Graduating Amid the COVID-19 Pandemic

Celebrities came together several weeks ago to honor the graduating high school class of 2020 virtually amid COVID-19. With graduation ceremonies around the country canceled or postponed, cities have found their own unique ways to celebrate the achievements of graduating seniors. The cities of Williamson, West Virginia and Lawrence, Massachusetts hosted parades to celebrate graduating seniors, while Coppell, Texas hosted a “Grad-venger” hunt, posting graduates’ names in local businesses around the town for them and their families to find.

Until recently, many high school seniors were excited to head off to college in the fall, but that reality now seems out of reach for many. Students are hesitant to commit to colleges that have yet to release their reopening plans for the fall. Many students are choosing to attend colleges closer to home, rather than move out-of-state, for health safety and financial reasons. Seniors, and their parents, are worried about the possibility of moving away, only to return home a few months later in the event of another wave of the virus. At least one-third of seniors just do not want to attend college if all the classes will be online.

Many graduating seniors are filled with uncertainty and worry given the severe contraction the economy faces as a result of COVID-19. With the global economy expected to shrink 5.2 percent, this year may represent the deepest recession since World War II. Studies show that graduating into a recession puts individuals at a lifetime disadvantage economically. Students who graduate into a recession face higher rates of unemployment and lower starting salaries than those who graduate into economic stability-. They also earn less money for 10 to 15 years after graduation. Recession graduates typically settle for lower-paying jobs at less prestigious organizations, and many feel compelled to move back home and work in jobs that do not require a postsecondary credential or find part-time gigs. Then, of course, when the economy picks up again, recession graduates will have to fight for entry-level jobs with more recent college graduates.

The class of 2020, previously expecting to enter the strongest job market in 50 years, now face the reality of graduating into a recession.

What can cities do to support students enter postsecondary institutions or the workforce?

  • Fight “summer melt” to ensure college-bounds students enroll –  Under normal circumstances, “summer melt” (i.e. when students who are accepted into postsecondary institutions do not enroll or show up on campus in the fall) affects up to one third of all college-bound students. Summer melt hits low-income students the hardest, as well as students who are the first in their family to go to college. With the many difficulties and distractions students and families have faced during this pandemic, important steps like completing financial aid forms, submitting health records, or registering for classes may slip through the cracks resulting in colleges giving away their spots. Cities can create bridge programs or mentorship models to support college-bound students throughout the summer.
  • Partner with postsecondary institutions to share data to track students’ college acceptance– Cities can partner with their school districts and postsecondary institutions to share data on students who have been accepted to local colleges. Cities, school district staff, and college admissions offices have an opportunity to conduct intentional outreach to these students to find out about their plans or barriers to enroll. If finances or other basic needs like food and housing insecurity are raised as roadblocks, cities and their partners can leverage resource and referral agencies and community-based organizations to provide support to help graduating seniors navigate the path to enrollment.
  • Expose graduates to new workforce opportunities – As cities monitor the shifts in their local economy resulting from the pandemic, some are identifying new job opportunities that require reskilling or “upskilling” to be able to qualify for these new jobs. To bolster the workforce, city, state and colleges will need to work together to identify workforce opportunities and provide training for students eager to enter the job market. Partner with local Chambers of Commerce, workforce investment boards, or private industry leaders in your community to create a job fair or resource guide about how your city’s workforce landscape is changing.
  • Expand Summer Youth Employment Program Investments: With many high school graduates potentially delaying college enrollment, this is an important time to for cities to consider expanding their summer youth employment programs (SYEP). SYEPs give youth (16-21) job opportunities and career exposure over the summer within city agencies, community-based organizations, and private industries. Many cities’ SYEPs are using badges and certifications to help students become work-ready. During this pandemic, most cities’ programs have gone online to teach workforce development skills, including communication, teamwork, interview and resume building skills, etc.

Time is a precious thing. Ensuring high school graduates are connected to workforce or postsecondary opportunities play an important role in helping them stay to success and give them hope for a brighter future.


About the Authors:

Anita Yadavalli is the Program Director of City Fiscal Policy at NLC. Anita leads NLC’s Public Sector Retirement initiative, with a focus on research and education for city leaders on retiree healthcare benefits, as well as research and programming on other city fiscal policy issues.


Abigail Overturf HeadshotAbigail Overturf is the research intern for NLC’s Center for City Solutions. She supports the center’s research projects, with a focus on the annual State of the Cities report. Abigail is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science at Nebraska Wesleyan University.


Bela Shah Spooner smallBela Spooner is the Program Director, Education and Expanded Learning at NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.