A sign in front of Bothell High School, which closed in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, reads, 'Wash your hands!!!,' Bothell, Washington State, March 3, 2020, photo by Lindsey Wasson/Reuters

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(The RAND Blog)

Navigating College and Career Readiness in a Time of Uncertainty

A sign in front of Bothell High School, which closed in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Bothell, Washington State, March 3, 2020

Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Reuters

by Melanie A. Zaber and Laura S. Hamilton

March 26, 2020

In the span of three weeks, education as we knew it has changed. States, districts, and schools have scrambled with multiple decisions: if or how to offer equitable, effective instruction online; when and if to conduct state testing; and how to provide meals and other services to students who need them.

Given that how we respond to the pandemic today will likely have longer-term impacts, we also need to think of the population actively preparing for that future: high school students looking to enter into college and careers now or in the next several years.

For many, spring is admission season, and some seniors are pressed to declare their college intention by May 1. Students in career and technical training may be striving to study for final or credential-related exams while their hands-on classes and labs remain closed. Still others are wondering what they should do about canceled admissions tests and reconfigured Advanced Placement exams.

For students getting ready for a transition out of the K–12 school system, this is as much a time of uncertainty as it is for adults.

Today, we released a report that gives insight into how high school teachers and principals view how student college and career readiness is supported in their schools. The work is based on RAND's American Educator Panels, nationally representative samples of educators who provide their feedback on important issues of educational policy and practice.

Although education today suddenly looks very different from what it was when the survey was fielded one year ago, several of the report's key findings are relevant to high schools as they explore ways to support their high school students in this challenging new educational landscape.

Our data show that most schools provide a variety of supports for college and career readiness. However, the results also demonstrate substantial disparities in students' access to these supports, both between and within schools. Low-income, minority, and low-achieving students have less access to school-based supports than their counterparts within the same schools.

School closures have the potential to widen already-existing disparities. Many of the supports we examine, such as career fairs and assistance with application processes, are likely to be difficult to offer when schools are shuttered. As we note in the report, some students have additional supports through personal networks that help provide opportunities for career education like internships, or family members who have gone to college who can help with knowledge of the application process. Other students lack these opportunities and resources. Without schools to address those gaps, they may be left on their own to navigate the challenging postgraduation planning process.

For students preparing to transition out of the K–12 school system, the COVID-19 pandemic is as much a time of uncertainty as it is for adults.

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Geography is also likely to play a role in how well schools are able to adapt to these challenges. Our report shows that teachers in schools located in more rural, primarily manufacturing-based towns are less likely than those in other locations to report work-based learning education options for students. These regions may also struggle with delivering remote instruction if students lack access to high-speed internet at home. More than a third of rural Americans and 30 million Americans overall lack access to broadband-speed internet in their region.

There is no clear set of solutions to these challenges. However, we can offer some guiding principles for educators and policymakers to consider as they adapt to school closures in the short term and plan for longer-term, post-closure student supports.

Staying connected is critical. The adults with whom students interact in schools play a key role in sharing information and guidance to help students select and pursue postsecondary pathways. To the extent feasible, schools should find ways to help students remain connected to resources like counselors and to ensure that students know where to go to find information about key milestones, requirements, and postgraduation opportunities when they're not in school.

The unique challenges and inequities faced by today's high school students will need to be considered by postsecondary institutions over the next several years. Institutions may continue to implement test-optional admissions in order to attract a broader swath of the 2021 applicant pool. (More than 1,000 colleges and universities already offered test-optional admissions.) They also may need to reevaluate financial aid options for currently accepted students whose family finances were devastated by the labor market and stock market effects of the pandemic. Some colleges and universities have pushed back their deposit date to June 1, allowing students more time to evaluate their options. Many are offering virtual campus tours and other ways of supporting students' decisionmaking remotely.

Students and their families need different ways to access important information. The pandemic has exposed our reliance on schools as the delivery mechanism for college and career readiness supports. The U.S. Department of Labor and Department of Education could supplement local efforts by expanding on their roles as informational intermediaries. They could provide clearly demarcated career pathway maps, up-to-date postsecondary program outcome data, and real-time local labor market projections so that high school students without exceptional school supports and personal networks can also make informed postgraduation plans.

Equitable internet access is crucial. The pandemic has highlighted internet access as a key component of educational infrastructure. The use of distance education as a backup for in-person education underscores the importance of broadening internet access and providing internet-based college and career supports that are accessible to all students across the United States.


Melanie A. Zaber is an associate economist and Laura S. Hamilton is a senior behavioral scientist and distinguished chair in learning and assessment at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.