CHARLESTON — Just under half of West Virginia’s public high school graduating class of 2020 enrolled in either a vocational school, community college or four-year college or university this past summer or fall, according to new state data.
That 48.2% college-going rate, down from 50.5% for the Class of 2019, is the lowest since at least the Class of 2000, when it was 54.9%. That’s according to Chris Treadway, research and policy senior director for the state’s higher education oversight agencies.
But, comparing just the Class of 2019 to the Class of 2020, the college-going rate for wealthier students actually increased.
This college-going rate statistic doesn’t include students who might enroll in a vocational school, community college or four-year college or university any time after the summer or fall immediately following their high school graduation.
Treadway also said it doesn’t count enrolling in an apprenticeship or other pursuits that don’t lead to a certificate or degree. And it might not count enrollment in some schools that don’t report data to the National Student Clearinghouse, although he said he doesn’t know of any major colleges West Virginians attend that don’t report.
The Class of 2020 graduated amid the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gov. Jim Justice closed K-12 classrooms statewide beginning March 16, 2020.
West Virginia colleges also moved many classes online for the fall 2020 semester. Many colleges in other states followed suit.
Treadway said he believes the dip below 50% is because of the pandemic, but added, “We don’t have a way to make that statement for certain right now.”
Before the pandemic, the college-going rate has basically been flat going back to the Class of 2014, when it was 50.6%. That was nearly identical to the Class of 2019. An annual decline in the rate began about a decade ago, with the rate falling from 55.7% to 50.6% for the Class of 2014. The rate has bobbed up and down since, but hasn’t again exceeded 52%.
Treadway said he didn’t have an answer for what drove the longer-term decline.
“The cause is so hard to pin down,” he said. “And it could vary by high school or region of the state, economic conditions and so forth.”
Bridgeport High School’s Class of 2020 had the state’s highest college-going rate, at 73.9%, followed by Kanawha County’s George Washington High, at 72.1%, and then Putnam County’s Hurricane High, at 67.8%.
The statewide chasm between students who aren’t and who are eligible to receive public assistance widened. For these “low-socioeconomic status” Class of 2019 graduates, the college-going rate was 36.9%, and it dropped to 33.8% for the Class of 2020. But the rate increased for students who aren’t low-socioeconomic status: from 54.8% in the Class of 2019 to 58.8% in the Class of 2020.
“Socioeconomic status is, of course, a big predictor of students’ success in college, but also their ability to actually attend college in the first place,” Treadway said.
A roughly 20-percentage-point gap in the college-going rate between male and female students continued from the Class of 2019 to the Class of 2020. For the Class of 2020, the rate was 58.4% for young women and 38.5% for young men.
Students not taking college-level courses in high school was a good indicator they wouldn’t continue their education. The rate was 25.3% for those in the Class of 2020 who took neither Advanced Placement nor dual-enrollment courses, while it was 87.2% for students who took both types.