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Employment and Higher Education Enrollment of High School Graduates in the COVID-19 Era

For high school graduates, the past few years have been a mix of disruption and uncertainty, calling into question the potential impacts on these graduates’ decisions to pursue employment or higher education. In this article, we use data from the North Carolina Common Follow-up System (CFS) to explore prevalent post-graduation pathways for recent public high school graduates throughout the COVID era. We find that although immediate college-going rates have declined for recent graduates, employment rates have risen due to tight labor market conditions, increasing youth connection in the process.

Author: Jonathan Guarine

In recent years, high school graduates have increasingly confronted an academic and economic environment full of disruption. With the pandemic altering many post-graduation plans, tracking these students’ subsequent enrollment and employment patterns has become a pressing issue as the risk of youth disconnection looms.

In this article, we examine data from the state’s longitudinal Common Follow-up System (CFS) and find, similar to reports of declining college enrollment nationwide, college-going rates among public high school graduates in North Carolina have decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Concurrently, employment rates have risen, suggestive of the abundant work opportunities in the tight labor market that predominated during this period.

We consider the pathways of 195,844 students who graduated from North Carolina public high schools during the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 academic school years and compare their outcomes to pre-pandemic cohorts from the 2015-2019 school years.1 We analyze their enrollment and employment status at different snapshots in time: first during the fall immediately following high school completion and then the fall in the following year.2

Across the nation, declining enrollment at public colleges and universities has been a persistent feature of the pandemic. Immediate college enrollment—measured as the percentage of high school completers enrolled in a postsecondary institution in the fall semester following graduation—has fallen faster in recent years relative to pre-pandemic trends. This measure reflects the share of high school graduates on a traditional postsecondary path.

Similar to the national declines in the immediate college enrollment rate reported elsewhere, we find a decline in the percentage of North Carolina public high school graduates enrolling in an in-state public university or community college the fall after graduation. Before the pandemic, the total college-going rate averaged 47.5%. However, the rate fell to 45.1% and 45.8% for the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 cohorts, respectively (see Figure 1).

A closer inspection reveals immediate enrollment into the UNC system has marginally risen since 2020. Compared to the pre-pandemic average, the percentage of high school graduates directly transitioning to a public 4-year university increased by 0.4 percentage points for the 2020-2021 cohort. Enrollment declines were experienced by the NC Community College System (NCCCS) with the immediate enrollment rate falling 2.0 percentage points compared to pre-pandemic cohorts (see Figure 1).

Figure 1

Immediate College-Going Rates Declined During the Pandemic

What accounts for the diverging trends in public universities and colleges? Part of the university increase could be explained by more high school graduates deciding to stay in-state, enrolling in higher education closer to home due to health and financial considerations amid the pandemic. Additionally, in response to academic disruptions, many universities have relaxed admissions standards, perhaps encouraging more students to apply and subsequently enroll in universities who may not have otherwise.

The decline in immediate community college enrollment may reflect various factors. Some community colleges specializing in hands-on technical training saw faster declines early in the pandemic due to social distancing requirements. A particularly tight labor market has also been cited in declining enrollment, offering individuals an abundance of employment opportunities in industries experiencing rapid wage growth.

Based on CFS data, we find a brief dip in employment rates among recent high school graduates in 2020 followed by a notable uptick in 2021.3 For the 2019-2020 cohort, the percentage of high school graduates employed in the fall of 2020 was 64.0%, below the rate for the preceding 2018-2019 cohort (see Figure 2). By 2021, the employment rate for recent high school graduates accelerated to 67.8%—about 3.8 percentage points higher than the 2019-2020 cohort and the pre-pandemic average.

Figure 2

Employment Rates Have Risen Among Recent High School Graduates

With a higher share of recent high school graduates participating in the exceptionally tight labor market of 2021, did these employment opportunities draw recent graduates away from postsecondary pathways? For the class of 2021, our findings suggest the aggregate uptick was driven more by an increased share of high school graduates both employed and enrolled, which rose 2.1% over the previous cohort. However, when considering the pre-pandemic trend, the share of graduates only working (not enrolled) grew notably, rising 1.7% over the previous cohort and 3.6% over the pre-pandemic average (see Figure 2).

