As millions of students descend on college campuses across the country this month, the pandemic may once again be dissuading some of the most vulnerable young people from higher education.
Economic uncertainty and a chaotic transition to online learning spurred by Covid-19 shoved more than 727,000 undergraduates off the college path in 2020. And 2021 is charting a similar path.
The number of federal student aid applications completed, a key metric used to track college ambitions among low-income students, is down for a second year in a row — more than 100,000 forms as of July. It’s an early sign of another potential dip in enrollment after the class of 2020 saw a steep drop-off last year. For public high schools where more than 50 percent of students are Black or Hispanic, the decline is nearly four times that of majority white schools.
College and career advisers are scrambling to connect with at-risk students who may be choosing low-paying jobs over a college education that could set them up for more lucrative careers. But higher education experts worry a rebounding economy, prevalence of Covid-19 vaccines and in-person learning won’t be enough to draw students who have turned their backs on postsecondary education.
Student decisions this month could widen an already existing income gap, potentially exacerbating inequities for a new generation.
“If we don't go get these students, there are students who just aren't going to show up at our institutions,” Wil Del Pilar, The Education Trust’s vice president of higher education policy and practice, said in an interview. “Low-income students and students of color don't take a gap year — they leave school and then we've lost them in higher ed.”
The College and Career Access Center in Jackson, Mich., a career and college guidance group, saw a decline of more than 30 percent over the past two years in students they typically help through one-on-one advising. In Georgia, Achieve Atlanta, a nonprofit college advising group that works with Atlanta Public Schools students, said it has struggled this past year to reach students with their higher ed planning when classes went virtual.
“It's definitely been more challenging and there are students we have not been able to reach,” said Korynn Schooley, Achieve Atlanta’s vice president of college access. Being unable to connect with students personally, she said, has made it challenging to engage them in the technical parts of going to college like filling out the FAFSA.
“Building that culture of college going in schools, helping ensure that every student gets tapped on the shoulder to have that conversation about their postsecondary plans — that's been the hardest thing to translate to virtual for us,” Schooley said.
First-year students may not be the only ones falling through the cracks.
Students who dropped out of college because of the shift to online learning or to help support their families by working are facing significant administrative hurdles as they try to get back into school. Verifying their federal student aid application can prove burdensome, especially for those with families with multiple gig-economy jobs, such as driving for Uber or delivering for Postmates. And transferring to a community college from a four-year school is a major obstacle to navigate remotely.
“My fear is that we may have lost a generation of students,” Del Pilar said.
The classes of 2020 and 2021
More than a quarter-million fewer high school seniors from the classes of 2020 and 2021 completed the FAFSA because of the pandemic, said Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation at the National College Attainment Network. This year, high school seniors completed nearly 5 percent fewer applications than the year before.
Even though initial numbers are stark, it’s not too late to file a FAFSA. Groups that focus on college advising are racing to find students from the classes of 2020 and 2021 who want to continue school but need to complete key milestones for enrollment.
Without being able to hold in-person events to assist multiple families at a time, advising groups are reaching out to students and their families individually using email and social media platforms like Instagram.
Baltimore City Public Schools also launched a new “Navigator Center” during the pandemic to reengage with students who have left high school or college and need guidance to complete paperwork for college enrollment or land an apprenticeship.
On average, about 26 percent of Baltimore City Public School graduates are “neither in the workforce nor in college the fall after they graduated,” according to Rachel Pfeifer, BCPS' executive director of college and career readiness.
To get to students, the center has been putting ads on buses and bus stops, and advisers from the center have been visiting summer schools. And they've created partnerships with the mayor's office, local nonprofits and the nearby community college to help students with the application process.
Students want to go to college, said Nancy Peters-Lewis, executive director of the College and Career Access Center of Jackson, but it feels out of reach because of the cost.
President Joe Biden has suspended interest and student loans payments until January 2022. And Democrats in Congress are negotiating a $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation bill for “human infrastructure” that seeks to make two-year colleges free.
Still, of the students who didn’t apply to college in the class of 2020 and 2021, the center’s exit surveys showed that the most common reason why was because they felt they were not academically ready, needed money or couldn’t afford school.
“It's got to be a systemic overhaul of the cost of college and how colleges serve their students,” Peters-Lewis said. “Some senators are like ‘Well, not everybody's is cut out for college after high school, but they are cut out for something.’”
That's the wrong approach, according to Peters-Lewis. “We can't just have a cast of people saying ‘you're cut out to go work at McDonald's,’” she said.
The class of 2019
Staying enrolled in college and making it through the first year was already hard before a global pandemic added new barriers.
High school class of 2019 graduates saw an unprecedented two-percentage-point drop in their overall “persistence rate” — a measure of how many first-year students returned for their second. It was the lowest level the rate had hit since 2012, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
The rate fell steepest among Latino students. And freshmen who attempted to transfer out of their institution were more likely to drop out.
Bridgette Davis, a researcher and doctoral candidate at the University of Chicago, has been studying 31 low-income students from the class of 2019 who are navigating college. When the pandemic hit, many told Davis that they were less confident they would successfully finish their semester, let alone re-enroll in the fall.
Out of the 31 students, only 14 remain in college.
Six of the students unsuccessfully tried to transfer from a four-year college to a community college, and some failed to re-enroll at their four-year institutions after taking leave because they didn’t do well with online coursework. Many students, Davis said, chose to work instead and acknowledged that taking a break from school makes it difficult to return. But the stress of having to begin paying back loans is also weighing on students who left and they are factoring that into whether they’ll head back to school.
“All those navigator programs and coaching programs, they're a stopgap,” Davis said. “They are definitely helping, but they never can be at scale to help every single kid that wants to go to college.”
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