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College Dreams Collide with COVID-19

For aspiring first-generation college students, the process of getting into college is complicated enough. Now COVID-19 is making it even more challenging.   

By Jessica Fregni

June 22, 2020

A student in a cap and gown graduating.

This fall, Aisha Brezial will do something no one in her family has ever done before. She’ll be attending college at Albany State University as a biology major, taking her first steps toward her dream career in medicine. The only question is: how will she attend? 

Aisha has never even set foot on campus at ASU. She won’t visit her college this summer, as her college orientation will be held online. She’s still waiting on her financial aid package. She might even have to do her first semester virtually. That’s because Aisha is one of the millions of students whose plans to be the first in their family to attend college have been complicated by COVID-19.

Aisha with her college acceptance letter to Albany State University.

For first-generation college students, attending college is both the first step toward achieving a multi-generational family dream and a practical path toward social and economic mobility. But faced with the uncertainty of what college and even America itself will look like in the fall, aspiring first-generation college students are being forced to make tough decisions about their higher education.

Some are deferring enrollment to next spring, when many hope in-person classes will resume. Others are passing over their dream schools in favor of more affordable options or for colleges close to home in the event of another outbreak. And others are putting their college plans on hold as they work to support family members who are out of work. 

In ways big and small, COVID-19 is changing how first-generation college students are approaching their college aspirations. 

The Challenges Aspiring First-Generation College Students Face

A growing number of students are experiencing the pride that comes with being the first in their families to attend college. About one-third of today’s college students are first-generation students, according to a 2018 report by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). But with that pride comes unique challenges.

The biggest obstacle is often a lack of information. “There is an information gap among first-generation students that prevents a lot of them from knowing how to navigate the college landscape. Part of that comes from the fact that they didn't have a parent or a close family member that went through that and can give those kinds of insider tips,” says Dr. Jackson Olsen, an Eastern North Carolina alumnus and the founding principal and director of college counseling at Henderson Collegiate.  

At Henderson Collegiate, four full-time counselors serve a student population of 400 students. To combat the information gap, all students at Henderson Collegiate receive one-on-one support throughout the college application processfrom personal statements and college wishlists to matriculation and what to expect from the college experience. 

Aspiring first-generation college students are more likely to come from communities of color, low-income communities, and immigrant communities, according to a 2017 report from NCES on the demographics of first-generation students. These are all groups that experience disparities in educational attainment as a result of educational inequity, making it harder for these students to graduate high school, gain acceptance to four-year universities, and complete a four-year degree. 

To be clear, these obstacles existed before COVID-19. But now the pandemic is exacerbating these challenges and inequities, both for high school juniors beginning the college application process and for high school seniors nearing the end of it. 

The coronavirus is also creating new challenges that upperclassmen must contend with: staying on track with their academic responsibilities and meetings with counselors via remote learning, making high-pressure decisions with very little access to information, changes to the college admissions process, and potential shifts in their family’s well-being and finances. 

Helping Juniors Envision Their Futures in a Changing World 

Junior year is considered one of the most challenging chapters of a student’s K-12 experience. On top of difficult coursework and high-pressure tests, high school juniors are tasked with envisioning their future careers and creating personal statements that will aid them in their college application process. In a world that has changed so much in a three-month span due to COVID-19, this can be especially difficult. 

Rohini Muralidharan, a director of teaching support at OneGoal and a 2010 Teach For America St. Louis alumna, says she and her colleagues have had all of these challenges top of mind as they work to support aspiring first-generation juniors during this crucial academic year. Rohini began her work in education in 2010 as a St. Louis corps member.

In many school districts, there is a critical counselor shortage, which means counselors aren’t able to work as closely with students as they would like. The average school in the U.S. has one guidance counselor for every 482 students, according to a 2018 study.

“One of our biggest goals in junior year is to support students in building a comprehensive holistic list of goals they're interested in pursuingschools and or programs they're interested in pursuing after they graduate high school,” Rohini says. 

But with the shift to virtual teaching, students have struggled to look ahead to their future while balancing challenging classwork in a new learning format. 

“For our kids, I think what they've really overwhelmingly shared is that the coursework as a whole has been a lot, and trying to do it virtually is really challenging,” Rohini says.

At Henderson Collegiate, Jackson and his team are doing everything they can to keep students on track with the beginning stages of the college application process. One method they’ve tried is supporting juniors with virtual “personal statement boot camps.” 

“Our counselors are following up that boot camp with one-on-one phone calls, zoom sessions, or just Google doc feedback sessions, so that our students are getting prepared to have a 2.0 version of their personal statement done before the end of the school year,” Jackson says. “At the same time, our juniors are doing the same process with their college counselor to prepare their college wish list.”

