Our nation’s postsecondary education system is headed into even tougher times as the COVID-19 crisis deals another blow: millions of students at risk of washing out of college because of reduced budgets and declining enrollment.
The current effects of the pandemic on education are seismic. While overall undergraduate enrollment in 2020 is down a moderate 4 percent from 2019, enrollment has plunged nearly 10 percent at community colleges. The impact on Black and Hispanic students has been even more significant, with year-over-year numbers off by 30 percent. This crisis and its effects can’t be ignored when 70 percent of future jobs will require education beyond high school.
Yet, statistics tell only part of the story. What high school and college students are living through today is even more revealing.
At Bellwether Education Partners, our team spoke with dozens of young people and the adults who support them to understand the pandemic’s impact on their well-being, education pathways and hopes for the future. It’s clear students are facing increasingly urgent and fundamental hurdles to their postsecondary dreams.
Many students lack access to basic needs, such as food, stable housing and health care. Connecting to the internet has become essential for learning and social interaction — and is not a given in many households. Physical space is also in short supply, with many students missing a safe space to focus and decompress. Family income is squeezed, especially in lower-income communities with more workers in sectors hit hardest by pandemic shutdowns. This puts pressure on young people to contribute financially or assist with family responsibilities. These realities have made choosing college and choosing to stay in college a dilemma.
At the same time, the “safety net” of support is fraying. Institutions’ policies and services are in flux. Many admissions and graduations requirements modified at the start of the pandemic have returned to pre-COVID baselines, while both the pandemic and the challenges students face persist. Critical supports, like mentoring programs, academic counseling and mental health support have moved online, are oversubscribed, or not offered at all. The same is true with athletics, student clubs, affinity groups and living on campus. Sometimes the adults in students’ lives are also experiencing personal disruptions and have been unable to meet the heightened needs of young people.
Like so much else of what we’re seeing in education, COVID-19 did not create the postsecondary crisis: it simply exacerbated an already fragmented and disjointed system. Too often the onus on getting to and through college falls entirely on young people to navigate alone.
Whether students graduate college shouldn’t depend on extraordinary humans — instead, students should be able to depend on an extraordinary system of support. Such a system needs adults to collaborate across organizations and create connected pathways that students can easily navigate. Teachers, counselors, deans and employers can no longer serve as individual stopgaps for students; instead institutions — K-12 schools, colleges and universities, and community-based organizations — must provide streamlined, yet comprehensive services to ensure better pathways for students.
A better system will require federal, state and local policy changes — for instance, expanding access to early college programs and dual credit offerings, eliminating remedial course requirements, revising financial aid policies to create incentives for colleges and universities to provide needs-based aid, matching every first-generation college student with a mentor on campus and many more changes.
So what are institutions to do? In the most immediate, leaders need to listen to the lived experience of young people, understand the day-to-day impact of COVID-19 on their academic journeys and adjust accordingly.
There are compelling examples even now. Policymakers increasingly are focused on providing more access to high-quality learning opportunities (and chances to get back on track). Florida, for example, eliminated remedial course requirements and replaced them with co-requirements so students can earn credits while catching up academically and Louisiana is piloting structured “gap years” to keep the college pathway open.
Colleges also must acknowledge the power of counseling for life navigation. Assigning adult and peer mentors to students who need additional guidance, encouragement, or exposure to new perspectives and experiences can ensure more students stay on track. Some institutions, like Arrupe College at Loyola University and Dougherty Family College at the University of St. Thomas are two-year programs embedded within four-year institutions, designed for first-generation college goers.
Universities and colleges have worked to reduce red tape, by creating resource hubs so students can more easily navigate needed information about employment, scholarships and more. And policymakers have streamlined opportunities for students who start at two-year schools to earn a bachelor’s degree, with one-year transfer programs and simplified credit transfer agreements.
Critically, the institutions who support students in high school and higher education must make sure these better systems stay in place long after COVID-19 — especially for first-generation college goers.
Lina Bankert is a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a national education non-profit.