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What an interrupted school year means for these college students

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the academic year of some 20 million college students as campuses are shuttered nationwide. Many of these young people are continuing their studies through online classes -- but the transition is not easy for all of them. John Yang reports on the logistical, emotional and economic consequences of this interrupted school year.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the lives of some 20 million college students, as campuses are shuttered across the nation.

    Many of those young people are continuing their studies through online classes.

    But, as John Yang reports, the shift has affected some more than others.

    It is part of regular education coverage called Making the Grade.

  • John Yang:

    Stanford University senior Michael Ocon has been living here these days, a tent in his parents' backyard.

    After his college closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, he moved to his parents' two-bedroom house.

  • Michael Ocon:

    My sister and I, we both moved out, and our parents kind of downsized, expecting, you know, we'd be gone forever.

  • John Yang:

    But then his mother, a drug counselor who's kept working, got sick with COVID-19-like symptoms, so Ocon moved his space outside as a precaution.

  • Michael Ocon:

    We're having issues in terms of looking for a new place, in terms of affording rent, in terms of food. And now we have to make sure that our broadband and our Internet is upgraded to ensure that we all have access to Zoom.

    And those are financial constraints that seem small, but translate to, again, serious burdens to a lot of people.

  • John Yang:

    This has been a challenging time for college students, sudden moves.

  • Jaskirat Panjrath:

    I packed, like, a backpack with four T-shirts and like — it was for like five or six days. And I expected to go back to my school.

  • John Yang:

    Online classes.

  • Arabia Patino:

    My house is really loud. And the Wi-Fi connection, when everyone is using it at the same time, it can be really slow.

  • John Yang:

    Even professors have had to adapt.

  • Peter Kastor:

    There's a certain way in which I would jump into the conversation. Now I have to be much more self-conscious of the fact that there are delays in communication.

  • John Yang:

    This crisis has laid bare significant inequalities on campuses. Among the hardest-hit? Low-income, international and first-generation students.

    Wesleyan University senior Melisa Olgun, the first in her family to go to college, helped organize a fund-raiser for students struggling with housing, food, and technology.

  • Melisa Olgun:

    When you go to an elite liberal arts university with lots of financial aid, everybody assumes that first-generation low-income students have the same access to resources, have everything that all the privileged students have.

    And the second COVID-19 hit campus, you saw those breaks. You saw those gaps in access.

  • Christopher Nellum:

    This public health crisis is likely going to exacerbate education equity issues that we saw even before this crisis hit.

  • John Yang:

    Christopher Nellum is a researcher at The Education Trust-West, a California group that advocates for equality in higher education.

  • Christopher Nellum:

    There are a lot of assumptions made about college students, and the idea that students can go home and still have access to the same types of technology.

    What is the environment these students are going home to? Are their parents home? Do they have siblings? Do they have family members that they may live with? Or are they returning to a situation where they may have to work themselves?

  • John Yang:

    Some universities are refunding fees for housing and meal plans. At schools that aren't, some students are suing.

    And the congressional stimulus package, known as the CARES Act, does throw students a lifeline. It suspends some federal student loan repayments until the end of September, and sets aside more than $6 billion in grants for students. But that money will be distributed through individual schools, which could take some time.

    What's more, students who are claimed as dependents won't receive government stimulus checks, and their parents won't receive any extra money for children older than 16.

    Another major concern for graduating seniors? The job market. Just a few weeks ago, it looked like the class of 2020 would join the work force in a strong economy with record low unemployment.

  • Tommy Lewis:

    My biggest fear was — was really just a recession, where things started to slow down.

  • John Yang:

    Indiana University senior Tommy Lewis already had a job offer with one of the nation's largest airlines.

  • Tommy Lewis:

    That was actually sort of my dream job. I have always wanted to work in the airline industry, since I was a little kid. And that now is up in the air.

  • Till von Wachter:

    College graduates entering the labor market in a recession will see earnings losses that last about 10 years, depending on how deep the recession is.

  • John Yang:

    UCLA economist Till von Wachter:

  • Till von Wachter:

    The longer the crisis lasts or the deeper it is, the more likely it will be a lot of individuals looking for jobs and a lot of unemployed. And that is the environment where sort of labor market entrants more generally end up at the bottom of the pile.

  • John Yang:

    And colleges are facing financial concerns of their own. The pandemic could cost some schools upwards of $100 million.

    Those numbers will only go higher if classes don't restart in the fall, which is also a concern for high school seniors, like Angel Delich. She's still deciding between three schools in her home state of Michigan.

  • Angel Delich:

    I don't know where we're going to be in September. So I'm not going to pay a lot of money to go to a more prestigious school and live on campus, if they're just going to be online.

  • John Yang:

    Meanwhile, universities have canceled or postponed commencement ceremonies, a loss that's especially poignant for students who will be the first in their family to graduate college.

  • Aricela Mendez:

    Having that physical experience is so symbolic. It would mean that everyone I love would be in one area celebrating this accomplishment with me.

  • Tim Scalona:

    I was really looking forward to the opportunity to attend something like that, especially because I want to be a role model for my siblings.

  • Melisa Olgun:

    My parents both came from Turkey, and my father passed away when I was 6. And my mom made a decision essentially to stay in the U.S. because she wanted me to go to college.

    To have that ability to walk up the stage, and to look around and be like, I did this, this system wasn't made for me, but I did it, for it to not have that — that materiality, it is frustrating.

  • John Yang:

    These seniors say they're still determined to graduate, with or without a ceremony, an achievement no pandemic can take away from them.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang.

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