Pandemic High School Graduation Rates are Dropping Nationwide

As the world embarks on year 3 of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s essential to address the unprecedented educational upheavals that ended almost two decades of nationwide progress toward increasing high school graduation rates. 

In the last school year before the pandemic hit, high school graduation rates hit an all-time high of 85.8%. While the exact numbers on the pandemic’s impact on high school graduation rates are not yet in, many students are giving up on getting a high school diploma. 

Graduation Rates Dip as Pandemic Halts Progress

High School Graduation Rates

According to McKinsey & Co, 17 percent of high school seniors looking forward to postsecondary education abandoned their plans, choosing to join the workforce instead. The numbers are much higher among low-income students, with about 26 percent leaving their goals. Despite some states and schools loosening graduation standards to help struggling students, this fallout came.

Amid an economic crisis marked by uncertainties and anxieties about healthcare, these numbers are not surprising. Compounding these issues is the rise of hybrid and remote learning, which complicates schooling for those who lack access to the appropriate technology. Looking beyond academics, remote learning has also increased social isolation and adversely impacted the emotional well-being of many students, with over 35 percent of parents extremely concerned about their children’s mental health.

The fact that students from low-income households are more likely to drop out because of the pandemic is also unsurprising. Disparities in graduation rates widened because the pandemic exacerbated the deep-rooted economic challenges that still plague school systems nationwide. In addition, gaps widened for students based on their family’s income and whether or not the students were living with disabilities.

The High Cost of Students Dropping Out of High School

The decision to drop out, albeit somewhat understandable in this economic climate, is dangerous for the student. High-school dropouts fare to a certain degree worse than their peers as they face highly bleak economic and social prospects. On average, they tend to earn less money and are more likely to be incarcerated and unemployed. There’s also the social stigma of dropping out of high school, which leads to fewer opportunities. 

Support Programs for Educators & Students

For educators, the pandemic years have been some of the most challenging. First, schools closed down, leading to a loss of income and students missing out on the learning they would have acquired. And then came remote teaching, which restricted human connectivity and led to some students being left behind, with younger and more marginalized students facing the most significant loss. 

As the world starts on the road to recovery, educators face the challenge of helping students rebuild their academic development. Closing the social-emotional gaps left behind by the pandemic will prove to be an even tougher challenge. Assisting students to reach the end of their high school journey isn’t something teachers or parents can do independently. States need to invest in support programs for students and educators to increase graduation rates.

There are still ways to help students recover unfinished learning and pursue postsecondary education. For example, students who fall behind can be encouraged to take a fifth year to complete high school or take the General Education Development (GED) test in lieu of a diploma. These two options can open the door to college. In addition, for those whose grades were affected by the pandemic, it may be a good idea to explain Covid-related challenges in their academic essays. 

As educators, the priorities are to reengage students and encourage re-enrollment into effective learning environments. Schools should also continue to make efforts to improve virtual learning models to make it easier for students who were unable to graduate to finish their learning.