Low-income college enrollment takes hit during pandemic

Low-income college enrollment takes hit during pandemic
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Low-income college enrollment has taken a hit amid the coronavirus pandemic, as the virus outbreak has ravaged the economy, affected education methods and continues to lead to deaths in the U.S. 

About 100,000 fewer high school seniors have applied for financial aid to go to college this year than in 2019, according to an analysis performed by National College Attainment Network (NCAN), indicating the coronavirus pandemic has been especially devastating to low-income students. 

Other statistics indicate a similar trend.

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Students whose families make less than $75,000 a year are nearly twice as likely as those whose families make more than $100,000 per year to say they have canceled fall plans for classes, a U.S. Census Bureau poll in August said.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S. in early March, mitigation efforts to stem the spread of the virus — such as business closures, shelter in place orders and other forms of social distancing — have impacted the economy and left millions of Americans unemployed. 

The pandemic has also left many U.S. children and young adults concerned or apprehensive about their return to school, especially on campuses, where some schools may have limited access to mitigation resources like rapid testing. 

Some of the most common reasons for canceled plans cited in the survey include uncertainty about class formats, loss of a parent or student's job and fear of contracting the coronavirus. 

The U.S. has one of the highest coronavirus case counts in the world, with over 6.6 million infections and close to 200,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University. 

The trend stands in contrast to that of the 2008 financial crisis, as well as most other recessions. Economic downturns typically lead to increased enrollment as people seek to acquire new skills and increase their chances of employment, according to The Washington Post.

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Worsening matters for low-income students, students who are the first in their families to attend college are far less likely to return to school after taking a year off, according to the newspaper.

“The ultimate fear is this could be a lost generation of low-income students,” NCAN data director Bill DeBaun told the Post.

Low-income students and students of color have been a major driver of college enrollment in recent years, but the virus-fueled decline stands to unwind much of the progress, according to Brett Schraeder, a consultant with education research firm EAB.

“We could erase a lot of access gains over the past 20 years in one fell swoop,” Schraeder told the Post.

Numerous factors make enrollment harder for low-income students, including the loss of jobs they needed to pay for classes and their barriers to online learning.

“I’ve had students leave laptops in my office at night and pick them up in the morning, because they were afraid they would be stolen at home or used for drugs. Many don’t have space to study at home. They don’t have equipment,” John Sygielski, president of HACC, Central Pennsylvania's Community College, told the Post.

--Updated on Sept. 17 at 10:49 a.m.