Even for students who are on top of their college wish list and ready to begin visiting schools, COVID-19 is making the process difficult. This has been the case for Izzy Latham, a rising senior attending high school in Birmingham, Alabama.

“With college applications, it has been kind of hectic due to COVID-19,” she says. “With all of the writing and processing going on, most colleges aren't able to respond within the timeframe that they say.”

Meeting Critical Application Deadlines 

Even before COVID-19, the timeline of the college application process was a major obstacle for aspiring first-generation students. Without information from family members, many first-generation students are simply unaware of when they’re supposed to take the SATs/ACTs and apply for scholarships and financial aid. By the time they figure it on their own, it’s often too late. 

This is a challenge that Blair Husted relates to as a first-generation college graduate herself. It motivated her to join the Teach For America Alabama corps in 2013 and it continues to motivate her work as a director of school success at Student Success Agency (SSA). SSA is a digital student support service that partners with schools to pair aspiring first-generation college students with near-peer mentors known as “agents.”

One of the biggest supports that agents provide is ensuring students are on top of their deadlines for financial aid, scholarships, standardized testing, and more. Both Aisha and Izzy have agents through SSA who helped them along the college application process, and both are Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) students.

“When you don't know how to apply for scholarships or apply to the school, it can be too much when you're trying to research it on your own,” Blair says. “Sometimes they start senior year and by then it almost becomes too late because a lot of scholarships are due early in the fall that their senior year, or their college applications are due early senior year. At that point, if they haven't looked for a college, or decided on where they're going to apply for or taken the ACT or SAT, they're slammed."

How GPAs, SAT Scores, and New Grading Policies Will Impact Admissions

Another challenge facing juniors in particular is bolstering their GPA and taking critical standardized tests such as the SATs and ACTs, all of which will be critical in determining what schools they are accepted to. 

But this spring semester was anything but normal, especially for aspiring first-generation college students. 

First came the shift to remote learning in March and subsequent changes to grading policies in districts across the nation. Some school districts, like the Los Angeles United School District, opted for pass/fail grading policies this semester to be equitable to students struggling in these unprecedented circumstances. Other districts, like the New York City public school system, are giving students the option to choose between acquiring a letter grade for their classes or getting pass/fail grading for all classes. It’s hard for students to know which is the better option. 

“The spring semester GPA is really critical for a junior when you think about how it follows within the process. We don't know yet what the implications [of COVID-19] are going to be,” Rohini from OneGoal says. “Some schools have made adjustments to testing requirements when it comes to applying to post-secondary institutions, but we don't know how the GPA is going to be factored in.”

Getting Students To and Through College

Over the last 10 years, college persistence and graduation rates at four-year universities have dropped. OneGoal is working to get students to and through college by developing curricula to provide college-readiness instruction and enlisting teachers to work as program directors within high schools across the nation.

In addition to GPA concerns, juniors on track to take their ACTs and SATs this spring were shocked when standardized tests across the country were cancelled due to COVID-19. Between these two momentous changes to their spring semester, many juniors are left wondering what the impact of this will be on their college prospects. 

The majority of high school juniors have been unable to take their SATs and ACTs so far, says Jayne Fonash, the president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. NACAC is an organization of 15,000 counseling and admission professionals.

“Some students will take the test earlier in junior year, but many students will plan to take it in March or May of their junior year believing that they have time to take the test for a second time, either later in the spring or earlier in the fall,” Jayne says. “All those windows, for the moment, are gone and all of us are still waiting to find out if those tests will be offered in-person in the fall, or what plans there are for remote testing.”

It’s unclear what impact these changes will have on students’ college applications. Some counselors, like Jackson, think this could potentially be a silver lining of the pandemic, as more universities make standardized tests optional for students applying in response to COVID-19 disruptions. 

“Honestly, I think that's actually a benefit for a lot of our students,” Jackson says. “A lot of our students are going to be able to be evaluated by a college based on a more holistic and authentic process of looking at their body of work over four years and their personal story as opposed to how they performed on a high-pressure, four-hour exam.”

As a result, Jackson continues, test-optional admissions “will open a lot of doors for a lot of students who may not be strong test-takers, but have all the tools, the skills, the mindset, and the drive to be successful in a four year college or university.”

“We can't just stop because these kids are in the middle of the process, and some of them are so close to getting across this finish line that has been a barrier for generations.”

Dr. Jackson Olsen

Founding Principal and Director of College Counseling, Henderson Collegiate.

Eastern North Carolina Corps Member 2009

Navigating the Financial Aid Process

One of the most critical pieces of information that many first-generation students lack is professional guidance on the financial aid process. 

