National Study Finds Students from Underserved Populations Less Inclined to Seek Education after High School than Their Peers

March 2, 2023

MINNEAPOLIS—Less than half of students from traditionally underserved populations believe education after high school is necessary, according to a new survey conducted by ECMC Group in partnership with VICE Media Group. The survey of more than 1,000 high school students ages 14-18 from low-incomefirst-generation and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) backgrounds found that only 45% believe education after high school is necessary, compared to 52% of all high schoolers.

In addition, only 8% feel fully prepared to make the decision of what to do after high school.

This study is the latest in a series of national surveys conducted since February 2020 to uncover insights from high schoolers about their academic and career plans after high school. The previous five surveys gathered information from a cross-section of more than 5,000 students from across the country. The latest survey, conducted in October 2022, focused specifically on gathering insights from historically underserved high school student populations. The data is part of ECMC Group’s Question The Quo campaign, designed to empower Gen Z teens to take the education and career path that is right for them.

“This latest round of data provides a clearer picture of the issues and barriers faced by our most under-resourced students as they seek to determine their future trajectory,” said Dan Fisher, president and CEO of ECMC Group. “With this information, we have an opportunity to not only hear the concerns but develop solutions that will enable these students to persist and thrive in the future.” 

The survey also found that 83% of students surveyed feel pressure—often self-directed—to pursue a four-year degree, but more than half (53%) are open to a path other than four-year college, and nearly 60% believe they can be successful without a four-year degree.

As they ponder their future, most would like their high school to provide guidance on questions about finances (62%), support for their mental and physical health (48%), identifying postsecondary education options (46%), and managing future debt (37%) or handling unexpected costs (37%).

“Students from underserved communities are looking at education through a practical lens,” said Fisher. “They want to know what the cost is, how they’re going to pay, how they will get through everyday life and whether there’s a job at the end of the road.”

Students from underserved populations feel unprepared to make decisions about their future

The study found that 86% of students surveyed think about their future path at least weekly (52% think about it every day) and 59% have a career path in mind, but few are receiving the guidance they need to make an informed decision.

Only about one-third of students surveyed have been offered a program that helps them explore careers; 38% have taken a class on career exploration, and only 41% of students attend high schools that provide college fairs.

When thinking about their future, more than half look to their family to provide information, 48% seek insight from teachers and counselors, and 36% turn to friends and classmates.

Students from underserved populations are focused on ensuring their ability to meet their basic needs

The survey found that underserved students put basic needs at the top of their decision-making criteria:

  • 75% listed mental health in their top decision-making criteria for choosing a path after high school
  • When asked about their top three needs in making a decision about their post-high school education:
    • 43% listed “I need to be able to feed myself”
    • 34% listed “I need to have safe housing”
    • 31% listed “I need to be able to take care of my physical health”

In addition, 48% wish their high school provided more guidance on managing their health (physical/mental).

Students from underserved populations are concerned about the cost of education after high school

The cost of education after high school is a key concern for these populations:

  • 70% listed the cost of tuition in their top decision-making criteria for choosing a path after high school
  • 56% worry about how they will pay for college

The most common areas where students lack the financial information they need include:

  • Scholarships available to them (43%)
  • Earning potential based on different career paths (38%)
  • Jobs they should consider to help manage costs while attending school (37%)
  • Average costs they will have to pay outside of tuition (33%)

In addition, 65% would choose a career they are passionate about over one that provides a high salary.

Even among underserved populations, there are differences in education and career outlook

  • Low-income students are least likely to consider four-year degrees
  • First-generation students are most likely to have started career exploration in high school
  • First-generation students are more worried about costs outside of tuition
  • BIPOC students have the lowest understanding of the income/cost tradeoff of pursuing a career over pursuing education immediately after high school
  • Low-income students feel more strongly about postsecondary education requiring less time to complete
  • First-generation students are most likely to believe the government has a role in funding education
  • First-generation students are most concerned about how they will pay for education

Additional findings include:

Careers are top-of-mind for low-income, first-generation and BIPOC students

  • 57% started exploring career options in high school
  • 78% say it’s important or very important to have career plans determined when they graduate from high school

Shorter, career-focused education pathways make sense for underserved students

  • 55% said their post-high school education should last less than four years
    • 39% said post-high school education should be two years or less
  • 33% say post-high school education should only include subjects directly related to their program/major
  • 58% say a skills-based education makes sense
  • 32% say education would be better in several short experiences over a lifetime vs. one longer experience
  • Because of the pandemic, 34% feel more comfortable with following a path other than four-year college

Low-income, first-gen and BIPOC students believe the government and businesses have a role to play in their education

  • 46% say the government should provide additional money to pay off student loans
    • 40% say the government should subsidize/pay for education
  • 40% say businesses should provide formal education
    • 38% say businesses should provide additional money to pay off student loans

Survey Methodology
ECMC Group, in partnership with VICE Media Group, conducted a survey of 1,020 low-income, first-generation and BIPOC students ages 14-18 from October 11-25, 2022. This study is part of ECMC Group’s Question The Quo Education Pulse research, which has included six nationally representative surveys from February 2020-October 2022, including the new findings. Read more about the national surveys and methodology here: