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Alyssa Washington, a senior at Metropolitan Business Academy in New Haven, Conn., who wants to be a nurse, decided not to apply to college this year. Credit: Laura Pappano

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — A few weeks ago, ahead of a nor’easter that unleashed biting winds and snow across New England, Alyssa Washington, a high school senior who wants to be a nurse, made her big college decision: Not to go next fall.

There was no single reason. Rather, mounting obstacles led Washington, a senior at Metropolitan Business Academy, a public school in New Haven, to hit pause. She had not finished the Common App, a shared application form used by more than 900 colleges and universities; had struggled to write her application essay; had lost her password for Naviance, which collects transcripts, recommendation letters and other forms needed to apply; and — like many students in low-income districts this year — had not filled out the FAFSA, the federal financial aid application form.

It didn’t help that a favorite aunt got Covid. (She recovered.) Or that class was remote, amplifying the isolation and monotony that have defined this school year. Washington, who would be the first in her family to go to college, had always planned to attend. But applying suddenly felt overwhelming.  

As incomplete application tasks piled up, she said, “I thought, ‘Is this really something I want to do?’ I came to the conclusion that right now is not my time.”

Applying to college has always been harder for first-generation and low-income students than for peers with greater access to support at every step of the process. This year, data shows, that gulf has widened. 

“What we are really worried about, simply put, is: ‘Will we miss out on an entire generation of students going to college?’ ” said Angel Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. “If the pandemic has highlighted anything” about admissions, he said, it is “how the system perpetuates inequality” and how complex applying has become.

Related: As admissions season descends, wealthier applicants once again have the advantage

Common App data through Feb. 15 showed applications up 11 percent overall from a year ago — yet down 1.6 percent among first-generation students and flat among low-income students. Overall FAFSA completion, a harbinger of college-going intent, was 9.2 percent behind the prior year on Feb. 19.  However, in high schools serving lower-income students, it lagged 12.1 percent, and in schools with a high percentage of students of color, the decline was 14.6 percent.

The FAFSA drop represents “a gobsmacking number,” said Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation for the National College Attainment Network. It makes it less likely that low-income students will be able to attend, as many colleges and universities commit financial aid money to others ahead of those who apply later.

 “What we are really worried about, simply put, is: ‘Will we miss out on an entire generation of students going to college?’”

Angel Pérez, CEO of the National Association for College Admission Counseling

Counselors and college access groups are still working with low-income and first-generation students. But it is happening mostly online. Without in-person contact, DeBaun said, “many students are not getting the help they need right now.”

High school has been remote since last March in New Haven, a low-income district in a wealthy state with an elite university, Yale, in the city’s center. Diana Hernandez-DeGroat, who supports counselors across the district, said counselors try to reach students “via any platform, any way of communicating with them.”

Counselors in two New Haven public high schools described a landscape of stress. Students have had friends and family fall ill and die. Parents have lost jobs; students are taking on more work, even overnight shifts, to help out.  They are also doing more child care, including helping younger children with online school, even during their own meetings and classes. After one counselor at Wilbur Cross High School, the city’s largest, saw a student juggle class for two siblings while discussing her college plans over Zoom, he rewrote her letter of recommendation to acknowledge it.

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

Students, said one counselor, “are exhausted.” Typhanie Jackson, director of student services for the district, said counselors call students “three, four, five times” without reaching anyone. When they do connect, often college application tasks “are not the first thing on their mind,” she said. “Some people are barely surviving.”

A student who agreed to be interviewed for this story, but missed scheduled times because he got the chance to work more hours “felt ashamed,” he said in a text. “Things have come up and gotten out of hand, got a lot of things going on, DACA application, school work, applying for college and looking for scholarships, studying for [driver’s] permit test, working … etc.”

“The mechanics of applying to college, students can figure that out. [But] if I believe I am not college material, if I feel hopeless, if I don’t feel there is a path forward for me, then I will not apply.”

Mandy Savitz-Romer, senior lecturer, Harvard Graduate School of Education

Counselors speak longingly, as Heidi Pitkin of Metropolitan Business Academy did, of the days “when if somebody doesn’t turn in something to me, I walk into the class or sit down in the cafeteria with them.” She said, “You chase them.”

That now happens electronically — kind of. Some students say counselors don’t get back to them, or reply too late to be helpful.  It’s a perfect storm of disconnection that has counselors feeling harried, responding to texts and emails at odd hours, but also has left students feeling deserted.

“Our students are very relational,” and connect best in person, said Patricia Melton, executive director of New Haven Promise, which provides money and support to help New Haven Public School and charter students earn a college degree.