We also examine the second-year outcomes for the class of 2020 to explore any potential impact of the economic recovery in 2021. Between fall 2020 and fall 2021, the share of 2020 graduates working but not enrolled rose from 35.2% to 41.2%.4 Employment opportunities appeared to have a nontrivial effect in the second year: the 6.0 percentage point bump between years one and two for the 2019-2020 cohort was the highest of all the graduating cohorts analyzed in this article.

For those class of 2020 graduates who had decided to immediately enroll in higher education after high school (enrolled in fall 2020), the vast majority—roughly 78%—were still enrolled a year later in fall 2021 (see Figure 4). Indicative of a transition from enrollment to employment, some 22% of those formerly enrolled were only working as of fall 2021—a smaller percentage compared to previous cohorts.

Figure 3

Among Those Enrolled in Fall 2020, Most Remained Enrolled in Fall 2021

Reports of declining college entry have become prevalent in national discourse over recent years, with some arguing students are increasingly skeptical about the value of higher education. Among public high school graduates in North Carolina, our data suggest in-state college-going rates have likewise declined throughout the pandemic, albeit with some differences between public universities and community colleges.

The swift economic recovery has clearly factored into students’ post-high school plans. In response to a tight labor market, employment rates have risen for both the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 high school graduating cohorts. Our findings suggest that ample job opportunities have had a nontrivial impact on recent graduates, perhaps offering more incentive to enter the workforce over subsequent higher education. Decisions to forego additional education or training may provide more immediate benefits (e.g., higher wages); however, those with less training or credentials may experience higher rates of unemployment during future recessions.

It is worth noting there is a bright spot when it comes to youth engagement. Higher employment rates among COVID-era cohorts provide some hope that the impact of the pandemic on youth disconnection rates5 may not be as grave as originally believed. Our data suggest youth connection rates—the percentage of those either enrolled in school or working—among recent high school graduates has risen from an average of 80.8% pre-pandemic to 82.7% for the 2020-2021 cohort, driven by a robust job market (see Figure 4).

Whether this finding extends beyond public high school graduates is unknown. Nevertheless, the finding aligns with previous LEAD research that found a downward shift in youth disconnection rates in 2021 alongside an expeditious economic recovery.

Figure 4

More Employment Has Spurred Higher Youth Connection Rates

Whether through immediate enrollment or employment, ensuring a future talent pipeline is a critical priority for workforce development professionals, educational leaders, and policymakers alike. As the workforce evolves, the demand for workers with some form of training beyond high school will continue to grow in the future. Programs such as NCWorks NextGen, the UNC System’s NC Promise, and the NCCCS’ ApprenticeshipNC can help bolster workforce and educational opportunities for various groups, especially those from low-income backgrounds. Encouraging high school students to participate in the Career & College Promise (CCP) program can promote career readiness while enabling students to obtain technical expertise, explore career options, and save on tuition expenses.

1These pre-pandemic cohorts comprise a total of 293,778 public high school students from the 2016-2017, 2017-2018, and 2018-2019 school years. Our data only cover public school graduates and subsequent enrollment at a public 2-year or 4-year institution. Students enrolled in private or out-of-state institutions are not captured in our data.

2For enrollment patterns, we consider the fall semester of the academic year, which typically spans the months of August to December. We only consider students enrolled in a University of North Carolina system (UNC) or North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS) curriculum program. For employment patterns, we consider the third and fourth quarters of the year from July to December. Due to data availability constraints, we are unable to measure second year outcomes for the 2020-2021 graduating cohort. 

3Those employed include any individual working for an unemployment insurance (UI) covered employer in North Carolina. The data do not allow us to differentiate between full-time and part-time status.

4For the class of 2020, the share of graduates who were working but not enrolled in the second year (fall 2021) was also higher than the pre-pandemic average of 37.3%.

5Definitionally, youth disconnection considers those youth ages 16-24 who are neither employed nor enrolled in school.

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