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Largely low-income, Hispanic and with parents whose own educations didn’t get past high school, the young people in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas started over the last decade doing something few of their predecessors had done: going to college.

As the community near the Mexican border came together to make education a priority, scores in math and reading on state standardized tests rose. So did high school graduation rates and the proportion of students filling out the federal application for college financial aid. The number who went on to higher education inched up, to 57 percent from 56 percent.

“We got a lot of people talking about how important going to college is,” said Katherine Díaz, who, as deputy director for the nonprofit RGV FOCUS — it stands for Rio Grande Valley — helps coordinate this work.

“More students started seeing, ‘Wow, I can do this.’ And they thought, ‘I’m doing this because I want to show my cousins that they can do this too.’ ”

Then the pandemic descended.

Unemployment in what Texans call “the Valley” peaked at more than 17 percent in the spring. The rate of infections and deaths from Covid-19 was nearly twice what it was in the rest of Texas. Even since tighter restrictions were imposed, the area continues to account for 7 percent of all of the state’s confirmed cases.

Now there’s fear that all the Valley’s hard-won educational progress will reverse.

Black enrollment at community colleges has dropped 12 percent this fall and Hispanic enrollment more than 8 percent.

Overwhelmed school and university administrators and others “just can’t do another thing right now,” said Díaz. “There isn’t a lot of capacity for really coming to the table and saying, ‘Okay we have this challenge. How can we work together to fix it?’ ”

Community and business groups around the country share the same fear. For the last few years, they have been pushing schools and colleges to improve high school graduation and college enrollment and completion rates — especially for low-income, Black and Hispanic students —increasing the supply of skilled workers to compete in the global economy. Many were making measurable progress.

With the pandemic disrupting in-person education and straining budgets, there is growing fear that this momentum is reversing.

“That challenge just got harder,” said Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the chamber of commerce in Detroit, which has been working to raise the low proportion of students in that city who go on to college within a year of graduating high school.

Related: Strapped for students, colleges finally begin to clear transfer logjam

With schools mostly online, nearly one in four public school students in Detroit aren’t logging in or showing up, the superintendent says — many because they don’t have laptops or Wi-Fi. That’s significantly more than in a typical year.

Students enter a high school in Detroit, where efforts have been underway to improve the college-going rate. Since classes went online, however, nearly a quarter of students in Detroit haven’t been logging in or showing up, many because they don’t have laptops or Wi-Fi Credit: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

Absenteeism in the spring and fall has been similarly high in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dayton, Hartford, Los Angeles and other cities, according to data compiled by the Brookings Institution. Experts say that this means dropout rates, which had been declining for more than a decade, will likely start to rise again.

In Texas, after schools went online in the spring, Black and Hispanic students failed to submit assignments or respond to outreach from their teachers at more than double the rate of their white classmates, the Texas Education Agency reports.

And students like these, who aren’t showing up or logging in, “that’s the future of our workforce,” said Laura Ward, senior vice president for talent development at the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, which also has been working to improve the college readiness of local high school graduates.

Her coalition of advocates in Nashville now meets remotely, every Friday morning. Among other things, its members talk about the obstacles confronting students.

“I have literally hung up the phone and had to cry, because the problems are so deep,” Ward said. “There are transportation barriers and food insecurity and housing issues, and it’s getting cold. When you don’t have basic needs met, you can’t learn.”

“I have literally hung up the phone and had to cry, because the problems are so deep.”

Laura Ward, senior vice president for talent development, Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce

Heather Hunter, a psychology major at Wichita State University who has a part-time job in a foster-care agency, said only four high school students in foster care showed up for a workshop to help them fill out that federal form required to qualify for financial aid. Last year, 50 did.

“It’s so sad. They’re like, ‘Why should I go to college? No one knows what’s going to happen,’ ” Hunter said.

Students themselves — especially those who are the first in their families to go to college — say they’re facing isolation, flagging motivation, money woes and lack of support, on top of the usual challenges of navigating higher education.

“We were already fighting twice as hard to get where everybody else was,” said Yessica Flores, a 21-year-old psychology and sociology major at Virginia Commonwealth University. “We have to fight three times as hard now.”

College enrollments have fallen. And a third of this year’s high school seniors say they’re less likely to go to college when they graduate, according to a survey by the think tanks New America and Third Way.

Having to shift to online learning because of the pandemic “has definitely affected our motivation,” said Emmanuella Agyemang, a 16-year-old junior at University Heights High School in the Bronx who plans to go to college and wants to be a journalist. And when she and her classmates have questions about the college selection and application process, she said, “We don’t feel like we have anyone to turn to.”

Related: Proof Points: COVID has been bad for collge enrollment – but awful for community college students

First-generation freshmen are finding college particularly frustrating. “I’ve made about two or three friends I’ve met in person,” said Angela López, 19, a first-year student at the University of Texas at Austin who plans to major in electrical computer engineering. “I didn’t even know how to contact my advisor to declare a major. Then when you do find them, the offices are closed.”

Even upperclassmen, who are further along, have suffered setbacks. Gregory VanDyke Jr., a 19-year-old sophomore criminal justice major at Wichita State, had to drop a course when he was unable to manage a last-minute assignment on top of his other classwork and the 25- to 40-hour-a-week job as a server in a restaurant that pays his rent. “I started bawling my eyes out, like, ‘How am I going to do this?’”

