Low-income students are dropping out of college this fall in alarming numbers

“At my high school graduation, I told all my family I would go to community college. I was trying to better my future,” McConnell said. “But the online classes really threw me for a loop. I knew I couldn’t do it.”

McConnell’s situation is playing out all over the country. As fall semester gets into full swing in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, schools are noticing a concerning trend: Low-income students are the most likely to drop out or not enroll at all, raising fears that they might never get a college degree. Some 100,000 fewer high school seniors completed financial aid applications to attend college this year, according to a National College Attainment Network analysis of Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) data through August.

The lower enrollment figures are the latest sign of how the economic devastation unleashed by the coronavirus crisis has weighed more heavily on lower-income Americans and minorities, who have suffered higher levels of unemployment and a higher incidence of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus. Students from families with incomes under $75,000 are nearly twice as likely to say they “canceled all plans” to take classes this fall as students from families with incomes over $100,000, according to a U.S. Census survey in late August.

The drop-off in college enrollment is unusual and particular to this pandemic, as college enrollment during the Great Recession grew. Typically, enrollment jumps during economic downturns when jobs are scarce and people look to retrain. Yet, the opposite is happening now.

Students who are the first in their families to pursue college degrees don’t tend to take “gap years” to travel and intern. When low-income students stop attending school, they rarely return, diminishing their job and wage prospects for the rest of their lives. Only 13 percent of college dropouts ever return, a National Student Clearinghouse report last year found, and even fewer graduate.

“The ultimate fear is this could be a lost generation of low-income students,” said Bill DeBaun, the National College Attainment Network’s (NCAN) data director, who put together the FAFSA tracker.

Enrollment trends so far show especially steep drops among Black students and rural White students. These students are facing multiple setbacks: difficulty paying for college, job losses and the public health crisis, as coronavirus cases have hit African American and Hispanic communities the hardest. A new report from the National Student Clearinghouse found summer enrollment fell the most at community colleges and among Black students. Experts say summer trends are often a good indicator of what’s to come.

Official fall enrollment data won’t come out until October, but education research company EAB has been tracking tuition deposits at 100 four-year colleges, because deposits are a good indicator of whether a student will actually attend. Deposits are down 8.4 percent among families making less than $60,000 a year.

Students from lower-income families and students of color have fueled undergraduate enrollment growth over the past two decades, though they still struggle to complete their degrees. Now many higher education leaders worry the pandemic could be wiping out years of progress.

“We could erase a lot of access gains over the past 20 years in one fell swoop,” said Brett Schraeder, an EAB consultant who put together the report.

When he saw students huddled outside a Sheetz convenience store trying to do their virtual classes on the store’s WiFi network, John J. “Ski” Sygielski, president of Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) in Pennsylvania, realized just how much help his school would have to provide low-income students if they were to make it through the fall semester.

Like many schools, HACC is predominantly holding virtual classes this fall. Sygielski’s team has given out hundreds of computers to needy students and “close to 400” hotspots, but he fears too many students will just give up on higher education as they see family members getting sick with covid-19, losing jobs and struggling to eat.

“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,” Sygielski said.

The pandemic has already wiped out millions of jobs at restaurants, hotels and entertainment venues that provided lifelines for college students needing extra income and low-income families struggling to pay bills. The U.S. unemployment rate was 8.4 percent in August, one of the worst in years, and over 14 percent for Americans who are 20 to 24 years old.

“I spent the last few months focusing on finding a place to live rather than focusing on school,” said Roshelle Czar, 26, a junior at Sacramento State University. “Due to an emotionally unstable family dynamic, I do not…

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