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COVID-19 Altered College Plans for Most Students

Niu Gao October 30, 2020
photo - College Students Wearing Masks and Walking on Campus

COVID-19 has become a major disruption to colleges and universities across the country, with most institutions canceling in-person classes and/or moving to online instruction. The pandemic has significantly altered nearly every aspect of college life, and it has had a disproportionate impact on underrepresented groups: students who are low-income, African American, Latino, and the first generation in their families to attend college.

Before the pandemic, 30% of California households had at least one family member planning to take college classes in the fall. Among those students, 50% were planning to take classes in a two-year certificate or associate degree program, and 35% were planning to do so in a bachelor’s degree program. However, the pandemic has changed most of these plans (73%). As of mid-September, 42% said they would be taking classes in a different format (e.g., online), and 13% reported plans to take fewer classes.

figure - Most College Students Have Changed Their Fall Course-Taking Plans

Why did students change their plans? The reasons include colleges changing course content or format, the suspension of campus life, or uncertainty about programs (50%); health concerns due to COVID (31%); and inability to pay for classes because of income loss during the pandemic or changes in financial aid (21%). Nearly a third of low-income students changed their plans for financial reasons, so did about 20% of African American, Latino, and first-generation college students.

figure - Underrepresented Students Have Been More Likely To Change Plans for Financial Reasons

Colleges and legislators have taken an active role in helping students weather immediate and long-term challenges related to the pandemic. The federal CARES Act, passed in March, included $14.25 billion emergency relief for higher education institutions; the funds can be used to pay for health care, child care, food, computers, and living expenses. Half of the aid was earmarked for students who completed FAFSA applications, and many colleges used additional CARES funding to support those who are ineligible for federal financial aid—including international students and DREAMers. In April, Governor Newsom expanded student loan relief, and both the University of California and the California State University systems have relaxed their freshman admission criteria. Continuing to address these and other challenges can help underrepresented students deal with the disproportionate impact of the pandemic.

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