Nashville had been seeing gains in high school graduation and college-going rates. “Then Covid hit and everyone went into disaster mode,” one advocate says. “We’re just triaging.” Credit: John Greim/Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Oriana Barros, 21, a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the mother of a six-month-old daughter, struggles through long days of sitting through online courses and said she worries about her first-generation classmates.

“I do think some students will — I don’t want to say fail, because that’s a hard word — but some students won’t have the same ambition,” Barros said.

Rosa Vasquez has seen students quit already. “Some have gone to trade school, some have just gone off to get a job,” said the 20-year-old junior, who is majoring in exercise science at Virginia Commonwealth and is a mentor to fellow first-generation undergraduates.

Hunter, at Wichita State, said some of her classmates also seem to have fallen between the cracks.

“From a first-generation perspective, they just feel like they’re kind of forgotten,” said Hunter, who is 37 and hopes to become a clinical mental health counselor.

One student who lost her home when COVID hit, for instance, faded away; Hunter, who is president of her campus’s first-generation student association, tried to reach out to her, but her campus email address stopped working. “That usually means she’s not enrolled any more.”

Compounding advocates’ frustration is that these setbacks follow years of hard-won progress.

Like the Rio Grande Valley, for example, Nashville had been seeing gains in high school graduation and college-going rates.

“We had some momentum,” Ward said. “Then Covid hit and everyone went into disaster mode. We’re just triaging. How far we’ve come is wonderful, so having to take some steps back is definitely frustrating.”

Related: Report finds a drop in Black enrollment at most top public colleges and universities

While there’s still a significant racial gap in educational achievement, the proportion of Black students nationwide who graduated from high school on time rose from 66 percent in 2009-10 to 79 percent in 2017-18, the last period for which the figures are available from the National Center for Education Statistics. For Hispanic students, the percentage rose from 71 to 81.

The proportion of Black and Hispanic 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in college rose from 31 to 37 percent and from 22 to 36 percent, respectively, between 2000 and 2018, federal figures show. The rate at which these students earned degrees was rising, too.

“We had some momentum. Then Covid hit and everyone went into disaster mode. We’re just triaging. How far we’ve come is wonderful, so having to take some steps back is definitely frustrating.”

Laura Ward, senior vice president for talent development, Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce

But Black and Hispanic college enrollment has already started to decline since the onset of Covid-19. At community colleges, Black college enrollment dropped 12 percent this fall, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, and Hispanic college enrollment by more than 8 percent. In the summer, Black enrollment overall dropped by more than 6 percent, compared to 2019, more sharply than that of any other racial group.

“We’re going backward,” said Tania Tetlow, president of Loyola University New Orleans.

Among those who enroll and remain in college, students from lower-income families are four times more likely than those from higher-income backgrounds to say that they are struggling to learn remotely in this pandemic year, a survey by the education technology company Instructure found.  Seventy percent said they were falling behind.

Financial challenges are also mounting. Nearly 70 percent of financial aid officers at colleges and universities say students have been asking for more money because of financial hardship than they did in previous years, a survey by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators found.

Vasquez’s car broke down, costing her the income she was making working for DoorDash and running a massage business on the side. “Sometimes I have to choose between a good grade and rent,” she said.

Related: Students who counted on work-study jobs now struggle to pay their bills

Lower-income students are significantly more likely than their classmates to have had a loss or reduction of income, according to a separate survey by the Student Experience in the Research University Consortium at the University of California, Berkeley.

A significant proportion say they will need more time to finish. Of those, more than a third think it will take them an additional semester to graduate, and half that it will take them an extra year, the survey by New America and Third Way found. That means additional expenses and forgone income.

The same thing happened during the last recession, when the college graduation rate declined.

“The students who we’re losing — the ones who aren’t showing up or logging in — that’s the future of our workforce.”

Laura Ward, senior vice president for talent development, Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce

Business leaders around the country are concerned about this for a practical reason, said Baruah, who previously served as administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration and as U.S. assistant secretary of commerce: They “really understand acutely that they’re in a global war for talent. Access to talent is their number-one competitive priority.”

In Nashville, a quarter of a million workers are nearing retirement age and will need to be replaced, and 20 percent of new jobs may require a bachelor’s degree, the chamber of commerce there predicts.

The Rio Grande Valley needs skilled workers for new manufacturing businesses, tourism, healthcare and the SpaceX rocket launch base, which is projected to attract more tech jobs.

The Detroit region added 173,000 new jobs after the last recession, mostly in industries requiring college credentials, such as information technology, insurance, financial services and health care. Yet only 13 percent of city residents have bachelor’s degrees or higher.  Calling this “alarming” and warning that it “has become more acute with ongoing concerns of education loss due to Covid-19,” the Detroit chamber of commerce has launched a 10-year plan to increase the proportion of residents with degrees or credentials to 60 percent by 2030.

It’s a goal that will require getting more than 265,000 people to and through some level of college, the chamber calculates.

That will be much harder now.

The problems caused by the pandemic have “rededicated many of us to the work,” Ward, in Nashville, said. “Because closing equity gaps is still crucial to building a future workforce. Creating access where it doesn’t exist today and hasn’t existed for many people ever is going to be crucial in the recovery.”

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