New Federal Survey Data Show the Pandemic Has Hit Would-Be College Students Hard

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Sept. 18, 2020

Predictions for the effects of the pandemic on students enrolled in education after high school were grim from the outset — and new survey data from the Census Bureau confirm that many students, particularly the most vulnerable ones, are struggling right now to continue their education.

The data, which also featured in a gut-wrenching Washington Post article last week, come from the Census’s Household Pulse survey, which recently added questions about how families pursuing postsecondary education are coping in light of the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, the data (measuring the last two weeks of August) show that among families where at least one adult planned to take classes this fall, 43 percent are taking courses in a different format than originally planned. And 11 percent of students have dropped their courseload to take fewer courses this semester.

But disturbingly, the data show that more than a quarter of households with at least one expected student (29 percent) have cancelled their plans for the fall entirely. Disproportionately, those households are among those most affected by the pandemic — including those without a college degree already (35 percent of those with only a high school diploma or GED), those with lower incomes (35 percent of those with a household income of less than $25,000), and those who had relied on SNAP or unemployment benefits in the last week (43 percent and 34 percent, respectively).

Source: New America analysis of data from U.S. Census Bureau

Black and Hispanic students, in particular, are also bearing more of the brunt. More than one in three (34 percent) Black households in which at least one adult had planned to enroll in education after high school this fall instead cancelled their plans, and 32 percent of Hispanic or Latino households did, compared with 28 percent of white households. That comes as Black workers continue to see sky-high unemployment, well above that of workers of other race/ethnicities, and as Black and Hispanic patients experience hospitalizations from COVID at more than four-and-a-half times the rate of white people and Black patients die at twice the rate.

Most of those who have cancelled their plans say it’s for the reasons you might expect. Half had COVID or were concerned about getting it; 63 percent were caring for others who care arrangements had been disrupted; and almost half (49 percent) cancelled because of uncertainty over how their programs would look. But it’s also clear that the hard financial hit—both to students and to institutions—is playing a big role. Nearly 70 percent said they weren’t able to pay for their education because of income changes due to the pandemic. And another half (51 percent) said their financial aid had changed.

As the pandemic wears on, these temporary changes could become a long-term crisis for these students. Spells of part-time and no enrollment, while overcomeable, make it infinitely harder to graduate, and often add to the costs of attending college. Colleges will need to act quickly to help students access the aid they need, and provide support, advising, and connections with community resources to keep students engaged and progressing through their programs.

But Congress will need to do its part, too. For starters, while the Census data are helpful in understanding the immediate impacts of the pandemic, the effects will be seen for years to come. Even as the pandemic fades, the recession will likely lead millions of those out of work back to the classroom, forcing them to make tough choices about the kinds of programs and institutions that will serve them well, and where they’ll get a good value for their tuition dollars. And policymakers will be looking for solutions to a crisis of family finances, a boom in postsecondary enrollment, and ongoing struggles to ensure students don’t just enroll, but complete. That’s why it’s time to update the Education Department’s data infrastructure to meet the challenge. The College Transparency Act, with more than half of the House and a third of the Senate already signed on, would provide drastically more and better information about postsecondary program enrollment, outcomes, and success.

And given the impact on household income, need-based aid for students will be even more important than prior to the pandemic. The Pell Grant program currently provides a little over $6,300 per year to the lowest-income students, filling a smaller share of the tuition costs even at public colleges than it has in the decades since its creation. At the same time, its quasi-entitlement formula funded mostly through the annual appropriations process will stretch the Pell Grant budget to the limit as enrollment and financial need increase in the coming years. More funding—through mandatory spending, not just temporary appropriations—will shore up the program and help millions of low-income students complete college.

Institutions are also struggling. States have already begun to slash budgets for public institutions of higher education, and more funding cuts are on the horizon. Meanwhile, colleges are facing a costly transition to hybrid or online instruction and abrupt changes in enrollment trends. Congress should invest in state higher education budgets, particularly during the recession, and states should commit to reinvesting as the recession wanes. While the CARES Act took a first step to providing stabilization dollars, both directly to colleges and through states, more dollars will be needed and better protections are required to ensure states contribute again to their citizens’ education as the economy gets back on track.

Related Topics
Higher Education Funding and Financial Aid Higher Education Accountability & Consumer Protection Higher Education Access and Affordability Higher Education Data and Transparency