That doesn’t surprise Rep. Sarah Anthony, D-Lansing.
For “low-income students and students of color, there are so many barriers to college,” Anthony said. “There are financial barriers, access barriers, social-emotional barriers to believing you belong,” she said. “COVID-19 has piled on to those existing barriers and made it easy for students to … not enroll.”
Lower GPA, fewer supports
College advisors agree with Anthony that the challenges of high school during the pandemic are the likely cause of the declines.
Alyssa Merten, network coordinator for the Oceana County College Access Network, said grade point averages dropped during the pandemic for many high school students.
There is no statewide data on GPA and grading policies vary from school to school. Still, Merten said her experience talking to students leads her to conclude drops in GPA as seniors led some students to believe they are not college material, or think that they won’t be admitted.
In neighboring Mason County, Jody Maloney is director of the Mason County Promise, which offers free tuition to West Shore Community College for the county’s graduating seniors. Maloney said that in one county school district, more than 40 percent of high school students flunked a math class this past school year — a failure rate school leaders and Maloney say is a side-effect of the pandemic.
“That drop in GPA, we’re assuming, is a part of the conversion to online course work,” Maloney said. “They didn’t have that (same level of) interaction with teachers.”
Merten said about 10 percent fewer high school seniors in Mason County filled out college applications this spring than in past years. More were “on the fence” about their future than normal, something she attributes to low-income and first-generation students not having the same level of exposure to information about higher education as in a normal year.
“This group of recent graduates, they missed out on a lot of opportunities, like visiting college campuses and job shadowing and college prep,” Merten said.
A similar dynamic could be the cause of a decline in high school seniors applying for the Lansing Promise, which offers tuition assistance for grads who attend Lansing Community College, or an equivalent amount of aid for those attending Michigan State University or Olivet College.
In 2020, 65 percent of Lansing School District students applied for the scholarships; this year, just 50 percent did.
One possible reason: Lansing schools were fully online all year. And while advisors texted, phoned and went door-to-door to encourage seniors to apply to college, it couldn’t take the place of the daily, face-to-face communication in a regular school year, said Lansing Promise Executive Director Justin Sheehan.
“There’s a lot to be said for in-person relationships,” Sheehan said. “A lot of the work is seeing students in school and saying, ‘Let’s walk down to the computer lab and walk through this FAFSA (the federal financial aid form).”
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is a complicated form that requires a lot of family financial information, which can be intimidating for teens, Sheehan said. That’s particularly true for students who don’t have others in their family who have attended college and know the ropes.
During the pandemic, students had less interaction with adults who could help them apply for financial aid and fill out college applications, Sheehan said.
“It’s not because they don’t want to have a successful future,” Sheehan said. “There may not be comfort with the process.”
The Whitmer administration report on increasing enrollment, “MI Blueprint for Comprehensive Student Recovery,” released in May, offers several recommendations for attracting more high school grads to the state’s colleges and universities. The administration is encouraging, but not requiring, local school districts to use some of their federal COVID relief funds on the recommendations, which include:
- More college advisors in high schools.
- Making the completion of the FAFSA a high school graduation requirement.
- Increasing dual enrollment and early college opportunities.
- More online college options.
- End remedial classes at community colleges, for which students don’t earn credits toward a degree.
- Automatic and guaranteed admission at community colleges.
To Rep. Anthony, part of the solution starts in communities in the state that traditionally have had lower college-going rates than the suburbs.
“We haven’t cracked the code to create a culture of learning after high school in both urban and rural communities in our state,” Anthony said. “It was already a fragile message (in those communities) before the pandemic, and the pandemic took us three steps backward.”
Community leaders need to preach the value of higher education and offer students help navigating a system that can seem foreign and intimidating, Anthony said.
Anthony recently sponsored a bill that was signed into law that allows state scholarships to be given based on scholastic achievement in high school, and not just on ACT or SAT scores. “I can’t imagine trying to navigate applying for college and financial aid as a young adult in the midst of a global pandemic,” Anthony said at the time of the bill passage in June.
And while efforts like her bill and Whitmer initiatives that offer free-tuition programs for adults through Futures for Frontliners and Michigan Reconnect are a good start, the state needs to find the money to help new college students with the kind of barriers that often make them drop out without a degree, such as child and elder care and car repairs, Anthony said.
“There are so many externalities to why so many people choose not to attend college,” Anthony said. “The pandemic shook us to the core and … exposed them.”