Young people are feeling less certain about their future. We need to answer their call.

One of the most enduring myths about young people is that they don’t know what they want to do. In fact, young people often have a much clearer idea of where they want to go in life than they are given credit for. Many of them, however, have run into a new roadblock, in the form of COVID-19.

Since the onset of the pandemic, fewer young people across racial and gender subgroups report feeling very clear about their goals and ideas for their future job or career. In a recent survey of 1,305 youths, ages 15–21, conducted for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation by Goodwin Simon Scientific Research, the percentage of young people who said they feel “very clear” about their future and the kind of job or career they want fell by more than a third, to 27 percent in August from 42 percent last year. An even bigger decline came among Black females: whereas last year half of young Black females said they had clear career goals and ideas, in August only 28 percent felt so.

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At a time when many Americans are feeling uncertain about the future, this isn’t necessarily surprising. However, in a separate survey, parents of Black (59%) and Latinx (61%) students were particularly likely to say their child’s plans for after high school have changed as a result of COVID-19.

This sentiment is voiced so clearly in the research by a young Latinx woman in Florida who states, “I feel very nervous and so I am debating whether to skip the fall semester and begin in January or to take online classes at the local college… I’m worried about the possibility of being exposed to the virus and getting sick, or getting my parents sick.”

Given how central a quality education is to social and economic mobility in this country, the disruptions students are experiencing on their path to a degree or credential could have generational implications — both in the lives of students and for the future of our country.

What can be done about this major challenge? How do we give young people the supports and opportunities they need to fulfill their visions?

Clearly the most urgent need is to address our public health crisis and focus on delivering quality digital learning for students until safe, in-person instruction can resume. On that front, the Gates Foundation is working in partnership with other funders to invest in quality curriculum and content providers such as Illustrative Mathematics and CommonLit to expand digital access to their content.

We’re also leaning on our Digital Learning Network in higher education and partners like Every Learner Everywhere to help other colleges and universities use new technologies and best practices to strengthen digital teaching and learning with a focus on equity.

But this is also a time to ramp up critical interventions for students who are most at-risk of falling off their educational path.

Last month, the Gates Foundation’s #NoDreamDeferred campaign highlighted several partners doing inspiring work to keep students on a path to graduation despite the disruptions of COVID-19.

Recognizing the need to meet students where they are during this time, organizations like the College Advising Corps (CAC), joined by CommonApp and Admit Hub, have transitioned their advising model to reach students virtually since schools have closed. CAC has long partnered with universities to send their recent graduates to high-need high schools to advise and support students. Their pivot to virtual advising helped them reach more than 170,000 first-generation students from low-income households with the information, support, and opportunities to build relationships they need to continue their education after high school during this period of disruption.

Other partners like City Year, a member of the AmeriCorps national service network, continue to connect students virtually with mentors and tutors who can provide the relationship-based support they need to stay motivated and engaged in a remote context. They’ve also created a guide for school leaders seeking to take a more integrated approach to social, emotional, and academic development — a key aspect of supporting students at a time when many are feeling social isolation and experiencing trauma.

A young Black man from Illinois shares the power these kinds of relationships can have, especially in times of crisis: “I’ve known my mentor since 7th grade and I talk to him weekly, and he gives me words of encouragement, and if I need any resources for anything, whether it’s scholarship info or tutoring, he does his best to help me.”

Not all the spots are bright, however — a reminder that there remains plenty of work left to do. In the last year, there has been a 10 percentage-point drop in the portion of young people who think going to college is “worth it,” to 62 percent from 72 percent. Among Black females, the drop was more than 20 points, to 57 percent in 2020 from 78 percent in 2019. It’s unclear whether this shift in perspective is a reaction to the uncertain outlook of campuses being able to remain open safely, a reflection of a negative experience with online learning, or a longer-term shift in views about what’s needed to be successful in this new landscape.

What is clear is that young people are more in need of more support, counsel, and opportunities to build relationships than ever before, and it’s up to policymakers, philanthropic organizations, community organizations, and other stakeholders to answer their call. At the Gates Foundation, we know we now have a responsibility to examine our work against the new challenges and opportunities in the current environment of pandemic and recession and, where necessary, make shifts.

My hope is that we can continue to respond to students’ near-term challenges as partners like CAC and City Year have done, and that as funders our actions can lead to innovations that help ease inequities and strengthen our education system in the long-term. Our actions now will have a tremendous impact on what happens to the classes of 2021, 2022, and many years into the future. How will you answer the call?

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President, U.S. Program, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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