Financial aid can take the form of federal aid, such as grants, work-study programs, and student loans, as well as scholarships from universities. To access financial aid, high school seniors must file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form the winter before graduation, as most universities’ financial aid deadlines are in spring. 

“The first-gen students really need counseling support to complete those applications, to make sure that they have a FAFSA on file, that it's up to date, that they've been able to update it if there's been a change in their family's financial circumstance,” Jayne says. “As simple as they may try to make them, they're still forms that are not intuitive and these kids need help from their counselors.”

Unfortunately, the financial aid process has been complicated by COVID-19 as well, causing delays in processing for colleges, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and the government. 

Filing for financial aid is complex at the best of times. Now, students are scrambling to figure out what the new processes and deadlines are amidst the pandemic.

Despite already picking her first semester classes, Aisha is still waiting for her financial aid package. It’s been a growing worry for Aisha this summer, and she has been working with her agent at SSA to apply for scholarships just in case. 

“The offices that you need open are not open. When you send an email, you don’t get an email back,” Aisha says. “I know with everything happening, everything has been closed, a lot of students are trying to receive their financial aid and stuff like that. At the same time, it feels harder and it puts everything back for everybody.”

Aisha is far from the only student dealing with this issue. Cortney Duritsa Lockhart, a director of teacher support at OneGoal and 2011 Teach For America Colorado alumna whose team specializes in high school seniors, is working to help her senior students overcome the hurdles of applying for financial aid during COVID-19. 

“We are really supporting our students in making sure that they are set on financial aid packages, that their FAFSA is properly submitted so that they can qualify for those financial aid packages,” she says. “Then in a year of COVID, all of that gets a little bit trickier because it's harder to file taxes right now. You might not be able to get to an employer to get your W2 in a safe way.”

The financial aid verification process “can be complicated even when there isn't a global pandemic,” Jackson says. “It meant they were waiting on a college, and then the college was waiting on the IRS, and then the IRS was waiting for the student to do something that they couldn't do because the IRS hotline was not functioning properly.” 

Now, he continues, “We know it's a challenge for the government, and for the IRS, and for the FAFSA, and Federal Student Aid program. It's just been really hard on everybody. At the same time, we can't just stop because these kids are in the middle of the process, and some of them are so close to getting across this finish line that has been a barrier for generations.”

© Photo Henderson Collegiate Jackson Olsen and Tiffany Cook, another counselor at Henderson Collegiate, leading a college decision meeting via Zoom with student Laura Diaz and her mother. Laura is overwhelmed with emotion because she's committing to attending UNC-Chapel Hill with a full ride scholarship. Conducting important college decision meetings online is part of the "new normal" for the counselors of Henderson Collegiate.

Making College Decisions With Limited Information 

From sharing college acceptance letters on social media to buying university sweatshirts, the college decision process is a momentous time for high school seniors. For aspiring first-generation college students, choosing the right college to attend is especially excitingand nerve-wracking. It’s often the first “adult” decision students make, and one that has a major consequence on the next four years of their life. 

Typically, seniors make a decision by May 1st, National College Decision Day. This year, more than 400 colleges extended the deadline to June 1st or later to give students and their families more time to make their decision given the circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Even with the benefit of this extension, seniors are being asked to make this decision with much less information than they normally have, by virtue of being unable to visit campuses and attend in-person college fairs. Some students, like Aisha, are enrolling to universities they’ve never even visited before.

“I had actually planned to go take a tour to Albany before all this stuff happened and never had a chance,” Aisha says. “I just hope that when we do orientationbecause it’s onlinethey give a virtual tour of the school.”

The lack of college tours is impacting rising seniors as well. Izzy’s summer plan to stay on campus at Life University has been cancelled due to the pandemic. 

“I'm not able to actually get that college experience that I honestly yearn for, to actually see what it's like to actually be on campus and not just to be on campus, but just to be a college student,” Izzy says.

Seniors may also have less access to their high school college counselor to help them weigh decisions, particularly those who lack computers and a reliable internet connection. 

“That student who could have expected to have had a couple of meetings between then and the 1st of Mayor now the 1st of Juneand beyond, would have had that space to weigh the pluses and minuses of various admissions offers,” Jayne says. “And that may not happen for many students if they don't have that access. They rely on that counselor to decide, at this point, how am I going to make a decision without visiting that school? How am I going to make a decision not knowing if that school is going to be open in-person?”

Seniors are also put into the position of making a college decision with a great deal of uncertainty about how their family’s financial situation will look in upcoming months. Typically, seniors consider colleges based on a number of factors, including academic fit, social fit, and financial fit. Now, many can’t afford to be so selective. 

