By John Arnold, Chris Bustamante and Rich Nickel
Far more than a “gap year,” there are growing concerns among community and education leaders that the pandemic may derail the college plans of many students – especially low-income, first-generation and other students already underrepresented on campus.
A new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center indicates that these fears are not misplaced. Overall, postsecondary enrollment for the class of 2020 plummeted an astonishing 21.7% nationwide compared to a year earlier. Even worse? College enrollment fell by 32.6% among students from high-poverty high schools and by 26.4% among students who attended high-minority schools. The decline among students from rural high schools was only slightly less, at 21.7%.
These numbers are devastating and, as the National College Attainment Network rightly notes, “it will take a Herculean effort of policy and practice to reconnect students from this class [of 2020] with a postsecondary pathway.”
Arizona students have experienced similar disruptions. Among Arizona community colleges – which have historically served large numbers of students of color, as well as large numbers of low-income and first-generation students – enrollment is down more than 16%. The Maricopa community college system alone, Arizona’s largest community college district, reported a 14.5% decline in 2020 fall enrollments. In particular, American Indian student enrollment decreased by 23.3, %, Black student enrollment by 18% and Hispanic student enrollment by 14.8%. Similar declines were reported by other Arizona community colleges.
Enrollment at Arizona’s public universities among first-time, full-time students – those attending immediately after high school – declined 9.1% and full-time Arizona resident student enrollment is down about 1.0%. Further, it is unlikely these impacts will be limited to the class of 2020. As reported by the National College Attainment Network, there is a steep decline in applications for Federal Student Aid, a leading indicator of college interest and future enrollment. These numbers point to a looming crisis that jeopardizes college dreams, the immediate future of our young adults and the long-term health of Arizona’s workforce.
Arizona must respond quickly to minimize the educational losses of 2020 and to curtail the losses of 2021. It is vital for community colleges, universities and student-serving organizations to reconnect with high school students and graduates who have delayed or abandoned postsecondary education plans. Current high school students need expanded access to counselors and postsecondary advisers, and we must all work together to help all students complete financial aid applications. Additionally, Arizona’s schools and community colleges that have been most severely impacted by the pandemic need increased state and federal support.
The state should also establish need-based financial aid for eligible Arizona students. An Arizona Promise program, wherein the state promises to cover the tuition and fees of all eligible Arizona students at any of our public higher education institutions, would serve as a framework, both in substance and in perception, to increase educational attainment by reengaging currently disrupted students and removing financial barriers for future students.
Widespread distribution of Covid vaccines will slowly bring a return of pre-pandemic normalcy to our communities and educational institutions. But we must do more than return to the old status quo.
Our shared hope is that 2021 will be a transformational moment in which state leaders begin to rebuild what the pandemic has broken, develop ambitious and equitable new programs and recommit to ensuring access to a postsecondary education for every Arizona student and family.
John Arnold is the Executive Director of the Arizona Board of Regents.
Chris Bustamante is the Executive Director of the Arizona Community College Coordinating Council.
Rich Nickel is the President and CEO of College Success Arizona.