Study: COVID-19 has positive effect on high school completion rates

Kunwon Ahn, Jun Yeong Lee, John WintersAccording to a study by Iowa State University researchers, disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic caused high school completion rates in the United States to increase considerably in 2020 compared to previous years.

The paper’s authors, Kunwon Ahn and Jun Yeong Lee, graduate students, and John V. Winters, associate professor, in the ISU Department of Economics, studied multiple factors related to the pandemic to determine their effect on high school completion rates.

The COVID-19 pandemic created devastating losses of health, life, and economic opportunities. Widespread closures of businesses and schools to mitigate the spread of the virus triggered a severe recession in 2020 and the highest rate of unemployment since at least 1948. Employment opportunities decreased especially for young workers.

Starting in March, most schools quickly shifted to an online mode of teaching to finish the school year early. Previous research has shown significantly worse learning outcomes for students taking online courses as compared to face-to-face instruction.

“There is a lot of evidence that young people don’t respond as well to online learning, so there was some concern that school closures in the spring could have reduced student performance and lowered graduation rates for high school seniors,” said Winters. “However, we find that high school completion rates actually went up.”

The study drew on individual level-data from the U.S. Current Population Survey (CPS) and also examined other contributing factors to high school completion rates, such as local infection rates and state policy. The analysis found that completion rates were most affected by local employment conditions, with the largest increases in high school completion rates in areas of large employment losses.

“The recession prevented many young people from being employed, but it allowed high school seniors to focus on their schooling and make something positive out of a bad situation,” explained Winters. “Of course, we still do not know about the longer run effects. If students learned less during the school closures, it may make them less prepared for college or the workforce down the road.”

The full working paper, which received no funding related to this work, is available here.

Winters was interviewed on the paper on
WHO Radio, Oct. 26
WOI TV, Oct. 28
KFAB Radio, Oct. 26
Radio Iowa, Oct. 29
WHO TV13, Nov. 6
Fox8 TV, Nov. 8
KCAU TV, Nov. 9, Nov. 6
Iowa State Daily, Nov. 9
WFLA News, Nov. 15
WRIC, News, Nov. 16