A Year of COVID-19: High School Students Share its Impact and Save for Higher Ed, says College Savings Foundation

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Survey of 1,000 students nationwide finds both negative and positive sides of school shutdowns

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Vivian Tsai, Chair, College Savings Foundation

Despite the challenges that students faced this year, they are looking ahead to building better futures, both by saving for higher education and opening their sights to a wider range of college and career options. -- CSF Chair Vivian Tsai

High school students across the country are emerging from a year of COVID-19 school shutdowns with a range of reactions to online learning, making pragmatic plans for higher education, and taking action to save for it. Additionally, in responding to the economic uncertainty wreaked by COVID-19 on their higher education financing plans, students shifted their directions towards public four-year schools, community colleges, technical and career schools and apprenticeships.

These are among the many findings of College Savings Foundation’s (CSF) 12th Annual Youth Survey of sophomores, juniors and seniors in high schools across the country.

In keeping with the higher savings rate overall, the students demonstrated sound financial planning with a majority, 56%, saving for higher education – up from 48% in last year’s CSF survey. These savers included 23% using 529 higher education savings plans as their primary way to save, up from 20% last year.

“Despite the challenges that students faced this year, they are looking ahead to building better futures, both by saving for higher education and opening their sights to a wider range of college and career options. We are also pleased to know that students understand the value of 529 higher education plans in achieving these aspirations,” said Vivian Tsai, Chair of CSF, a national nonprofit helping American families save for higher education.

Parents, too, are saving for their children’s higher education, with 69% of students reporting that their parents were saving and 23% of those were using 529s as their primary saving vehicle.

The survey revealed another use of 529s during the last year. When the vast majority, 83%, of students’ high schools closed, 13% of them switched to a private school. Nearly half of those students’ private tuition, 49%, were funded by 529 plans which allow for up to $10,000 per year to be used for funding K-12 education.

How Higher Ed Financing was Changed by COVID-19’s Economic Uncertainties

On the topic of overall higher education financing, over half, 51%, of students said that economic uncertainty had affected their plans. Of those impacted, 53% of them said that their parents were laid off and will have less saved for college, and 44% of them said they would need to take on debt to cover the costs of education.

Among those students whose financing plans changed, here’s how they anticipate those changes to affect their higher education plans:

  • 21% will go to community college
  • 17% will go to work in an apprenticeship program
  • 16% will take a career and technical school path
  • 15% will go to a public rather than private college
  • 12% will work instead of going to school
  • 8% plan a gap year instead. (11% reported no change.)

How Students Feel About a Year of Online Learning

In the 2021 survey, freshly gathered in April, CSF asked high school students how they felt about the impact of COVID-19 on their lives, asking about negative and positive impacts in two separate questions:

  • 79% of high school students said that COVID-19 negatively impacted their high school experience, with most, 59%, citing their inability to socialize with friends and classmates; 23% saying they don’t feel academically prepared due to online classes, and 13% saying they lacked confidence in dealing with people outside their family.
  • 35% of students saw a positive impact on their high school experience. Among the reasons: 33% cited more time with family, 28% cited more time to delve into topics of interest, and 24% said a less frantic lifestyle. They also liked taking time in nature and responsibility for a new family pet.

Overall, 58% of students said that taking classes online was preparing them for the next phase of their lives, 42% do not feel the same.

A year of online learning affected students in significant ways. They ranked them in this order:

  • Not academically prepared for higher education
  • Not socially prepared for higher education
  • Not mentally prepared for higher education
  • Unable to participate in sports and clubs

How COVID-19’s Impact Deepened from 2020 to 2021

In comparing how this year’s survey results compare to those taken in 2020, a little more than one month into the school shutdowns, here are some highlights:

  • Economic Impact on Future Plans: 52% of students said economic uncertainty was affecting their plans – up from 37% last year. Similar themes showed up for them, such as attending a community college to save on costs, going to a public versus private college, taking a gap year to get back on track financially, and attending an online university.
  • Higher Ed Choices. 44% said the pandemic would change their plans for higher ed, double the 22% who said so last year. Of those, the most popular responses were attending a higher ed institution close to home, going to a community college and transferring to a four-year college later, pursuing a trade or technical training, or taking a gap year.
  • Future Career Plans. 38% said the pandemic would alter their career choices, up from 19% last year. These included changing to health services or public safety fields.
  • General behaviors. 59% of high school students said the pandemic would impact the rest of their lives – up from 55% last year. In addition to being more aware of personal and public hygiene, crowds and personal space, they are more aware of personal finances and the need to save and prepare for economic disruption.

The 2021 CSF Survey of 1,002 High School students was conducted via Survey Monkey with parental approval. The College Savings Foundation (CSF) is a Washington, D.C.- based not-for-profit organization helping American families achieve their education savings goals. See Infographic of findings at http://www.collegesavingsfoundation.org

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