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As a fall semester transformed by the Covid-19 pandemic continues, a startling trend is emerging: Students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, are leaving college at an alarming rate.

Around 100,000 fewer high school seniors completed financial aid applications to attend college this year than in 2019, according to an analysis by the National College Attainment Network. Students from families with incomes below $75,000 are about three times as likely to have canceled all educational plans this fall as students from families with incomes above $100,000.

The impact of the pandemic has — understandably — left many students wondering whether it makes sense to put their college plans on hold. But they should know their seemingly short-term decisions to delay their education could have long-term consequences.

Even as the country struggles under the strain of the pandemic, it is vital that students, in the safest way possible, commit to continuing their education. As Covid-19 continues to upend much of American life, students must do whatever they can to safely ensure the pandemic does not also upend their educational plans — and their futures.

Related: Progress in getting underrepresented people into college and skilled jobs may be stalling because of the pandemic

According to one recent survey, 34 percent of adults have changed or canceled their education plans because of Covid-19. Students of color are the most likely to have been impacted by the pandemic, with half of Latino respondents and more than 40 percent of Black respondents having changed or outright canceled their education plans.

Federal data also show a significant and troubling drop in renewals of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid by returning college students from low-income backgrounds, according to an analysis from the National College Attainment Network. About 250,000 fewer students from the lowest-income backgrounds have renewed this form, known as the FAFSA, compared with last year. 

In times as challenging as these, it can be tempting for students to hit the pause button on their education, especially when facing financial hardship. For many institutions, virtual learning will be the best, safest option for the fall, which presents students with a host of additional challenges.

Earlier recessions have demonstrated just how necessary a college degree can be in navigating an economic recovery, and research shows that taking time off from school is a risky proposition.

However, it’s critical to think beyond this difficult semester or year. Attending college now is about maintaining the energy required for graduating later. Momentum and continuity are key in ensuring students earn a degree. 

Earlier recessions have demonstrated just how necessary a college degree can be in navigating an economic recovery, and research shows that taking time off from school is a risky proposition.

Students who enroll in college immediately after high school are more likely to graduate from college, and students who decide to postpone their college plans are less likely to ever earn a degree.

Our research suggests that students who maintain a continuous enrollment status graduate within six years or less at a rate nine times higher than those who “stop out.” Only one-third of students who stop out in their first two years reenroll, and less than 10 percent attain a bachelor’s degree within six years.

For those who do go back, stopping out increases the time it takes to reach graduation and the cost of earning a degree. 

The return on this investment — and sacrifice — won’t be immediate, but staying on track can set students up for a far better life down the road.

Individuals with bachelor’s degrees will earn $400,000 more in their lifetimes than those with just a high school diploma, according to the College Board. Although there is variance across backgrounds, the students we work with demonstrate that a college degree remains the surest bet for students of color, as well as for those from low-income backgrounds.

Five years after graduation, our former students report a median individual income of $40,000 to $50,999, and after 10 years, more than one-third have family incomes of $100,000 or more.

Ninety-seven percent of the alumni we surveyed who have children say it is “likely” or “very likely” that their children will be able to attend college. More than half have begun saving for their children’s college education.

This is about working toward a collective goal of moving communities forward, generation by generation. We cannot afford to lose a generation of students who could benefit most from a college education. 

To stay on track, students should explore emergency aid options and seek out virtual study groups and online counseling. It won’t be easy, but there are people and resources that can help students make the best of a difficult situation — to make sure they can stay enrolled and maintain the momentum necessary to graduate while still protecting their health and safety. 

There are few opportune times to attend college throughout a person’s life. For those who do not enroll right after high school, life can easily get in the way.

While it’s never too late to go to college, for many, this is their best shot. Otherwise, what begins as a gap year or a semester of helping their family pay the bills can turn into a lifetime of unfulfilled opportunity.

Craig Robinson is president of College Possible, a nonprofit organization promoting college access and success. 

This story about college plans was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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