Press Release

New National Data Provide High Schoolers’ Perspectives On a School Year Shaped by Remote Learning, Attention to Racial Injustice

Students of color less likely than white peers to report seeing themselves represented in curriculum

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Many high school students are rethinking their postsecondary plans and feeling disconnected from their teachers but also becoming more civically engaged, according to a national survey of high school students released today by America’s Promise Alliance and Research for Action as part of the GradNation campaign.

The wide-ranging, national survey of more than 2,400 high school students provides one of the most comprehensive looks yet at the high school experience during a tumultuous year marked by a global pandemic, heightened attention to racial injustice, and upended plans.

Among the key findings:

  • 55% of high school students discuss issues of race and racism in school, but students of color are less likely to report seeing themselves represented in the curriculum compared to white students.
  • Learning about race and racism in school is associated with higher levels of egalitarian beliefs, social action, and a sense of postsecondary readiness. 
  • Four out of five (78%) 11th and 12th graders report that COVID-19 has impacted their plans after high school.
  • High schoolers, particularly those learning remotely, feel disconnected from peers and teachers.

"After a year of upheaval, these insights clarify the need for schools and communities to prioritize high school students in their recovery planning for next school year and beyond,” said Mike O’Brien, CEO of America’s Promise. “The majority of high schoolers have been attending school remotely and there is a shorter runway to support them through graduation. Schools, in partnership with families and communities, will have to rebuild connections with students, prioritize relationships, strengthen pathways to postsecondary success, and embrace honest discussions about our nation’s history. Rather than restoring schools to their pre-pandemic state, this moment calls for a transformation of the high school experience that will better, more holistically, support young people.”

Launched in 2010, the GradNation campaign is a nationwide effort to boost the on-time high school graduation rate and prepare young people for postsecondary life. To inform the campaign and understand high schoolers' current experiences, the survey is organized around three topics: students' opportunities to learn about race and racism, COVID-19’s impact on students’ postsecondary planning and the factors that contribute to students' sense of readiness, and COVID-19’s impact on students' sense of connectedness and wellbeing.

Opportunities to Learn about Race and Racism

Overall, about half (55%) of high school students report discussing race and racism in school, with two-thirds (66%) reporting being taught about the history of racism in the US. About 3 in 5 students (61%) report that their school curriculum represented non-white communities at least “sometimes.” Fewer students of color (52-62%, by racial/ethnic group) report that their curriculum represents their racial/ethnic background compared to white students (68%).

Notably, learning about race and racism in school is associated with higher levels of egalitarian beliefs and social action. Young people who had more opportunities to learn about race and racism in school were significantly more likely to endorse egalitarian beliefs (i.e., society should strive to promote equality among social groups) compared to peers with less exposure (65% v. 56%, respectively). Similarly, youth who had more opportunities to learn about race and racism in school more often reported high levels of personal social action (i.e., consuming information and talking with friends and family about political and social issues) compared to those who had less exposure (60% v. 52%, respectively).

Postsecondary Plans and Readiness

COVID-19 has disrupted students' postsecondary planning in myriad ways, the survey results show. Approximately four out of five (78%) 11th and 12th graders report that COVID-19 has impacted their plans after high school at least “a little bit,” with almost one in five reporting their plans were impacted “a great deal.”

Among those who report their post-high school plans have changed, the most common change was to where students plan to attend college. One-third (34%) of young people report changing their plans to attend college closer to home, and one-quarter (24%) plan to attend a two-year instead of a four-year institution. Notably, nearly half indicate that their plans have changed due to financial (47%) or family reasons (45%) with far fewer citing changes to their interests (24%), suggesting that shifting plans are driven largely by constraints beyond young people’s control.

Postsecondary readiness is highest among students who are connected to teachers and peers, have opportunities to learn about social issues like race and racism at school, and feel academically challenged and interested in their courses. For example, youth who have opportunities to learn about race and racism in school were more than twice as likely to feel a sense of postsecondary readiness compared to students without those opportunities. And those who felt a high degree of interest in their classes were five times more likely to report a high degree of readiness for life after high school.

Students’ Wellbeing and Sense of Connection

As part of the survey, students were asked to indicate how connected they feel to their classmates, teachers, peers in their community, and other adults at school and in their communities. Overall, levels of connectedness were low, with more than half of students indicating feeling “not at all” or “only a little” connected across each of these relationships.

Even when controlling for demographics, students attending school remotely were almost twice as likely to report feeling “not at all” or “only a little” connected to their teachers compared to youth attending all or mostly in-person.

The data also suggest that many young people are experiencing poor or declining mental health. Almost 3 in 4 surveyed high schoolers (72%) reported a poor or decreased sense of mental health in the past 30 days, indicating that they feel happy, were able to concentrate, or that they were playing a useful part in things, “much less than usual” or “not at all.” More than half of respondents (58%) reported feeling signs of distress “much more than usual” (e.g., feeling unhappy and depressed, constantly under strain, or losing much sleep over worry).

The report makes four recommendations for supporting young people now and in the coming years:

  1. Schools should address student mental health by partnering directly with mental health service providers and embracing a more holistic understanding of wellbeing.
  2. Schools and districts should support comprehensive and inclusive classroom discussions about the history of race and racism in the U.S and develop adult capacity to teach about race and racism and non-white histories and experiences.
  3. Schools and their community partners should support postsecondary success through relevant content and pathways planning.
  4. District and school leaders should center relationships in school structures and practices to strengthen students' connections with peers and teachers.

The report also recommends state and district leaders prioritize support for high school students in the allocation of their federal recovery funds.

The full report is available at America’s Promise Alliance and Research for Action conducted the survey over a six-week period in March and April 2021 to a national sample (n=2,439) of young people ages 13-19 who are enrolled in high school in the United States. The full report includes a complete description of the study methods. This research was generously supported by AT&T.


About America’s Promise Alliance & The Center for Promise: Bringing together national nonprofits, businesses, community and civic leaders, educators, citizens, and young people with a shared vision, America's Promise sparks collective action to overcome the barriers that stand in the way of young people's success. The Center for Promise, affiliated with Boston University, is the applied research institute of America's Promise Alliance. Its mission is to develop a deep understanding of the conditions necessary for young people in the United States to succeed in school, work, and life.

About Research for Action: Research for Action (RFA) is a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization that seeks to use research as the basis for the improvement of educational opportunities and outcomes for traditionally underserved students. RFA’s work is designed to strengthen public schools and postsecondary institutions; provide research-based recommendations to policymakers, practitioners, and the public at the local, state, and national levels; and enrich civic and community dialogue about public education.

About Philanthropy & Social Innovation at AT&T: We’re committed to advancing education, creating opportunities, strengthening communities and improving lives. AT&T Connected Learning is a multi-year commitment to bridge the digital divide and narrow the homework gap so today’s learners are connected with skills, resources, and opportunities for success in school and in life. Since 2008, we’ve committed $600 million to programs that help millions of students across all 50 states and around the world, particularly those in underserved communities.


*This press release was updated on 6/24/21 to correct the opportunities to discuss race and racism percentage from 56% to 55%.