Don’t Forget the Class of 2020!

May 2021

Vaccination rates are increasing, businesses and schools are starting to reopen, and the American Rescue Plan is distributing almost $2 trillion in federal funds to hard-hit states, localities, businesses, individuals, and families. Economists are predicting strong economic growth in the second half of 2021. We are not out of the woods, but it is now possible to glimpse some light at the end of the long COVID tunnel.

Amid this encouraging news, it may be easy to forget the Class of 2020—young people who graduated from high school at the height of the crisis, when the national unemployment rate exceeded 10 percent. In fall 2020, college enrollment dropped by 6.8 percent, about 4.5 times the year-over-year decline in fall 2019. The enrollment decline was even more pronounced among graduates from high schools where at least 50 percent of the student population was eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (10.7 percent) and from high schools serving predominantly Black and Latinx students (9.4 percent). Data from past economic downturns show that these “recession graduates” may have poorer outcomes in employment, health, and other areas for years or even decades to come. Graduates from families with low incomes, and those who are Black or Latinx, are likely to be disproportionately affected, just as those families were hit hardest by COVID and the resulting recession.

The Class of 2021 faces challenges of its own beyond the still-recovering job market. Most students did not attend school in person this past year, and many did not have full access to computers for virtual learning or had other COVID-related responsibilities in the home that limited their educational time. As a result, they may be less prepared for college, training, and work.

As states and cities consider how to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in new federal aid, they should consider funding efforts to reach out to 2020 and 2021 graduates, assess their current circumstances, and connect those who need help to postsecondary education or training, internships, apprenticeships, service opportunities, or other activities that can help them catch up.

MDRC has connected with Bridgeport, Oakland, Dallas, and other cities to help plan special initiatives for recent graduates. Thanks to initial funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the cities are identifying those in need, building connections to high-quality programming, and developing coaching and counseling resources to help guide young people to programs that match their interests. For example, Bridgeport is helping youth access apprenticeships, work-based learning, community colleges, the armed services, and more.

“The enormous potential of Bridgeport’s young people should not be curbed by the disruption of the pandemic,” said Marc Donald, Executive Director, Regional Youth Adult Social Action Partnership (RYASAP). “In partnering with MDRC, we now have the opportunity to support them in a deliberate and meaningful way to ensure that they have successful careers and lives.”

In addition to helping “recession grads” in the near term, these efforts are designed to improve lasting support structures to help all students as they transition from high school to college, training, or the labor market, both in the initiative’s host cities and by sharing the initiative’s lessons to locales around the country.

“The many members of the National League of Cities concerned with improving policy and pathways for the nation’s opportunity youth stand to learn a great deal from an initiative focused on supports for members of COVID-19 era graduating classes,” said Andrew Moore, the Director of Youth and Young Adult Connections at the National League of Cities, which is advising MDRC. “Indeed, we join the MDRC team in adopting the adage, ‘leave no high school graduate behind’ as cities explore ways to rebuild from the effects of the pandemic.”

To learn more about how this initiative is working to increase opportunities for the graduating classes of 2020 and 2021, please contact Frieda Molina or Andrew Rock at: [email protected] or [email protected]