Reporting on the connections between education and work

In Colorado, a snapshot of how the pandemic disrupted college-going patterns in the states

The state not only saw fewer high school graduates heading straight to college—but those who did go were less prepared.
Photo by Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat

The pandemic has disrupted millions of recent graduates’ college-going plans—and it hasn’t been a straightforward story of simply waiting out the worst before enrolling. And now, data on the class of 2020 coming out in states like Colorado further illustrates the complex effects of the pandemic.

New data in Colorado show that the rate at which students in the class of 2020 went to college right out of high school dropped, as it did nationally—and that those who did go were less prepared. And participation in programs offering college experience in high school has remained stagnant.

Those takeaways detailed in the state’s recent annual look at the state’s higher education progress offer a better view of trends influenced by the pandemic. The report serves as an annual pulse check on state higher education. 

This is the first year the report shows the impact of the pandemic on students. The report looks at issues that threaten the state’s progress toward the goal of getting more residents equipped with a college certificate or degree. Here are three takeaways from the recent report on postsecondary progress.

The good news: Students across the state consistently participated in college opportunities while in high school.

But those numbers don’t show yet the impact of the pandemic. Many students were already enrolled in college-level classes in 2020 before the start of the pandemic. And the numbers show that even before the pandemic, the state was struggling to sustain progress made during the last decade in student participation in dual enrollment, career education and early college opportunities. Overall, growth in participation has slowed or even flatlined.

The college-level programs not only expose students to college, but also save them money by earning credits often without paying tuition.

  • About 72 percent of Colorado high school students enrolled in career education classes, 42 percent enrolled in college classes while in high school, and 3.8 percent graduated high school with a college certificate or degree.
  • Those rates barely budged from 2019 to 2020.

The report says the state will need to grow the number of students of color participating in those opportunities to create more equitable outcomes because Hispanic and Black students lag in participation.

After the pandemic started, college leaders reported enrollment declines. Students said they lost learning time due to remote instruction, worried more about college costs, and reported feeling exhausted as reasons they were less likely to finish college.

The report reaffirms that the pandemic from its earliest stages upended college-going patterns. The state’s rate of students going to college right out of high school in 2020 dropped to 50.5 percent, a five-point drop from 2019.

The decline affected every student group, according to the report. College-going among rural students dropped to 46 percent, slightly less than that of the general population. 

In all, more than 29,000 of the state’s 2020 high school graduates did not complete a college credential program in high school or enroll in higher education.

Students showing up unprepared for college-level work due to their disrupted pandemic education is a trend nationwide. Colorado is no exception.

  • The report shows a seven-point increase in the proportion of students needing remedial classes at four-year universities, from about 21 percent to 28 percent.
  • At community colleges, however, the rate dropped to 35 percent, down from 41 percent.

Every demographic group needed to catch up in college to some extent, but Black and Hispanic students continued to be twice as likely to need extra coursework compared with their peers, according to the report.

  • Altogether, about 30 percent of first-year college students were placed in developmental education classes.
  • About 27 percent of students need to shore up math skills, while about 12 percent need to beef up their English skills.

For years, the proportion of students needing extra education to get college ready has dropped. That’s in part thanks to statewide changes that ended remedial classes that don’t lead to credits and more support for students needing to catch up. That, too, mirrors moves in other states like California, Florida, and Texas.

The recent decline in preparation levels is a troubling sign for college completion because students who need developmental education classes are less likely to continue with their college education.

Jason Gonzales covers higher education for Chalkbeat Colorado, in partnership with Open Campus.

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