Written by: Dr. Reagan Flowers
The harsh effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on education have reached another level of concern. Recent numbers have shown that the decline in U.S. college enrollment doubled in fall 2020 compared to fall 2019. Enrollment was 3.6% lower than in 2019. That’s more than 560,000 students.
As soon as schools started closing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we knew there would be lasting effects on students. We had no idea how far they would reach, and now, we see that we will need to address learning gaps at almost all levels of education. First, we were concerned about bridging the gap between a mostly unfinished academic year in 2019-2020 with this academic year. Then we saw students becoming disengaged, and some young students not starting school at all.
Now, we are seeing the ultimate test — students that have worked so hard forgoing their chances to pursue the degrees that will launch their careers. As with all the pandemic fallouts I have discussed so far, we see the highest enrollment declines in more impoverished areas. For graduates of high-poverty schools, the college enrollment decline in fall 2020 was more than 36%. Though we expected the pandemic to have quite an impact on college enrollment, this number is just shocking.
Why College Enrollment is Dropping
Enrolling in college is always a financial concern, but it is now devastating for those with little to no money to spare. Workers across the country are still without jobs, and college tuition costs keep rising at alarming rates.
Potential first-time 2020 college students also lost out on finding any help paying for college. Yes, they could apply for scholarships and grants themselves online, but many were without school counselors and teachers who could help them figure out the options best-suited for them. Schools serve as essential resources in empowering and encouraging students to attend college.
Second, struggles with online learning may have deterred many students from continuing after high school graduation. STEM subjects are challenging to learn virtually, as this method lacks the collaboration and hands-on learning offered in the classroom. On top of that, when you pile on a lack of technology and resources and work to help out the family, you can see why many economically disadvantaged students chose not to move on to an even more challenging learning level.
What We Can Do
We need to start looking at ways to help the upcoming and current college-age students affected by the pandemic. The sad likelihood is that students who decided to forgo the 2020-2021 college year are less likely to enroll the following year. We must help them however we can, and also the students who should be attending college this next fall.
First, schools need to offer more resources to help those struggling with online learning. The solution at the beginning of the pandemic was, “do the best you can.” Many schools waived grades and testing at the end of the 2019-2020 academic year. These waivers will not work in the long term. If students are struggling with online learning, they need a tangible way to get help, and they need to know where to go to get that help.
Colleges need to offer similar resources. Before the pandemic, online learning was an option for college studies. Because of that, online programs are set up with the assumption that those taking them are tech-savvy and prepared to complete coursework virtually. The pandemic pushed everyone to online learning, ready or not. We can’t just assume everyone will adjust.
For many years, we’ve known that students have different learning styles, and making adjustments for those styles can help them succeed. Online learning adds another layer to this. We mustn’t just sweep this under the rug and wait for the pandemic to be over. We must know how to reach all students, help with learning gaps now and be prepared should remote learning be presented again as the only option in the future.
More to Consider
Second, there is some advantage for the students still in school. They are not under a complete school shutdown like schools were last spring. Teachers and counselors must encourage today’s students to find solutions if they are thinking of changing their plans.
We also need to find ways to reach out to those taking a gap year (year off of college). Those 560,000 students need to know that there is a way back to the paths they planned on pursuing.
Another element I have not yet addressed is uncertainty. It’s tough to make decisions when you have no idea what the world will bring over the next year or even the next month. Students may be more encouraged to attend college as some level of normality returns. In that light, many colleges are extending their deadlines for enrollment. I feel this is a favorable decision nearly every higher education institution can and should make for the next academic year. In giving graduates more time to see what is happening globally, they may be more prepared to move on to higher education.
We Need to Speak Up
One way to address problems we face in education, particularly in STEM education for economically disadvantaged areas, is to identify, acknowledge, and take action. Speak out at school meetings; be a loud voice when advocating for students and their futures. When we see opportunities like this national town hall on the future of STEM, we must not sit on the sidelines. Join in.
At C-STEM, we have been committed to helping every student get the resources they need to succeed for nearly 20 years. The pandemic has added its complications, and we will continue to do everything we can to help. If you have ideas, want to volunteer with us or want to make us aware of the struggles students in your area are having, please feel free to reach out.
As we head into 2021, we hope for a year full of promise and solutions that make a difference, ending the pandemic and helping make sure students are not left behind.