Largely low-income, Hispanic, and with parents whose own educations didn’t get past high school, the young people in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas over the past decade started doing something few of their predecessors had done: going to college.
As the community near the Mexican border came together to prioritize education, scores in math and reading on state standardized tests rose. So did high school graduation rates, to 92 percent, from 87 percent, and the proportion of students filling out the federal application for college financial aid. The number who went on to higher education inched up, to 57 percent, from 56 percent.
“We got a lot of people talking about how important going to college is,” said Katherine Díaz, who helps coordinate this work as deputy director for the nonprofit RGV Focus, which stands for Rio Grande Valley. “More students started seeing, ‘Wow, I can do this.’ And they thought, ‘I’m doing this because I want to show my cousins that they can do this too.’”
Then the pandemic descended.
Unemployment in what Texans call “the Valley” peaked at more than 17 percent in the spring. The rate of infections and deaths from Covid-19 was nearly twice what it was in the rest of Texas. Even since tighter restrictions were imposed, the area continues to account for 7 percent of all of the state’s confirmed cases, and two of the eight most affected counties.
Now there’s fear that the Valley’s hard-won educational progress will reverse. As many as half of students from some local schools lack Wi-Fi access, educators say. Many of their families face intensified financial hardship. The proportion of students filling out that financial aid application—an early indicator of intent to go to college—is down at more than half of Rio Grande Valley high schools, the US Department of Education reports.
Community and business groups around the country share the same concern. For the last few years, they have been pushing schools and colleges to improve high school graduation and college enrollment and completion rates—especially for low-income Black and Hispanic students—increasing the supply of skilled workers to compete in the global economy. Many were making measurable progress.
With the pandemic disrupting in-person education and straining budgets, there is growing fear that this momentum is reversing.
“That challenge just got harder,” said Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the chamber of commerce in Detroit, which has been working to raise the low proportion of students in that city who go on to college within a year of graduating from high school.
With schools mostly online, nearly one in four public school students in Detroit aren’t logging in or showing up, the superintendent says—many because they don’t have laptops or Wi-Fi. That’s significantly more than in a typical year.
Absenteeism in the spring and fall has been similarly high in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dayton, Hartford, Los Angeles, and other cities, according to data compiled by the Brookings Institution. Experts say that this means dropout rates, which had been declining for more than a decade, will likely start to rise again.
“The students we’re losing—the ones who aren’t showing up or logging in—that’s the future of our workforce,” said Laura Ward, senior vice president for talent development at the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.
Her coalition of advocates in Nashville dedicated to improving the college readiness of local high school graduates now is confined to meeting remotely every Friday morning. Among other things, its members talk about the obstacles confronting students.
“I have literally hung up the phone and had to cry, because the problems are so deep,” Ward said. “There are transportation barriers and food insecurity and housing issues, and it’s getting cold. When you don’t have basic needs met, you can’t learn.”
Heather Hunter, a psychology major at Wichita State University, has a part-time job in a foster-care agency, where she helps with a workshop assisting high school students in foster care with filling out the federal financial aid form. This fall, only four students showed up. Last year, 50 did.
“It’s so sad. They’re like, ‘Why should I go to college? No one knows what’s going to happen,’” Hunter said.
College students themselves—especially those who are the first in their families to go to college—say they’re facing isolation, flagging motivation, money woes, and lack of support, on top of the usual challenges of navigating higher education.
“We were already fighting twice as hard to get where everybody else was,” Yessica Flores, a 21-year-old psychology and sociology major at Virginia Commonwealth University, said of first-generation students. “We have to fight three times as hard now.”
Support resources have been hampered by the pandemic restrictions. Angela López, 19, a first-year student at the University of Texas at Austin who plans to major in electrical and computer engineering, said: “I didn’t even know how to contact my adviser to declare a major. Then when you do find them, the offices are closed.”
Rosa Vasquez has seen students quit already. “Some have gone to trade school, some have just gone off to get a job,” said Vasquez, a 20-year-old junior, who is majoring in exercise science at Virginia Commonwealth and is a mentor to fellow first-generation undergraduates.
Compounding advocates’ frustration about these setbacks is that they follow years of hard-won progress.
Before the pandemic, the proportion of Black students nationwide who graduated from high school on time had risen to 79 percent in 2017-18, the last period for which the figures are available, from 66 percent in 2009-10, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. For Hispanic students, the percentage rose to 81 from 71.
But Black enrollment has been declining since the onset of Covid-19 more sharply than enrollment of any other group, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Hispanic enrollment, which rose last fall, has also declined this fall.
“We’re going backward,” said Tania Tetlow, president of Loyola University New Orleans.
Among those who enroll and remain in college, students from lower-income families are four times more likely than those from higher-income backgrounds to say that they are struggling to learn remotely in this pandemic year, a survey by the education technology company Instructure found. Seventy percent said they were falling behind.
Financial challenges are also mounting. Nearly 70 percent of financial aid officers at colleges and universities say students have been asking for more money because of financial hardship than they did in previous years, a survey by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators found.
Vasquez’s car broke down, costing her the income she was making working for DoorDash and running a massage business on the side. “Sometimes I have to choose between a good grade and rent,” she said. Gregory VanDyke Jr., a 19-year-old sophomore criminal justice major at Wichita State, had to drop a course when he was unable to manage a last-minute assignment on top of his other classwork and the 25- to 40-hour-a-week job as a server in a restaurant that pays his rent. “I started bawling my eyes out, like, ‘How am I going to do this?’”
Lower-income students are significantly more likely than their classmates to have lost some or all of their income, according to a survey by the Student Experience in the Research University Consortium at the University of California, Berkeley. A significant proportion say they will need more time to finish—which will mean additional expense and foregone income.
The same thing happened during the last recession, when the college graduation rate declined.
Business leaders around the country are concerned about this for a practical reason, said Baruah, who previously served as administrator of the US Small Business Administration and as assistant secretary of commerce. They “really understand acutely that they’re in a global war for talent. Access to talent is their number one competitive priority,” he said.
In Nashville, a quarter of a million workers are nearing retirement age and will need to be replaced, and 20 percent of new jobs may require a bachelor’s degree, the chamber of commerce there predicts.
Four of the five fastest-growing occupations in the Rio Grande Valley are in health care and business operations; the SpaceX rocket launch base has begun operations there and is projected to attract more tech jobs.
These industries require college or university degrees, but only 18 percent of the population there has one—about half the national average—according to the Texas comptroller’s office. If the South Texas region were a state, the office found, it would rank last in the country in the proportion of the population with degrees.
That’s a principal reason population and employment are rising more slowly than in the rest of Texas, per capita income is lower, and unemployment is higher, making the drive to get more students into college not just a nice thing to do, but an economic imperative, as it also is in areas such as Nashville and Detroit.
The Detroit area added 173,000 new jobs after the last recession, mostly in industries requiring college credentials, such as information technology, insurance, financial services, and health care. Yet only 13 percent of city residents have bachelor’s degrees or higher. Calling this “alarming” and warning that it “has become more acute with ongoing concerns of education loss due to Covid-19,” the Detroit chamber of commerce has launched a 10-year plan to increase the proportion of residents with degrees or credentials to 60 percent by 2030.
It’s a goal that will require getting more than 265,000 people to and through some level of college, the chamber calculates.
That will be much harder now.
The problems caused by the pandemic have “rededicated many of us to the work,” Ward, in Nashville, said. “Because closing equity gaps is still crucial to building a future workforce. Creating access where it doesn’t exist today and hasn’t existed for many people ever is going to be crucial in the recovery.”
This story about Covid-19 and higher education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the higher education newsletter.