Luring pandemic-impacted youth back to college will take effort, educators say


Eriel Thomas was in her first year at Xavier University, a historically Black private university in New Orleans, when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

She decided to drop out at the end of the semester after experiencing disappointment that tuition costs had not budged, despite classes moving from in-person to online and reduced student services.

“I kind of, like, panicked,” said Thomas, now 19. “I felt like I had to get a job because I just really did not know what to do.”

Youth Today's OST HUB logo gray & lime green on whiteThomas is just one of many young people who have either dropped out or decided not to pursue higher education, part of a years-long decline in enrollment that was accelerated by the pandemic. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, colleges and universities have lost nearly 1.3 million students since spring 2020. 

Most of the decline can be attributed to a drop in undergraduate enrollment. Public institutions, and community colleges in particular, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

RELATED: iPad rentals, emergency funds and food pantries: What it takes to make “free college” work for all students

Thomas is Black, and her story is typical for many students of color who have dropped out of college since the pandemic. A Latino Policy and Politics Initiative of the University of California Los Angeles report drawing on data from 2020 and 2021 found higher attrition rates among Black and Latino youth. Almost 45% of Latino and Black students who canceled their educational plans cited economic challenges, compared to 38% of white students.

If colleges and universities bring back young people who may have dropped out or deferred their education, they need to offer more financial and material support, flexibility, and support services to keep them in school, administrators and experts say.

“This next generation will be a generation of part-time students, transfers and [commuters], by the norm,” said Tim Renick, the founding director of the National Institute for Student Success at Georgia State University. “Students [are] taking at least some of their classes online and are not on campus 24/7, are not living in university housing or dormitories, and so we need to prepare ourselves and our campuses for the kind of students we are enrolling.”

Black and brown youth more vulnerable

Taemin Ahn, the lead author of the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative report, said the pandemic disproportionately impacted Black and Latino people, who were more likely to be essential workers. Although the vaccine rollout reduced the level of attrition across all students, it did not change racial disparities among students dropping out, the report found. 

“The vaccine doesn’t reverse the severe economic impact of COVID-19, especially on families of color,” said Ahn. 

Even before the pandemic, Black and Latino students faced higher economic burdens, with fewer resources, than their peers. Black and Hispanic students were likelier to work at least 35 hours a week and report financial stress than their white peers. First-generation and Black students also carry heavier student loan debt burdens and are more likely to experience long-term financial instability because of them. 

“Black and brown students are less likely to have a financial safety net that allows them to bounce back after these kinds of financial setbacks,” said Ahn. “So the odds are already stacked against them, and I think what the report is showing is that COVID has only made things more difficult.”

According to a 2020 survey of over 195,00 students by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University, students of color were more likely than their white peers to experience basic needs insecurity — things like food and housing. The same report found Black, Indigenous and Latino students were twice as likely as white students to know someone who had died of COVID-19, and graduates from high schools with significant numbers of Black, Latinx and economically disadvantaged students were far less likely to immediately enroll in college in 2020.

Elizabeth Gaskin, the vice president of student success at Indian River State College, which serves four counties in southeast Florida, said her school has seen a drop-off in enrollment from graduating high school seniors, especially among young Black men.

“In many cases, they were making choices between working to help their families and coming to school,” Gaskin said. “And, of course, community colleges, that’s largely the population we serve — we serve minority populations, those that are income constrained.”

Community colleges are not the only institutions witnessing the unequal fallout from the pandemic. 

“Certain student populations have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic,” Martino Harmon, vice president for student life at the University of Michigan, wrote in an email. 

He said the school took several steps to address increased student needs, such as providing additional resources for food and scholarships, distributing emergency financial aid for rent and utilities, technology, travel and transportation, food and medical expenses. 

Vernon Hurte, the vice president of student affairs at Towson University in Maryland, said he saw students across the board take on more financial responsibility for their families as parents lost employment and daycare centers and schools shut down or went remote.

“We also saw students who may have had to become the primary caregiver for younger siblings,” Hurte said.

