COVID-19, summer melt a one-two punch to colleges and students alike

COURTESY OF: By Catalina Cifuentes and Marlene Garcia

Real-life stories of the extreme challenges and anxiety COVID-19 has brought upon our state’s college students ring frighteningly loud and true: most have lost all or most of their income sources, many have changed their college plans and uprooted their living arrangements, and some have had their college aspirations completely derailed over worries about family and money.

“I am trying to find the time to do my classes solely online on top of taking care of children that were also enrolled in school and now homeschooling.”

“I am concerned about being unable to pay rent or for other educational expenses.”

“I worked hard to transfer to Sonoma from my community college in Redlands and now I am overwhelmed with fear.”

These accounts, as shared directly by students in a recent COVID-19 college survey and in virtual discussions, reflect the reality of how COVID-19 has turned current and incoming college students’ lives, hopes and dreams upside down.

They also set off serious warning bells about college affordability and attendance and what it all means for an entire generation of students, particularly Black, Brown, low-income and marginalized students who we cannot leave fending for themselves.

As we enter month seven of this public health crisis, there is a continued haze of uncertainty causing extreme anxiety and worry for our college students. Many were already living on the edge prior to COVID-19.

But now, in the midst of a once-in-a-hundred-year global pandemic, many are wrestling with whether to defer or “stop out” to work or manage the uncertainty of their lives. If recent high school graduates do the same, California could see the least diverse class matriculate in decades.

Because of this perfect storm of events, California college students deserve our attention and our action now to prevent what could be the largest, most damaging summer melt phenomena California has ever seen.

Widely recognized in higher education, summer melt is the confounding annual occurrence whereby students who had indicated their intent to attend college in the fall simply don’t show. Reasons vary as to the why behind this change in direction that occurs for more than a third of first time or returning students, according to Reach Higher, an initiative begun by former first lady Michelle Obama.

But delaying enrollment often means never returning to college, particularly for first-generation students who are already trying to beat the odds. In the current pandemic, California stands to lose hundreds of thousands of college students in the 2020-21 academic year to what might be better called “COVID-19 Summer Meltdown.”

We know the overwhelming challenges our students face all too well in the state’s Cal Grant financial aid system, too, where college affordability and basic needs issues had already reached crisis proportions. Almost overnight, we went from an affordability crisis to an affordability Armageddon. The California Student Aid Commission’s fall 2019 Student Expenses and Resources survey showed a combined 64 percent of students were struggling, even before the health crisis. In our COVID-19 survey, seven of ten students indicated they had lost some or all of their income due to the pandemic.

Within our large financial aid system in California, the annual 30 percent of Cal Grant recipients who receive notice of a financial aid award and never claim it could double if students lose faith and stop attending. This is both frightening and devastating from an access and equity perspective, since summer melt occurs the most in economically disadvantaged populations and is higher among community college students.

Fall semesters are just now getting underway, and there are options for late start into October. For those who don’t attend in the fall, they must be encouraged to attend next semester.

From outreach to students via success coaches to increasing federal and state aid to more financial support for our Dreamers, the state must demonstrate to our students that they are valued by ensuring resources for attending college and basic needs expenses are available for all those who need them, from emergency aid to increased funding for Cal Grant aid for our neediest students.

It goes without saying that equally important is ensuring our systems and college campuses have the support and resources they need to work with our students in need directly.

The courageous sharing from our students in our survey and our student panel webinar discussions reflects a microcosm of what is being felt broadly. They also told us they want and need to hear from us. They want and need encouragement, solutions and direction so they don’t lose faith and know they are valued. In short, they need our help, and they need it now.

Catalina Cifuentes is chair of the California Student Aid Commission and executive director of College and Career Readiness at the Riverside County Office of Education. Marlene Garcia is executive director at the California Student Aid Commission.

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