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We Can’t Let COVID-19 Derail College Dreams for Low-Income Students

By Anthony P. Carnevale

Across the country, college campuses are largely empty, and it’s unclear whether they will be filled with students again in the fall. Many new and returning students may not be able to follow through with their plans to attend college as they face a host of uncertainties amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Low-income students, in particular, face steep hurdles as the unstable economy threatens their families’ financial security.

For young people, the prospect of going into debt to attend college is daunting even in the best circumstances. College is the first and typically greatest financial investment that young people make. And the investment is well worth it. Having some college education raises lifetime earnings, enabling workers to earn 14 percent more on average than they would with no more than a high school diploma. The earnings premium over having no more than a high school diploma rises to 23 percent with an associate’s degree, 66 percent with a bachelor’s degree, and 123 percent with graduate education.

College is especially important for students from low-income families, who stand to benefit the most from the upward economic mobility that higher education can provide. At the same time, the current crisis has created new uncertainties for these students in particular. While most college students are wondering whether they will return to campus for the coming academic year, students from low-income families may also be wondering whether the on-campus jobs they rely on to cover expenses will still exist, or whether their families’ changing financial situations will prevent them from enrolling altogether.

The coronavirus pandemic may be especially disruptive to students enrolled in workplace training and technical programs, which are difficult to translate to online, at-home programs. Students in these programs are disproportionately low-income and racial or ethnic minorities. With uncertainty over how and when their programs will resume, the status of their graduation — and, as a result, their future income — remains up in the air.

To cover tuition and other college expenses amid financial uncertainty, some students may rely more heavily on borrowing than they would have otherwise. But not all students will turn to loans. Previous research has found that low-income students tend to be more risk-averse when it comes to taking on debt for higher education — and these students are less likely to complete their credentials. Among students who demonstrate financial need, 36 percent who do not borrow in their first year of college leave in three years without a degree, compared to 31 percent who take out loans. And that gap is even more pronounced among Black and Latino students. While some students may take on more debt to attend college this fall, we can expect many students to alter their plans by pursuing more affordable college options and enrolling part time rather than full time.

Some prospective college students in challenging circumstances may even defer enrollment entirely and work in the meantime, provided they can find employment. However, past research has shown that students who wait to enroll one year or longer after high school graduation are more likely to attend a two-year institution and are at risk of not attending college at all. Among beginning postsecondary students, 58 percent of those who attend college right away earn a postsecondary credential within six years, while 40 percent of those who delay their studies do so.

So far, in response to the additional financial pressures COVID-19 has placed on students, the Education Department has paused payments on student loans for six months. The federal government has also provided colleges with grants, half of which are intended as emergency funds for current students. As the crisis continues, more will need to be done to ensure that these students have the flexibility they need to continue their studies despite changing circumstances.

  • Financial Aid: Provide flexibility for institutions when calculating the cost of attendance, so students’ financial aid is not disrupted by changes in on-campus housing or other fees. Additionally, a more flexible process will be needed to calculate financial aid eligibility, especially for students whose families are facing significant loss of income that might not be reflected in previous tax returns.
  • Direct Funding for Students: Provide students with more direct emergency funding, targeted to the students who have the greatest need.

After the COVID-19 pandemic abates, we will still need to address long-standing barriers to higher education, such as standardized admissions exams and high levels of student debt. But, right now, we must take steps to ensure that students have the support they need to remain on track in higher education.

Dr. Carnevale is the director and research professor at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. CEW is an independent, nonprofit research and policy institute affiliated with the Georgetown McCourt School of Public Policy that studies the link between education, career qualifications, and workforce demands.

Follow the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce on Twitter (@GeorgetownCEW), LinkedIn, YouTube, and Facebook.




The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce is a nonprofit, independent research institute that studies the link between education and the workforce.

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Anthony P. Carnevale

Anthony P. Carnevale

Director and Research Professor at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, an independent, nonprofit research and policy institute.

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