How could COVID-19 affect college attainment in the long-term?

Experts predict that COVID-19 will disrupt educational pathways for six or more years, especially for low-income and first-generation students, writes The Hechinger Report. While many observers have been focused on the pandemic’s implications for fall 2020 enrollment, others are pointing to projections suggesting that dropout rates will rise, graduation rates will fall, and costs will increase during the economic downturn.

“We’re so focused on the now and on the short-term future,” says Laura Perna, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. “It’s much harder to think about the long term, but there are serious long-term consequences to this.”

Degree attainment rates likely to drop

Research shows that deferring enrollment, taking a gap year, starting at community college with the intent to transfer, and studying part-time can all delay or derail degree attainment:

  • A federal study from the National Center for Education Statistics finds that students who finish high school and delay college often never attend college at all.
  • The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center finds that studying part-time significantly lowers success rates over six years, pointing to full-time students’ 65.6 percent graduation rate, compared with a 34.2 graduation rate among part-time students.
  • The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center indicates that less than half of full-time community college students earn associate degrees within six years. 
  • The Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, finds that only 13 percent of community college students successfully transfer into four-year institutions and obtain a bachelor’s degree.

“For some students [community college] will be like a detour… and for others it will be an off ramp,” says Kristen Renn, a professor of higher, adult, and lifelong education at Michigan State University.

College a hard sell to families experiencing unemployment

Degree attainment is especially tenuous for low- and middle-income students, experts warn. The recession “is putting families into a very precarious position for whom paying for college was precarious to begin with,” says Lindsay Page, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education.

Making the case for investing in college during a time of record unemployment is also exceedingly difficult, says Yolanda Watson Spiva, president of the advocacy group Complete College America. “It’s hard enough under regular circumstances to help students understand why college is important,” she says. “Trying to get students to understand the value proposition of college now is going to be a more difficult and arduous undertaking.”

Education gaps likely to exacerbate socioeconomic disparities

Experts predict that, if fewer and fewer low-income students enroll and matriculate while students from higher-income families continue to attend college, socioeconomic gaps will widen. And low-income students who attend less-resourced colleges will likely find fewer support systems when they arrive. As cash-strapped colleges struggle with budget shortfalls, they may furlough student advisors and cut student orientation programs that help prevent students from dropping out. Supporting first-generation and low-income students will be especially hard if schools continue online instruction into the fall during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Our students are out there floundering,” says Liane Hypolite, an assistant professor at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.“Once they hit a few roadblocks, without a person and a contact and a human being who can help guide them through the process, they’ll say, ‘I’m over it.’”

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