s sobering but not surprising,” Freeman said of the new go-on rate.
Some demographic breakdowns also aren’t surprising.
The go-on rate for female high school graduates was 46 percent, compared to just 30 percent for male graduates. That reflects a chronic gender gap, common in Idaho and beyond.
The go-on rates for American Indian and Hispanic students also lagged behind the overall state number — at 35 and 34 percent, respectively.
But one demographic trend defies expectations. The go-on rate for economically disadvantaged students fell to 31 percent, a decrease of 4 percentage points. For students who are not economically disadvantaged, the rate fell to 45 percent — down 10 percentage points.
What happened? State Board officials believe many students simply held off on enrolling in out-of-state colleges — especially colleges that are only offering online instructions during the pandemic. For students who aren’t facing a financial hardship, a gap year is easier to pull off.
“There’s just more option available to them,” Yankey said, “including doing nothing.”
An anomaly — or an ongoing trend?
While pronounced, the drop in the 2020 go-on rate continues a downward trend. The immediate go-on rate has decreased for four successive years, even as the state continues a multi-pronged and multimillion-dollar campaign to convince high school graduates to continue their education.
In 2018 and 2019, an economic boom was a factor. Drawn by the lure of a steady job and some disposable income, many high school graduates snapped up available and attractive jobs in food processing or home construction, Yankey said.
Now, the factors are different, and pandemic-driven. Freeman hopes the dropoff is a “one-year anomaly,” but the State Board is looking for ways to help the class of 2020 find its way back to college. For example, the state could tweak its Apply Idaho website, allowing 2020 grads to fill out free online college applications alongside the class of 2021.
But as Idaho’s class of 2021 nears its graduation day, another group of seniors is trying to chart their future in a turbulent time. And there’s an early sign that, for many of them, college isn’t part of the equation. Applications for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — a must for students who want federal grants and loans or an Idaho Opportunity Scholarship — are down by 14 percent from a year ago.
“We certainly have cause for concern,” Freeman said.
But as the 2021 Idaho Legislature prepares to convene next week, Gov. Brad Little hinted at doubling down on the scholarships, dual-credit courses and college and career counseling programs designed to encourage high school graduates to stay in school.
Idaho Education News data analyst Randy Schrader contributed to this report.