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How the pandemic highlights racial disparities in higher education

Typically during a recession, community college enrollment goes up as unemployed workers start looking for new skills. But that’s not happening this time around, signaling trouble for the economy and individual families going forward, particularly for lower-income students and students of color. Hari Sreenivasan reports as part of our ongoing series, “Rethinking College.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let's turn now to a different impact of COVID on higher education.

    Typically, during a recession, community college enrollment goes up, as unemployed workers start looking for new skills. But that is not happening now.

    It could mean trouble for the economy going forward, particularly for low-income students.

    Hari Sreenivasan has our story. It's part of our ongoing series Rethinking College.

  • Andrew Crowley:

    Everybody goes through those days where they just feel like, well, maybe I should just stop, and maybe I should just give up, or maybe I should just say, well, it's not even worth it.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    It's been one of those days for Andrew Crowley, one of those years. He's been trying to focus on his studies at Columbus State Community College, but his mom died of cancer recently. He hoped to make more time for schoolwork by reducing his hours at Walmart.

  • Andrew Crowley:

    I tried to explain to them, well, I need to cut back some of my time so I can be able to study. And they didn't really, like, kind of agree with me on that.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So, he says, they let him go.

  • Andrew Crowley:

    Which kind of led me to be homeless.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Crowley doesn't want you to feel sorry for him. He stuck it out. He even says he maintained A's and B's while living in a shelter during a pandemic.

    But he came close to being part of a troubling statistic this fall. Community colleges have seen enrollment plummet 10.1 percent compared to last year, nearly 21 percent among freshmen and almost a 30 percent drop for freshmen who are either Black, Hispanic or Native American in each group.

    The total loss at public two-year schools? More than 540,000 fewer students compared to last fall, put another way, more than the population of Atlanta.

  • Desiree Polk-Bland:

    Our students have life, right?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Desiree Polk-Bland, Columbus state's vice president for student affairs, says some of her colleagues took it as a red flag when Crowley began to participate less in his classes. They persuaded him to share his troubles.

    Then they got him a job at this campus-based food pantry and found him permanent housing.

  • Desiree Polk-Bland:

    All of these factors interfere with being a successful student.

    Anything that takes your attention away from going to class, studying, spending time with the material ends up being a factor that impact your ability to continue as a student.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Fifty-six percent of Black and Hispanic students have reported that COVID-19 is very likely or likely to force them out of school, compared to 44 percent of whites.

    The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which tracks college enrollment, says the drop among freshman students in particular this fall was unprecedented.

    Doug Shapiro is the executive research director.

  • Doug Shapiro:

    These are truly staggering drops just in terms of the quantities, the size of the declines.

    College enrollments generally have been slowly shrinking every year pretty much since the end of the Great Recession, but it's never been more than 1 or 2 percentage points. We have never seen anything like this.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Only 13 percent of students who drop out return to college, according to the group.

  • Doug Shapiro:

    These are the most — often the most vulnerable and disadvantaged students, who will have real difficulties ever getting back on track educationally.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    There are the logistical challenges, like what Liliana Palafox faces, homeschooling and caring for her 6-year-old daughter, without so much as a quiet space to study, that is, when the Internet connection actually works.

  • Liliana Palafox:

    The Internet dropping, not connecting right away, having to move all around the house to be able to get signal, and then also, like, my daughter or my husband sometimes using the hot spot. So, we share it.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Then there are the deeper inequalities the pandemic has laid bare.

  • Tyler Lopez:

    My father passed away due to COVID-19 while he was in the

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Tyler Lopez's father was already in the hospital with multiple sclerosis when the pandemic struck. He died of COVID-19 in the spring.

    Lopez tried to channel his grief into schoolwork. He's a sophomore studying jazz drumming at New Jersey City University.

  • Tyler Lopez:

    Multiple times, I thought about quitting. I thought about just, forget it all.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Music kept him moving forward.

  • Tyler Lopez:

    The drums, that's what prevented it, my love for music. It is hard, but the love outweighs the stress.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Schools are doing what they can to keep students enrolled.

    Lopez's school, New Jersey City University, is a campus where the majority of students are minorities and many are from the lowest income bracket. The school provided loaner laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots for homebound studies, in person classes for visual or high-touch programs, open dorms and libraries for those who need them, and socially distanced sports teams operating on a limited basis.

    But in a year like this, it hasn't always been enough, says Jodi Bailey, the school's associate vice president of student affairs. Some students have simply disappeared.

  • Jodi Bailey:

    I worry about them because of rent, and I worry about them because of food. And I worry about them because of the medical issues that their families have.

    We know that low-income and minority families in general don't seek out medical assistance as quickly as they should, for a variety of reasons. And COVID could tear their families apart. I worry for them.

  • Melanie Alvarez:

    If my friends are doing it, then we should all take a break together.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Melanie Alvarez, a senior at California State University at Northridge, has felt nearly all of the pressure points and one more. She was the first to graduate high school in her family, the first to go to college. All eyes have been on her.

  • Melanie Alvarez:

    The pandemic happened. Like, I think my brother and my sister were all looking to me, like, OK, what is she going to do? Is she going to drop out? Is she going to stay in college?

    And it was hard to tell my brother, like, you have to push through, because I also felt at one point that I didn't want to continue anymore.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Alvarez says close friends and study partners have taken a break in recent months, but she decided to continue. The stakes seemed too high.

  • Melanie Alvarez:

    My parents have always told me, like, there's nothing that we can inherit to you, other than the education. Other than motivation, there's nothing that we can give to you.

    So, my parents' motivation to go to school is always number one, and I'm always looking out for my younger siblings. So, they are definitely following in my footsteps.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Her brother recently enrolled in community college. So, for now, Alvarez says, she will keep moving.

    The question is, how many others will get stopped in their tracks?

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Seventy-five percent of traditional college-age students report poor mental health tied to the pandemic.

    We will examine the impact in our Rethinking College series next Tuesday.

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