‘Alarming’ nationwide exodus of low-income college students, students of color

Emerging college enrollment numbers are showing COVID-19’s disproportionate toll on low-income families and students of color, intensifying concern about the pandemic’s long-term implications for access and equity in higher education. “Low-income students are dropping out of college this fall in alarming numbers,” The Washington Post writes. Moreover, the trend is “unusual and particular to this pandemic, as…typically enrollment jumps during economic downturns when jobs are scarce.”  

However, economic pressures are just one of numerous hardships driving students off the path to a college degree. In a recent U.S. Census survey of households where at least one adult had planned to go to college this fall but decided not to attend, students cited financial strain from income loss, fear of COVID-19 infection, and reticence about online learning as key hurdles keeping them from college. Limited access to laptops, poor internet connectivity, and competing family obligations also are taking a toll. 

Conducted August 19-31, the Census survey indicates that 16 million college-bound Americans have changed their plans. Students from families with incomes below $75,000 were nearly twice as likely as those from families with incomes higher than $100,000 to say they “canceled all plans” to take classes this fall.

“There’s just perhaps an element of families rallying together to keep the lights on and rent paid,” says Bob Parzy, interim associate provost of enrollment services at Harper College in Illinois, which has seen new student enrollment decrease by 30 percent and 18 percent among Black and Latinx students, respectively. “A lot of students are still trying to decide whether they can fit college in,” he adds.

Early enrollment data highlights disparities

While it’s still too soon for official fall enrollment numbers, summer and early fall data show outsized decreases among Black and rural white students. One report published by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC) looks at 7 million students enrolled at 2,300 colleges between May and July 2020, finding a decline in summer college enrollment, compared with 2019 levels, at two-year, rural, and for-profit colleges—all institution types that tend to serve lower-income students. 

Among racial and ethnic groups, Black students had an especially large 8 percent drop in overall undergraduate program enrollment. And at community colleges, specifically, Black student enrollment fell by 11 percent, compared with summer 2019.  

Related: Report shows sharp drop in Black student summer enrollment >

Tuition deposit trends similarly signal a drop in college attendance, according to education research, technology, and services firm EAB. Several months ago, EAB cautioned that fewer low-income students, particularly students of color, were submitting enrollment deposits this year. 

A new analysis using an expanded data set of approximately 1 million students reinforces those equity concerns, finding that the decrease in tuition deposits among students at all middle- and lower-income levels persists—with a 7.5 percent decline in deposits among students with Expected Family Contributions (EFC) below $10,000. “We could erase a lot of access gains over the past 20 years in one fell swoop,” EAB Consultant Brett Schraeder told the Post.

Drop in FAFSA completion sparks concern

“Possibly more concerning,” writes EAB, is the fact that many deposited students still had not filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as of August, a key step in accessing the federal financial aid needed to afford college. According to the National College Attainment Network, around 100,000 fewer high school seniors completed the FAFSA this year. FAFSA completion is down 4 percent nationally, with a 6 percent decline in FAFSA completion among students graduating from Title I high schools, which serve high-poverty communities.    

Related: Dip in FAFSA completion sparks concern >

Data from EAB partner schools bear out this trend: among students whose households have annual incomes of less than $80,000, there has been a 63 percent increase in the number of students depositing without filing a FAFSA. Among Black and Latinx students, those numbers are up by a whopping 156 percent and 152 percent, respectively.

“The data continue to point to the widening equity gaps this fall,” EAB writes, predicting that without needed federal, state, and institutional funding, many students could find themselves forced to withdraw mid-semester or accumulate daunting amounts of debt.  

Recent surveys on the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic show that students of color and working-class, low-income, and indigenous students are already experiencing higher rates of financial hardship, Inside Higher Ed notes. Decreased access to financial aid can only worsen students’ likelihood of completing a degree. 

Long-term implications

“Students who are the first in their families to pursue college degrees don’t tend to take ‘gap years’ to travel and intern,” the Post writes. “When low-income students stop attending school, they rarely return, diminishing their job and wage prospects for the rest of their lives.” 

After taking just one year off from college, students overall are 30 percent less likely to ever earn a bachelor’s degree. Moreover, students who stop out without finishing their degree will find themselves entering the workforce in a weak economy and during a time of great chaos and uncertainty, EAB notes.

“The ultimate fear is this could be a lost generation of low-income students,” Bill DeBaun, the National College Attainment Network’s data director, told the Post.

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