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More High School Seniors Are Hesitating About College Troubling Data Suggests Uncertain Future for Higher Education

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Above image credit: The University of Missouri-Columbia reported that total enrollment last fall was 30,849, up 4% from the previous year – though still well below the record enrollment of 35,050 reached in the fall 2015. (Emily Wolf | Flatland)
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7 minute read

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed what it means to be young for many high schoolers, particularly seniors.

The pandemic has chipped away at students’ energy, enthusiasm and motivation to plan for their education after high school, educators say. Many seniors simply want to graduate from high school.

The price, those educators worry, may be huge. They fear that some students will miss the opportunity to enter college, choose a career path and reap the well-documented benefits in higher wages for the rest of their lives.

This is more than mere senioritis. Educators describe a mass malaise brought on by virtual classrooms, the loss of sports, clubs, choir and theater performances, the human contact of in-person learning and simply time to build social skills by being with their friends.

The pandemic also disrupted the normal pipeline for college admissions. 

Gone were the college fairs held at high schools. Community events where colleges often set up booths to entice prospective students were no longer an option. And high school counselors were spending more time tracking how students were managing virtual classes and addressing increasing mental health issues than touting college opportunities.

Perhaps most crucially, the traditional college visit to a campus just didn’t happen for many, or was only done virtually. 

“Student decision-making and action have been delayed,” said Karen Goos, vice provost for enrollment management at Kansas State University. “Our normal recruitment cycle has been delayed.”

It’s all starting to show up in data that could spell trouble for the future of higher education.

Crunching Numbers

Higher education was facing plenty of challenges even before the pandemic.

Many prospective college students, confronted with the prospect of taking on part of the nation’s massive $1.57 trillion in student loan debt, are already questioning the value of a post-high school education.

COVID-19 only heightened those fears, encouraging some students to be even more hesitant, possibly ruling college out entirely.

Declining applications for financial aid could be the proverbial canary in the college coal mine.    

Historically, the percentage of seniors who complete financial aid applications is one of the most reliable predictors of a student’s intention to enroll in college or continue their education by choosing a technical career.

Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly called (FAFSA), is the gateway to obtaining aid. The information is used by federal, state and college financial aid programs to decide eligibility for grants, scholarships, work-study programs and loans.

Deadlines vary by state and by institutions, with community colleges being more open to late filings, even as classes start in the fall. But the earlier the better, as some schools have cutoffs for particular scholarships and priority consideration, usually in February or March.

Nationally, figures show that through April 9, 46.5% of the nation’s high school seniors (2021 grads) had completed FAFSA, according to the Form Your Future website sponsored by the National College Attainment Network. That’s a 6.7% drop from the previous year.

Both Missouri and Kansas are lagging the national pace. Missouri ranks 32nd among the states with 43.3% of seniors filling out the forms, down 8.6% from the previous year. Kansas ranks 35th, with 41% of seniors completing the information, down 7.5% from the previous year.

Reduced financial aid applications for next fall come on top of already depressed college enrollment numbers.

In March, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, reported that freshman enrollment in the fall of 2020 had dropped more than 6.8%, the largest such drop ever recorded. 

The report also showed what many feared; declines were far more dire for students from schools with higher poverty. Those gaps existed before, but the pandemic is deeply affecting college entrance for low-income students, often Black and Latino ones.

“No one here is trying to go back to normal because normal was not equitable,” said Zenia M. Henderson, director of member and partner engagement for the National College Attainment Network.

“The disparities have not been as large for wealthier students,” Henderson said.

She also noted that changes intended to help, such as offering admissions without an ACT/SAT score, might not make much impact. It appears higher income families are still paying for prep courses and taking the tests anyway, allowing them to include the score for consideration during admittance.

“Test-optional didn’t really mean test-optional for wealthier students,” she said.

Students who are the first in their families to attend college are of particular concern. Enrollment declines for students from low-income schools were more than twice as steep than those at high-income schools.

And enrollments at community colleges, where many low-income students often attend before transferring to a four-year institution, were hit particularly hard. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported that enrollment at community colleges was down 9.5% this spring compared to the prior year.

In other words, the students with the fewest financial options to begin with appear to have been affected the most by the pandemic.  

Karen Goos, vice provost for enrollment management at Kansas State University.
Karen Goos, vice provost for enrollment management at Kansas State University. (Contributed)

All of this led to a dire headline of a special webinar by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center in December. It posed the question that academics are working diligently to address: “Is the High School to College Pipeline Broken? The Data Says Yes.”

Universities remain confident that they can still reach current high school sophomores and juniors. But they are more concerned about seniors who never applied to a college, never were tapped by a counselor and may have simply entered the workforce, perhaps to help out a struggling family budget if a parent had lost a job during the pandemic.

“The harder, more difficult challenges are those students who didn’t apply or weren’t admitted,” Goos said. “We don’t know how to reach out to them.”

She mirrored the thoughts of many local academics in noting the need for comprehensive approaches.

“It’s not just about K-State and this isn’t a place to be competitive,” she said. “How we provide an opportunity for these students means we need to work together as a community.”

