By Bernie Lombardi, Ph.D., Betsy Kim, Ph.D., and Robyn Ince, Ed.M.


As part of our ongoing study funded by the New Jersey State Policy Lab on youth who were disconnected from college during COVID-19 in Newark, we conducted focus groups and one-on-one interviews with 21 youth between the ages of 18 and 26 who have graduated high school but are not currently enrolled in postsecondary education. We interviewed people of different races and genders.

Most youth we spoke to wanted to attend college or trade school after high school but were unable to after they graduated due to barriers such as the death of a close family member and lack of finances as stated here: “After my uncle died, I had to stand up for myself. College was the last thing I could think of. I had to put it off as a priority. I had to survive.”

Some youth wanted to enroll in college or trade school but didn’t because of the COVID-19 pandemic. One student who was pursuing a trade when the pandemic began explained how he lost momentum when he no longer had the in-person support he depended on to stay motivated. As a result, he did not complete his degree.

Other students explained that they never considered college because they, their family or their teachers did not see them as having “college going” potential. One student stated that he has had enough of school and “just wants to work and start adult life.” However, he wants to pursue a career in welding and understands that this requires trade school.

The young people we spoke to did have some, albeit limited, exposure to planning for life after high school while in school. Prior to high school graduation, they mostly relied on their school counselors and trusted teachers for support and college and career advice. As one youth said, “The counselor in school knew about my family background. I actually stayed in her office and got advice from her.” Some youth had limited exposure to colleges while in high school (averaging 1 to 2 visits) and would have liked opportunities to see more schools. Others felt like their high schools did a good job at exposing them to college. One youth stated: “We went on college trips to HBCUs, and this made me think about my future and write my goals down.” And still others shared that their schools provided college support, including weekly college fairs, but that they did not take advantage of these opportunities because they did not think they wanted to attend college.

Family, friends, and churches also helped these young people learn about college and make goals for the future. One youth stated: “I had friends in college and they helped me. They told me what to do, what not to do, how to survive. I learned about college mostly from my friends.” Another said: “My mom went to college but had to stop because she had [children], and she wants a better future for us.” And two students who are the children of immigrants said that they are motivated by their parents who came to the United States and worked hard to provide for them.

Youth we interviewed spoke of the multiple barriers to attending college once they graduated high school. Some included language barriers for English Learners and Newcomer students as well as academic challenges for students with disabilities. Others felt like their high schools did not provide them with the support they needed to pursue college. One youth said: “Teachers only focused on kids in AP classes.” They also spoke of the challenge of balancing present demands and challenges with future goals.

Many youth we spoke to felt the need to work right after high school in order to support their families as shared here: “It’s difficult to save money for your education when you have other needs.” Youth were also experiencing mental health needs that could interfere with attending college as stated here: “After I lost my dad, I needed time to recover emotionally.”

Fortunately, there are many community-based organizations in Newark that are equipped to work with students who need focused support to plan for their future. However, even though they have graduated from high school some of the youth we interviewed still find the college application process intimidating and stated that they would be more likely to go to college if they had someone to guide them through the process. Finding this person is particularly challenging for youth who are no longer enrolled in high school or have completed an alternative program.

Overall, the youth we spoke to felt that college is worth it but also wondered if they could achieve their goals through other means. One posited that college may no longer be in sync with our modern technologically-driven society. “You can look on Google and can do almost anything you can do in college. You can argue that college is past its time.” Others spoke about college providing the ability to move up more quickly in a chosen field such as: “For me it’s worth it because if I had gone it would allow me to have the life I wanted. It would give me a feeling of fulfillment to do what I wanted to do, study what I wanted to study, maybe be a better person than I am now.”

We will release the final report of our findings in summer 2024.