Helping Students Recover from COVID-19 Setbacks
By Matt Konrad
Updated April 2021
On the surface, the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are obvious: 32 million Americans have been sick and more than 572,000 have died; more than 37,000 people are hospitalized right now across America. Small businesses have shuttered, millions have lost jobs and nearly everyone in the U.S. has been affected in one way or another.
But there are deeper impacts as well – and it may take a generation before we truly understand all of them. This is especially true of the pandemic’s effect on education. And that uncertain post-COVID future is why we need to work together right now so we can help students bounce back.
Uncertain Times, Decreasing Enrollment
The importance and impact of a degree hasn’t lessened because of COVID-19. But for millions of students, the pandemic has upended the increasingly delicate balancing act of paying for college.
As vaccinations roll out and recovery begins, unemployment claims remain high — and for students, the shift to remote learning also means that on-campus and work-study jobs aren’t an option to help alleviate college costs. At a time when ¾ of undergraduate students hold at least part-time jobs, the lack of work is making college an impossible investment.
For others, the digital divide is getting in the way. Remote learning requires access to high-speed internet and reliable devices – and technical difficulties have pushed students, especially those in rural areas, to turn hilltops, parking lots and car seats into makeshift classrooms. Faced with these less-than-ideal circumstances, students are opting to put their education on pause.
The numbers bear out what’s happening: FAFSA completions are down, Common App college applications are down and, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, undergraduate enrollment in fall 2020 declined by 3.6% from the fall of 2019. That’s a drop of more than 560,000 students, which is twice the rate of enrollment decline seen last year. Most of that decline occurred at community colleges, where enrollment fell by more than 10%.
Even worse, the high school class of 2020 is disappearing from higher education at a rate never seen before. The enrollment rate for students who graduated from high school in 2020 dropped by nearly 22% compared with the class of 2019. It dropped more than 32% for graduates at high-poverty high schools.
COVID-19 created a cloud of uncertainty around college, work and the future, and it’s leaving millions of students – especially those from historically underserved communities — in limbo. While we hope to see numbers return to something closer to normal in fall 2021, the near future may present more difficulties: according to Bellwether Education Partners, “an estimated 3 million students may have dropped out of school learning since March  … the group’s study cited a lack of Internet access, housing insecurity, disabilities and language barriers as major obstacles to attending virtual classes during the pandemic.”
Partnerships to Build Support Structures
This is clearly a critical juncture for students. Whether it’s the lack of work, housing or technology; a need to care for family members; or a remote-learning structure that doesn’t serve their needs, the outcome is potentially devastating: students stopping out of college, dropping out before graduating or never attending at all. Worse yet, students who are carrying loan debt but don’t complete a degree may end up in a financial hole they can’t dig out of.
It’s up to all of us who support students to ensure that the COVID-19 generation of students isn’t lost. And it’s going to require proactive efforts, public and private partnership and new ideas about how best to support success.
On the public side of things, the political turmoil of the past year has made cohesive efforts difficult, but not impossible. In response to the decline in FAFSA completions, the House and Senate have agreed on legislation to simplify the FAFSA and expand Pell Grant eligibility – both moves that will help low-income students access financial aid. In addition, the last COVID relief package included significant funding to provide emergency grants and alleviate food insecurity, as well as further student loan relief provisions.
Looking forward, the Biden administration’s higher education plan has ambitious goals for expanding free tuition at two-year colleges and, for qualifying students, at four-year universities. The push also continues for expanded student loan forgiveness. While the final shape of these policies is likely to change, they do represent a significant federal effort to support students’ return to normal.
How We Can Build Back
With help from our supporters and partners, Scholarship America is also working to facilitate that return. Scholarships offer a lifeline to students struggling with an uncertain educational future, and over the last year we have worked to reimagine more equitable, flexible and effective ways of delivering them.
That effort started in spring of 2020, as we worked with our partners at Achieve Atlanta to expand and rethink our emergency grant program. As a pilot, the program was targeted to Atlanta Public Schools alumni facing unexpected financial setbacks while in college. The pandemic accelerated and exacerbated those needs, and we worked together to fundraise, assess and disburse nearly $200,000 to more than 2,000 students by June 30.
“The emergency grant … allowed for me to have an easier transition from my college life—where I had housing and meals provided by scholarships—to my at-home life, where I no longer had a job due to COVID-19,” said one recipient. “Thanks to the emergency grant, I was able to get my car repaired so I could start working for Instacart delivering groceries.”
Needs like that student’s aren’t addressed by typical scholarships. That’s why we’re continuing to find new ways to provide students with flexible, timely and vital funding to keep them moving forward. For students who need to turn to full-time work, we’re helping partners develop tuition assistance programs that can bring them back to college. And for first-generation students, we’re building support structures into our scholarships, helping them find advice, mentorship and community even if they can’t be on campus.
In addition, we’re striving to reach students more equitably. We’re partnering with Common App to close persistent racial and socioeconomic gaps in access to college scholarships; we’re also working with our partners to truly address the ongoing racial, ethnic and income inequity that exists within the world of private scholarships. As we’ve seen, low-income and historically underserved populations are at the highest risk of dropping out during the pandemic, and they’re the students we’re working to connect with financial aid.
As a generation of students finds its educational goals at risk, it is more important than ever to deliver timely, well-rounded support. Creating, supporting and expanding scholarship programs will be vital to the post-COVID recovery. We’re here to help make that happen – and we’d love to hear from you.