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As colleges and universities across the country rethink lecture halls, dining halls and dormitories in the COVID-19 environment, it’s vital that they also focus on the needs of rising college freshmen, especially low-income and first-generation students and students of color. The most tumultuous spring in generations, including protests roiling the country, has exacerbated the challenges these already vulnerable groups face in succeeding in higher education. 

Every summer, 10 to 20 percent of students nationally who plan to enroll in college never make it to their first day. In some areas, and among some populations, the drop-off is far steeper. In 2010, for instance, 48 percent of graduates from the Fort Worth Independent School District in Texas did not enroll in college as they had planned. Only 19 percent of white graduates did not enroll, compared to 41 percent of African American graduates and 59 percent of Latino graduates.

In other words, many aspiring college students fall off the path before they get started, and that’s when we are not in the midst of a national economic and health crisis. Fewer and fewer students were enrolling in college even before the pandemic, and many are concerned about the negative effects the pandemic may have on enrollment and completion.

Fortunately, higher education officials and policy makers can take a number of steps to support these groups of students. They can:

Monitor completion of financial aid forms and conduct outreach. Applications for financial aid are down. As of last month, nearly a quarter of a million students from the lowest-income backgrounds have renewed their applications, known as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, for the 2020-21 school year. That is down 5 percent in comparison to 2019-20 and represents returning college students. Students enrolling in college as freshmen, and thus filling out the FAFSA for the first time, are even less familiar with the process.

The National College Attainment Network found that “students from the lowest socioeconomic quintile who completed a FAFSA were 127 percent more likely to be enrolled in the fall following high school graduation than their counterparts without a FAFSA completion.” States can follow the lead of North Carolina, where Governor Roy Cooper declared June FAFSA Frenzy Month and marshaled resources from across the state to boost completion rates.

Reconsider financial aid packages in light of the COVID-19 economy. More than 41 million Americans have filed for unemployment insurance since the start of this virus, probably making it a challenge for many students to afford college. If parents become unemployed after their child's FAFSA has been submitted, then that student's hopes of attending college might become unrealizable. Higher education institutions should reconsider financial aid packages in light of family circumstances. They must support students updating their FAFSA, which would give them access to more federal dollars -- helping both the students and the institution.

Conduct needs assessments of incoming classes. Colleges and universities are in touch with students before the fall semester begins -- to register them for courses, for example -- and they should incorporate questions about students’ access to food, housing and broadband internet in those communications. Only 13 percent of first-year students live on campuses, so most freshmen will not have those needs covered by paying for room and board. As a result, the food insecurity, “avalanche of evictions” and digital divide exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic could very well impact college students and their ability to persist in college. By conducting a needs assessment, colleges could determine how many of their students are facing such challenges and prepare accordingly.

Pair incoming students with advisers now, before the semester begins and invest in additional counselors to bring down the average adviser’s caseload of students, which routinely runs into the low hundreds. In addition to conducting and following up on their needs assessments, advisers could start to prepare students for their transition. The advisers could share the lessons they learn with faculty members, who will also need to support students, and with mental health professionals, who should be ready to serve incoming students who have been through an unusual, and in some cases harrowing, last few months.

College can be a powerful engine for upward mobility. But in order for institutions to help students move up, those students must first enter the door. The road ahead will not be easy. But after a global pandemic and weeks of protests in all 50 states, policy makers, along with college leaders, must do more to support already vulnerable students.

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