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OPINION: The pandemic is wreaking havoc on the path to and from college

President Joe Biden’s call for two years of free community college is upending the debate about postsecondary education. Lost in the political back and forth is funding in the American Families Plan to provide an additional $147 billion to increase college retention and completion rates and reduce financial burdens on low-income students — much-needed steps.  

This funding will address the hurdles many first-generation college-goers face, both in school and out, at a time when the path to and through college is too dependent on luck. During the pandemic, more hurdles have meant catastrophe for many of these students.  

Students walk on campus at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, New York. American Families Plan funding will address the hurdles many college-goers face. Credit: Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

A large number of first-generation students attend community colleges. In the best of times, graduation rates at many of these schools are dismal: 13 percent after two years. And enrollment at community colleges is down over 9 percent from 2019.  

To ensure that more students, especially first-generation college students, graduate, high schools, colleges, universities and college-access organizations must create and provide a host of supports. College affordability is an important factor, but not the only one.  

Many students considering enrolling or continuing in college, or transferring, have new familial pandemic pressures and expectations, from sibling care to putting food on the table. And as a result, they’ve been making tough choices between paying college tuition for a virtual or hybrid experience (or a full-time experience they weren’t sold on to begin with) and pausing schooling to join the workforce. 

Since last summer, Bellwether Education Partners has spoken with dozens of young people and the adults in their lives to try to learn how the pandemic is impacting postsecondary choices. Students at transition points, like high school seniors, first-year college students and those hoping to transfer out of two-year colleges, face particularly acute challenges. Because of remote learning, many graduating seniors feel academically unprepared for college, and many students already in college are struggling without the regular supports that come with learning on campus. 

We found that most high schools, college access organizations, institutions of higher education, funders and policymakers have been acting independently, without a strategy to support students in a coherent way.  

Most high schools, college access organizations, institutions of higher education, funders and policymakers have been acting independently, without a strategy to support students in a coherent way. 

This leaves students — with little experience, time, money or room for error — figuring out a disjointed system on their own.  

Related: ‘It’s just too much’: Why students are abandoning community colleges in droves 

The solutions are not theories. There are clear examples of communities working together across K-12 schools, colleges, and nonprofit organizations to prioritize the needs of first-generation college-goers. 

For example, South Texas College, a public community college in the Rio Grande Valley serving predominantly low-income Hispanic students, maintains close connections with high schools in the area. Rebecca De Leon, dean of dual credit programs and school district partnerships, advises high school students on academic and career choices and helps many students earn college credit while in high school.  

Every step of the way, her team focuses on simplifying enrollment and transfer processes.  

“The reason we’re successful is that we look at the data to identify areas of concern,” De Leon says. “Community partnerships help us understand the school districts’ perspective, and in our culture, in the Valley, parent engagement is really important as well.”  

The seamless transition for students from high school to college is paying off: In the 2017-18 school year, 23 percent of dual-credit students went directly to South Texas College. Eighty percent of those students persisted from fall to spring, and 64 percent were still enrolled a year later, De Leon said.  

This sort of coordinated approach is the exception, though Chicago has shown the power of taking it on. Four years ago, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a new graduation requirement for Chicago public school students: Each student had to make a plan for their postsecondary education, such as applying to a university, community college or technical school, pursuing an apprenticeship or enlisting in the military. 

It was a great step, but only part of the solution. Without support structures at the colleges and universities, especially those serving high percentages of first-generation students, many students still struggled.  

The latest data from Chicago comes via the To&Through Project and shows progress on the postsecondary front, as institutions across the city aligned their support efforts. Four-year colleges, such as Illinois State University and Northern Illinois University, increased their spring-to-fall retention rates by more than 20 percentage points by continuing to work in direct partnership with the Chicago public schools to better support low-income, first-generation students.  

And enrollment and retention rates at two-year colleges, where supports are improving, were also moving up. Both declined significantly this year as many students faced increasing caregiving responsibilities, greater family health concerns and mounting financial pressures during the pandemic, underscoring the urgency of finding innovative solutions for student success. 

President Biden’s plan brings attention and needed funding to this critical work. Hopefully it will shine a light on the need to do it across every community.  

Lina Bankert is a partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a national education nonprofit and co-author of Reimagining the Road to Graduation. 

This story about low-income students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter. 

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