For thousands of students in Arizona, the pandemic has reshaped their college experience, and for many, jeopardized their chances of graduating with a certificate or degree. Evidence from around the country and from within Arizona highlights the growing inequities and negative effects of the pandemic on college students.
But the picture of how the crisis impacts college access and college-going for high school students in our state continues to emerge. Key metrics, like Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) completion rates, show worrisome trends, and barriers to access that predate the pandemic remain significant challenges for students and families. These barriers include limited access to information about college options, minimal state-level funding for financial aid in Arizona, and the acute shortage of counselors in our state.
These trends signal the vital importance of working with, and advocating on behalf of, students and families throughout Arizona to ensure they have access to the necessary college-going information and resources.
This summer, in partnership with Arizona GEAR UP, College Success Arizona surveyed 400 parents of 10th-12th grade students throughout Arizona to better understand parent perceptions regarding student support for college preparation, parent resources to help students prepare for college, the impact of the pandemic on students’ decisions about college, and their families’ financial circumstances.
From the outset of the pandemic, we have been concerned that the closures of schools and colleges — and the transition to online learning — would ultimately prevent many students from going to college or from persisting to graduation, despite their expressed desire to do so. We’ve been particularly concerned that low-income, rural, and first-generation students, and students of color, would be disproportionately impacted by the disruption.
Importantly, this concern arises not because of any shortcomings on the part of students and families, but rather the lack of access to information, resources, and support regarding college options and the admissions process.
Broadly, the findings of our survey reaffirmed our concerns: students and their families still want to pursue a college education despite the pandemic, but many do not receive the supports to help them overcome the heightened barriers. Additionally, those who were already marginalized in the K-12 and higher education systems before the pandemic are the most likely not to receive the supports they need.
Parents identified counselor support as the most helpful resource regarding information about college preparation. At the same time, they also indicated they have insufficient access to counselors.
Most parents indicated they do not have enough information about the college preparation process or about the impact of COVID-19 on college enrollment, and they say the pandemic will impact their ability to pay for college. Nearly 20% of parents indicated the pandemic had influenced their student’s decision about which college to attend.
Among those surveyed, 38% of parents indicated their students did not receive non-academic supports from school during the pandemic. Within this segment, 45% of respondents were of Hispanic origin, 44% were from rural communities, and 44% did not have a college education.
This lack of support and information is especially problematic for the nearly 25% of families who are unfamiliar with the college preparation process. Nearly one-third of these families have a household income lower than $49,000 or do not have a college education.
From an academic perspective, parents are not confident in the education their students’ will receive. A majority of those surveyed, including 48% of rural parents, believe that the instruction their students receive this fall will not adequately prepare them for college.
Relatedly, while the majority of parents said they have the necessary devices to support remote learning, more than 33% of families who live in low-income communities do not have access to devices needed to fully participate in remote learning, highlighting the potential increase in information and educational opportunity gaps.
If we hope to mitigate the negative impacts of the pandemic on college access and college success, and to prevent pre-existing equity and opportunity gaps from widening, we must act now.
We need a collective, coordinated effort on the part of school leaders, education advocates, philanthropic organizations, and legislators to support our K-12 education system during this crisis to ensure that students are able to succeed and access college and career opportunities upon graduation. This includes supporting school counselors, boosting non-academic support systems, and increasing device access for low-income families.
Together, we must partner with and advocate for all students and families — not just those positioned closest to opportunity — so everyone receives the information, supports, and resources necessary to access college and achieve success.
Rich Nickel is president and CEO of College Success Arizona. Richard Daniel is executive vice president and COO of College Success Arizona.