College retention program for migrant students struggles, endures during COVID-19

Migrant and seasonal farmworker families not only have one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States but also face some of the most daunting obstacles to higher education. For nearly 50 years, a little-known federal initiative called the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) has been supporting migratory students’ postsecondary success, with strong results. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has created an extra layer of challenges for migrant families—and CAMP’s ability to serve them, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. 

Go to college or go to work? 

A unique mix of economic, educational, and cultural hurdles makes migratory students an especially vulnerable group in higher education. Even early in their K-12 years, many migrant students experience academic disruptions. They may skip days, “stop out” (withdraw from school temporarily), or fully drop out to work alongside their families and supplement family incomes. Farm workers earn a median of $25,000 to $30,000 per year, according to Department of Labor findings

Migrant students, many of whom are English-language learners, move from one school system to another as their families travel for work. As a result, they may be academically underprepared to finish high school or start college. Those who participate in farmwork have high school dropout rates as high as 50 percent, and few migratory families are familiar with the college admissions landscape. 

“Students are very much on their own when it comes to pursuing higher ed. That academic capital and generational knowledge isn’t there,” Miriam Bocchetti, president of the National High School Equivalency Program and CAMP director at Central Washington University told the Chronicle

CAMP offers student support to break the cycle

Since 1972, CAMP has aimed to fill that gap. The program grew out of a mounting awareness of the obstacles to migrant families’ social mobility—a plight made visible in documentaries such as 1960’s Harvest of Shame. In that film, journalist and producer Edward R. Murrow explained to his audience, “Approximately one out of every 500 children whose parents are still migrant laborers finishes grade school, approximately one out of every 5,000 ever finishes high school, and there is no case upon the record of a child of a migrant laborer ever receiving a college diploma.” 

CAMP now serves 2,000 first-year college students annually across 57 college campuses, providing an assortment of supports such as internships, help securing health care and housing, tutoring and mentoring services, and financial assistance. The program takes a holistic approach to meeting students’ needs and hosts events where students from migrant families can bond over their common experiences—including the “adaptability and resilience born of a lifetime of change.” 

Recent data indicates that 84 percent of CAMP participants finished their first year of college, and 96 percent of those students were still enrolled at the start of their second year. In single-institution studies, CAMP students had graduation rates equal to or higher than the average at their college.

COVID-19 complicating program recruitment, outcomes

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has threatened CAMP’s success. When college campuses closed, some migrant students found themselves drawn back to farmwork to support their family. Many dropped out; others attempted online learning but were soon thwarted by insufficient internet access. 

With some high schools closed or limiting off-campus visitors, CAMP directors also struggled to reach prospective students and their families. In-person conversations are crucial to putting parents at ease and moving past misconceptions, CAMP leaders say. Migratory students also were hesitant to pursue college as their family members faced COVID-19 risks. 

Still, with its proven record, CAMP appears poised to endure. President Biden’s 2022 budget proposes a $20 million increase in funding for programs like CAMP, ensuring that they remain a lifeline for college-bound migrant students during COVID-19 and beyond.

Maria Hernandez, daughter of a Mexican migrant family and a sophomore at Arizona State University, began college in the fall of 2020 worrying about how COVID would affect her family and her academic life. “It was so hard at first, with everything being online. I was alone,” Hernandez told the Chronicle. She found a community with other migrant students in biweekly Zoom meetings coordinated by CAMP. “When I met them, I was like, ‘Wow, now I feel like I belong here,” she said.

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