Life as a college senior: Canceled graduations, challenging job market

College students poised to graduate in 2020 are facing compound hardships due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Experts say that first-generation and low-income students may be especially hard-hit by coronavirus-related disruptions to academic timelines and economic opportunities.

Graduation without ceremony is ‘bittersweet’ for first-gen students

While event cancelations have been necessary to comply with social distancing requirements, they also have led to heartache. For first-generation students, college graduation is often a particularly meaningful milestone that they look forward to sharing with their communities and families.

Maria Ramirez, a first-generation college student and daughter of Mexican immigrants, says finishing a medical degree at University of Illinois College of Medicine without a ceremony is bittersweet. “It’s disappointing because the graduation ceremony is not just to celebrate my achievement, it was also meant to recognize that my family accomplished one of their dreams, and I wished they could have experienced that,” she told the Chicago Tribune.

‘A perfect storm’ affecting low-income students in vocational programs

Many students approaching the end of their vocational training training programs have faced significant interruptions as nonessential businesses and campuses close. Programs for teachers, truck drivers, carpenters, welders, and health care workers all require a minimum number of on-the-job training hours, which cannot be moved online.

Many students enrolled in vocational training are studying at community or technical colleges, and seeking upward economic mobility. Michael Quinn, a senior analyst with Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, says that closing training programs disproportionally affects low-income students and students of color. If these students are unable to fulfill their required hours, they may end up with an incomplete in their courses or drop to part-time status, possibly jeopardizing their financial aid.

“It’s a cascading effect that has students wondering if the two-year program they signed up for is going to take a lot longer,” David Altstadt, associate director at Jobs for the Future, told The Chronicle of Higher Education, adding that “low-income students are facing a perfect storm today.”

Noting that lower-income workers are “the most likely to drift off without support,” Eric M. Seleznow of Jobs for the Future says that colleges should prepare to provide extra support to vulnerable students with food, day care, and basic equipment like work boots when classes resume in person.

Graduating seniors face up to 20 percent unemployment

Meanwhile, the 2020 job market looks to become “one of the worst in recent memory,” with 22 million Americans filing for unemployment in the last four weeks and unemployment projected to rise as high as 20 percent over the summer, writes The Hechinger Report

The combination of an unexpected public health crisis and resulting economic downturn creates a “tragic moment” for young adults, who will feel the effects throughout their careers, Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, told the Orlando Sentinel. With businesses imposing hiring freezes and cancelling job and internship offers, many graduating students will find it difficult to gain experiences and skills in a first job that they can leverage for future opportunities. When it comes to lifetime earnings, Carnevale says, “the first domino matters.”

“Nothing’s ready for us,” says Florida State University senior Aaliyah Abarzua, whose National Guard training has been put off indefinitely. “It’s scary to think you go to these jobs fairs and the advisors tell you the job market is waiting for you, and now it’s like nobody wants to talk to you.”

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