Towson used federal pandemic aid dollars to give aid money to students for housing, food, healthcare, child care, course materials, technology, unanticipated travel or other pandemic disruptions. The school increased the pay rate for student work-study to $15 per hour and increased student scholarships to lessen the load of student loans. 

“We were very targeted in how we invested those dollars,” said Hurte. ”The top priority was getting [the money] in the hands of our students.”

Finding solutions

Despite these and other efforts at many schools to offset the impacts of the pandemic, enrollment continued to drop across the country. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, postsecondary enrollment fell 4.1% in spring 2022, following a 3.5 percent drop the year before.

Warrenetta Mann, who sits on the governing board of the Association of University and College Counseling Directors, said hunger and mental health had become front and center of retention discussions among college leaders. 

“There are a significant number of students on our college campuses across the country that experience food insecurity and are using portions of their income … to support other family members,” said Mann.

To that end, some schools are looking to keep or expand programs that were launched during the pandemic to support students and keep them in school. 

Indian River State College used federal pandemic aid to expand internet access, online tutoring and wellness services, including a free, 24/7 mental health hotline. The school also started a discretionary emergency aid fund, which can help students with miscellaneous challenges like getting a flat tire fixed so they can get to class, Gaskin said.

Indian River has been able to sustain these and other programs using philanthropy dollars, including a $45 million donation — the largest in the school’s history — from billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. 

“I think, really, the most urgent need for all of us as college administrators right now is to ensure that the graduating class from this year starts and attends college this fall and then to continue to listen to our students and keep our fingers on the pulse of what’s happening with them,” said Gaskin, adding that her school has launched a campaign to reach out to prospective students who either dropped out or completed an application but never enrolled. 

“We can’t ignore the realities of financial strain, especially right now with inflation so high, with gas so high,” she continued. “It’s about listening to where students are and adapting your resources for whatever those needs happen to be, be that food insecurity, be that help with transportation, whatever the case may be.”

Renick, from Georgia State, expressed similar sentiments. 

“The kind of students we enroll at Georgia State live complicated lives,” he said. “Many of them have families and jobs.” Renick said over 80% of undergraduates at the school are working and 60% are low-income by federal standards.

The school found ways to support these students and has been nationally recognized for its high rates of graduation for Black, Hispanic, first-generation and low-income students

Emergency financial aid has been part of Georgia State’s strategy since before the pandemic. The school’s Panther Retention Grant program automatically deposits emergency financial aid of up to $2,500 in the accounts of eligible students who are in good academic standing. 

A third-party evaluation found the program resulted in higher graduation rates for low-income students and students from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. Since its inception in 2011, the program has served more than 10,000 students, according to the study.

Georgia State has also invested in technologies to flag students who may be at risk of dropping out. 

Its Georgia State advising system uses ten years of historical data on student behaviors and actions associated with attrition, such as poor grades in introductory courses, unpaid balances and multiple absences. If a particular student displays these or other risk factors, the system alerts their advisor who can direct them to support services, including academic peer tutors, the emergency aid program, and food, housing or mental health support services.

“We don’t wait for the student to self-diagnose the problem,” said Renick. “We reach out proactively to the student.” 

The advising system resulted in 106,000 advisor meetings in 2021, and the school estimates that it saved students $20 million in tuition and fees for last spring’s graduating class due to cutting time to degree completion.

Renick said other schools looking to attract and retain students, particularly Black and Latino students and others who have had their education derailed by the pandemic, could apply the lessons of Georgia State.

“If you can find an effective way of proactively supporting [students] financially, it’s going to impact students of color,” he said. 

As for Thomas, who dropped out of Xavier University early in the pandemic, she worked as a server at a restaurant for two years before finding retail work at Dillard’s. Now, she said she’s ready to go back to school and plans to to study business at Delgado Community College in New Orleans this fall. 

“I’ve figured [out] what I wanted to do for a career, and feel like I need the knowledge from going to school to help support me.” she said. 


Akilah Wise, Ph.D., is an Atlanta-based journalist covering public health, medicine and inequity. 

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