“Some families are saying ‘we simply can't afford some of these other colleges that we might have been able to afford previously,’” Jackson says. “With so many families now filing for unemployment, with so many families impacted by layoffs and furloughs, some students are questioning whether or not they can go at all. The ones who are ready to go are questioning whether or not they can go to their plan A or even plan B school.”

© Photo Courtesy of National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) Before the pandemic, high school students would attend college fairs, campus tours, and other in-person events to learn more about their top choice colleges. Now, students must rely on the internet to make those tough decisions.

The Legacy of COVID-19 for First-Generation College Students

This year, more than any other year, Jackson has heard students discussing the possibility of starting in the spring instead of starting in the fall. It’s a trend that worries him and his team at Henderson Collegiate. “It's not a route or a pathway to be recommended for our students, unless there's some extenuating circumstance,” Jackson says. 

The risk is that for many students, especially first-generation college attendees, delaying college may mean they never end up enrolling, despite their best intentions. 

Up to one third of all students who leave high school with plans to attend college never arrive at college that fall, according to the U.S. Department of Education. This occurrence, known as “summer melt,” tends to hit low-income students, and students who are the first in their family to go to college, the hardest. And it’s predicted to get a lot worse as a result of COVID-19.

“This certainly isn't to say that we don’t believe in students who decide to postpone. But we do know that once you stop going to school and get into a routine of work 40 hours a week and making a certain amount of money, it's hard to disrupt those routines,” Jackson says. 

While it’s impossible to know the long-term ramifications of COVID-19 on the educational futures of first-generation college students, we’re already seeing signs of its impacts.

Due to economic uncertainty and COVID-related school closures, fewer high school seniors are completing the FAFSA and applying for Pell Grants. These applications are considered important indicators of the number of students who will enroll into college in the next academic year. Roughly 51,000 fewer high school seniors are submitting federal financial aid forms compared to this time last year, according to a report by the 74 Million.

One in six high school students surveyed said they were near the point of giving up on the idea of attending a four-year college or university as a full-time student in the fall, according to a poll published by Art & Science Group, an education consultancy firm. In the face of COVID-19, these students are considering alternatives such as taking a gap year, enrolling part-time, and working-full time. 

Many who work in education, like Jackson, worry that the legacy of COVID-19 could be one of a generation of students who aspired to be the first in their family to go to college, but simply couldn’t due to the circumstances of the pandemic. 

“What I'm really proud about is that I was able to get things done, even through all this crisis.”

Aisha Brezial

Incoming Freshman, Albany State University

A Glimmer of Hope in an Impossible Situation

High school juniors and seniors across the country have suffered in ways big and small over the past few months. They’ve missed out on proms and graduation ceremonies. They’ve lost opportunities to say goodbye to beloved classmates and teachers. Some have suffered deeper and more personal losses, including loved ones lost to the virus. 

And for aspiring first-generation college students, there is an additional tension of being unable to celebrate a milestone as incredible as being the first in their family to be accepted to college with their friends and family. There is also the sadness of knowing their first semester will never be exactly as they dreamed of.

“When COVID hit, a lot of my favorite activities were cancelled, and prom and graduation,” Aisha says. Fortunately, there were plenty of people to cheer her up when she was disappointed about missing out on these milestones. “People were like, ‘It’s going to be fine, don’t worry about it, it’s just a minor setback. You worked too hard, don’t try to give up now, I don’t want this to upset you,’ and stuff like that.”

And yet, many counselors, mentors, and educators are finding what to cheer in this difficult situation through their juniors and seniors, who refuse to give up on their college aspirations. 

Jackson’s seniors, the Henderson Collegiate pride of 2020, are lifting the spirits of teachers and classmates alike with their optimism and good sense of humor. “They're really truly leaving a thoughtful legacy of optimism and perseverance despite the challenges,” Jackson says. 100 percent of the pride of 2020 were accepted to a four-year college or university and collectively, they earned $7.5 million in scholarships. 

“They've made their own videos and posted them to social media, thanking their teachers for all their support. They planned a special video to announce their college of choice that they're all working on,” he continues. “We're not manufacturing the spirit, we're not manufacturing their perseverance or their optimism. They're just shining their light in these really dark times, and it's been inspiring.”

Aisha isn’t giving up on her dreams either, even if her first semester isn’t on campus. 

“What I'm really proud about is that I was able to get things done, even through all this crisis,” Aisha says. “I can make a difference and do things that my mom and my dad weren’t able to do. I want to be able to show my little siblings that throughout everything that happened to me, I was still able to just say, ‘Hey, I’m going to school, I’m going to further my education and do things that I love.’”

“Now I can say I'll be going to Albany State University and be graduating in the class of 2024,” she adds.