Warning Signs

If it wasn’t for her participation in club volleyball, Emily Hopkins might not be attending college next fall.

The Archie High School senior will attend Metropolitan Community College at the Longview campus. Her original intention was to attend State Fair Community College in Sedalia.

 “I was going to go and try to find an apartment and just live and attend school,” she said. “But I don’t have enough money to go and pay for an apartment.”

She said that COVID really “put a wrench” in her plans because no one was hiring last summer. Even babysitting jobs weren’t an option because families were trying to keep children safe from the virus.

But the volleyball coach at Longview scouted her, convinced her to join the team next year and linked her with admissions help. She’s eligible for Missouri’s A+ scholarship program, which will cover her tuition, a great aid as she embarks on her desire to become an elementary school teacher.

“I figured if I get the opportunity to do something that I love, I should take the opportunity,” Hopkins said.

COVID affected last year’s seniors more, Hopkins said. “They were out of school and like: ‘Oh, I really enjoy this. I could take my time to do other things instead of going to school’.”

College recruiters note that even students with fewer financial or other barriers are affected by the pandemic.

“We’ve seen college-ready, high-achieving students really struggling through their senior year,” said Kim Greene, enrollment manager at MCC-Longview.

“But they haven’t been as successful as they have in the past,” Greene said. “The burnout is real for them. It makes them less excited and it messes with their confidence a little bit.”

In February, the Metropolitan Community College’s Board of Trustees approved a new tuition model, eliminating most course fees and reducing the program costs for some areas of study like nursing and to become a lineman.

The changes are geared toward reversing the declining enrollments. In the fall of 2020, 13,986 students were enrolled as credit students at MCC, down 12.9% from the previous year.

One assumption that didn’t prove true last year was the belief that students would stay home instead of attending a four-year university where classes could shift to being virtual, said Kathrine Swanson, vice chancellor of student success and engagement at Metropolitan Community College.

Notably, the University of Missouri-Columbia reported that total enrollment last fall was 30,849, up 4% from the previous year — though still well below the record enrollment of 35,050 reached in the fall 2015. The school also boasted a record retention rate of 90% for former freshmen who returned as sophomores in 2020.   

‘Katrina Effect’

But foreboding signs are apparent in community college enrollment. Many of those students matriculate to four-year universities, so eventually, lower enrollments at community colleges will affect the larger institutions, some academics said.

“Once a student drops out or chooses not to go to college, it is harder to bring them back,” Swanson said.

Swanson said the students that were lost last academic year were those who weren’t committed to attending college, perhaps due to finances or family obligations worsened by the pandemic.

Kathrine Swanson, vice chancellor of student success and engagement at Metropolitan Community College.
Kathrine Swanson, vice chancellor of student success and engagement at Metropolitan Community College. (Contributed)

“I really worry about getting them back as we open up more and have more vaccines,” she said.

She predicts the college will have to get creative to reach this population, once the touchpoint of their high school is gone.

“It is incumbent upon all of us, including in our community, to do everything we can to be welcoming, to eliminate barriers to make it attractive to return to school.” Swanson said.

And even with students still in a high school, another layer of concern is already apparent.

In a way, public education is one big feeder system, each level of schooling dependent upon the one prior. And a cohort of children are simply missing from elementary through high school.

Noah Devine, director of educational investments with SchoolSmartKC, calls it the “Katrina effect.” Instead of a hurricane hitting New Orleans, though, this time a pandemic hit the entire country.

Devine worked in New Orleans after Katrina and was involved in intensive efforts to literally track children who had gone missing.

As time went on, schools began to find gaps in knowledge because students had been out of or disengaged from studies around the time of Katrina.

He believes that COVID could affect the education system the same way. Unlike with Katrina, though, this will be a nationwide disruptor to learning.

SchoolSmartKC’s goal is eliminating the achievement gap within the boundaries of the Kansas City School District, working with public and charter schools.

In the fall, they surveyed schools to check on the pandemic’s impact.

They found that about 50% of students were performing as should be expected, meeting year-to-year progress in assessments.

Noah Devine, director of educational investments with SchoolSmartKC.
Noah Devine, director of educational investments with SchoolSmartKC. (Contributed)

But they were alarmed to discover that a quarter of students couldn’t be accounted for in assessments, either because they aren’t attending regularly enough to be tracked by progress testing or they had dropped out. Devine suspects that some may be tending to younger siblings while parent’s work.

SchoolSmartKC recently released a request for proposals to help find those students.

In addition, state enrollment figures show drops in the early grades; pre-kindergarten through fourth, Devine said. He thinks that some families have chosen private schools, but others may be holding students out for a year, concerned about the pandemic.

Either way, the impact could compound, eventually further affecting college enrollments and readiness. 

“I worry that we are going to have kids who will be going to college who are further behind,” Devine said.

He foresees the need for more remedial studies and colleges to be nimble, ready to embrace students who might not be fully ready for their studies.

“I don’t see a world where the impacts of this are truly known for a long time,” Devine said.

Flatland contributor Mary Sanchez is a Kansas City-based writer and a nationally syndicated columnist with Tribune Content Agency.

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