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Students who graduated from high school last year but deferred college because of the pandemic are at grave risk of never going at all.

Enrollment for low-income high school grads dropped 29 percent from fall 2019 to fall 2020, compared with a 17 percent decline for students from more affluent families.

High school graduates from different socioeconomic backgrounds who delayed college this year did so for vastly different reasons.

For most middle- and upper-middle-class students, the break is little more than an inconvenient detour on a preordained path to college. Yet the majority of students who put off college are low income; and students who delay are at least 64 percent less likely to ultimately earn a bachelor’s degree, according to research published in the academic journal Social Forces. 

Fear of infection, skepticism about the benefits of online college classes and significant family financial pressures partly explain the college-going drop-off among low-income students. For these students, the delay can derail any chance they have of getting a college degree. Without a college education, they are much less likely to escape poverty.

Related: A warning sign that the freshman class will shrink again in the fall of 2021

The impact of this enrollment gap is greater than even the wide margin suggests. With these low-income young adults working at the local convenience store rather than coming home from college during breaks, their younger brothers and sisters lack critical role models. They may also question the value of postsecondary education. And the U.S. economy needs more college graduates in the next few years, not less.

To help low-income students, we need to dramatically widen public awareness of this stark reality: Future legions of young people are slipping away.

Not only did the pandemic interrupt their academic careers at a critical time, students also lost in-person guidance and support from counselors, teachers and coaches. The abrupt reversal last year, with its lifetime of negative consequences, is disheartening.

But there is work that can be done.

Fear of infection, skepticism about the benefits of online college classes and significant family financial pressures partly explain the college going drop-off among low-income students

Programs that are already underway can be modified and delivered virtually to reach many more students.

For example, through its College MAP program (mentoring for college access and persistence), the big four accounting firm EY has sent hundreds of its first-generation-college-grad employees to low-income high schools in 38 cities to share their stories of success and offer information and guidance.

EY reports that 95 percent of the 2,500 students it has reached have gone on to college over the decade the program has existed.

Colgate-Palmolive recently held a similar series of events for 1,800 high school students. 

To address the pandemic-widening college-going gap, corporations like these could redirect some of their youth programming to reach last year’s large number of college-postponing low-income graduates, whom we are calling the Lost Generation.

As the leader of CFES Brilliant Pathways, a nonprofit that has provided mentoring and college visits to low-income students since 1991, I know firsthand the impact that good advice and positive role models can have.

Our programs have helped over 25,000 kids become the first in their families to attend college; programs from other nonprofits have also helped significantly improve the college-going rates of low-income students in recent years. We conduct college tours for hundreds of low-income students throughout the country and arrange meetings with financial aid officers.

We, too, can reorient our programs. In fact, we’ve already begun this work, reaching out to the high schools we partner with to identify Lost Generation students and training our staff and volunteers to work with them.

Colleges could also do more to help. During the pandemic, admissions officers have become expert at hosting virtual college fairs. They could identify applicants they accepted who didn’t show up on campus last fall, then use National Student Clearinghouse data to identify those who aren’t connected with other schools and reach out to those students to begin including them in events.

Many publicly supported college-access nonprofits (groups like the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation) deliver college-readiness programs to low-income middle and high school students. These groups would likely be eager to deploy some of their resources to find their former clients and bring them back into their programs.

Youth groups like the Boys and Girls Clubs, many of whose 4,300 chapters help their members find a path to college, will know who these Lost Generation students are. They, too, could reach out to and reengage students in their mentoring programs.

This will be difficult work. But with funding from nonprofits and corporations (the Kresge Foundation, for one, is aware of this problem and has already begun devoting resources to it), groups like ours could spearhead a national effort to engage these students in their homes, with support from local high schools, churches, youth groups, gyms and community groups.

We could then share contact information with other groups willing to help.

Young people may be less at risk of the physical ravages of Covid-19, but those who are forgoing college this year because they are helping their families, or can’t afford it or are questioning its value are victims nonetheless. And their numbers are likely to swell next year, as evidenced by this year’s low FAFSA completion rates.

We must work together to find these students, help them focus on their futures and end the slow-motion tragedy that is unfolding before us.

Rick Dalton is CEO and president of CFES Brilliant Pathways.

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