As college assistance shifted from in-person meetings to email instructions and documents studded with links, students were “just overwhelmed,” Melton said. “Adults are thinking we can send them emails galore and they will go through them.”

Rosé Aliya Smokes, a senior at Metropolitan Business Academy in New Haven, Conn., turned to YouTube videos for help applying to college. Credit: Payton Smokes

Rosé Aliyah Smokes, a senior at Metropolitan Business Academy, felt so lost  in October that she turned to YouTube videos. “I went on my bed and had my notepad, turned on the TV and searched, ‘How to apply to college,’ ” she recalled. She was surprised to learn about application deadlines. “I really did not know that,” she said. “I thought we just applied and that was that.”

Smokes applied to several colleges, getting in to Clark Atlanta University, her “dream school.” But she is stymied by the FAFSA. Because she is 18, she said, her  parents don’t want to provide information, so she missed the college’s aid deadline. Now, she hopes to transfer there in the future.

She needs financial aid to afford University of New Haven, a private school where  she now hopes to go; in late February, she was anxious. “Time is ticking and I am still here by myself, trying to figure it out,” she texted.

Students said they have relied more on themselves and one another. Destiny Thomas, a senior at James Hillhouse High School in New Haven, is a strong candidate, earning As and Bs, competing on the volleyball and math teams and participating in theater club.

But when it came to applying to college, she said, “Nobody knew where to start.”  Thomas said her emails to a counselor “went weeks on end with no response,” though she was  finally able to schedule a Zoom call. Texts to one teacher seeking feedback on her essay went unanswered, she said. By the time three others she reached out to responded, the early deadline had passed and “I had submitted it.”

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Jaheim Sewell, a senior at James Hillhouse High School in New Haven, Conn., helped three friends apply to college who, he said, would not have done so otherwise. He has been accepted to four so far, including the University of New Haven. Credit: Senyaw Sewell

After Thomas had applied (to the University of New Haven, Clark Atlanta and Harvard, among others), she steered several friends through the Common App over FaceTime. One, Jaheim Sewell, paid it forward: He helped three friends who otherwise “100 percent would not have applied” to any college, he said. (Sewell was admitted to several, but in mid-February, he had not submitted a FAFSA; nor had about 73 percent of his class.)

In the November Zoom chat, Thomas said, her counselor told her, “You are on the right track.” But “it was not what I was expecting,” she said. “I am really indecisive, and it would have helped if there was guidance on weighing out your options.”

Being on your own and “in front of the computer all day you fall into a state where you are lost, unmotivated or confused,” said Thomas. It’s one reason “kids don’t want to participate in anything anymore,” she said. “They just want to get their diploma and graduate.”

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

Those vital support conversations have gotten lost in many schools across the country, said Mandy Savitz-Romer, a senior lecturer in human development and education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

“The mechanics of applying to college, students can figure that out,” she said, but “if I believe I am not college material, if I feel hopeless, if I don’t feel there is a path forward for me, then I will not apply,” she said. “It is the harder conversations that are missing now.”

One reason, according to a survey of 984 school counselors by Savitz-Romer, Heather Rowan-Kenyon at Boston College and others, is what you might expect: Counselors are tasked with more duties.

They are now tracking down students who miss class (“they called themselves ‘the attendance police,’ ” said Savitz-Romer), and helping families get technology, broadband, even food.  “They told us that there just wasn’t time for counseling,” she said.

In many public schools, counselors were already juggling scheduling and testing, plus mental health aid, social services and learning needs — along with guiding the college process. By contrast, well-resourced schools have counselors focused only on college.

“Time is ticking and I am still here by myself, trying to figure it out.”

Rosé Aliyah Smokes, senior at Metropolitan Business Academy in New Haven, Conn.

For example, Achievement First Amistad High School, a charter school about half a mile from Hillhouse High, has four college counselors for 151 seniors — plus social workers and school counselors. Students also take a class that readies them for college. This year, the school added midday Zoom blocks for students and counselors to meet. (Hillhouse has five counselors for 1,161 students, including the 223 seniors.)

Rather than picking colleges based on “buzz” or internet searches, students are guided to schools that make sense. “There are two data points we have honed in on,” said Kathryn Goldberg, associate director of college and career counseling. They are percentage of financial need met and the graduation rate for students of color.

“It could be a different outcome going to a school with a 65 percent graduation rate versus a 25 percent rate” for students of color, she said. And, she pointed out, how useful is getting into a college that meets just 30 percent of demonstrated financial need? (By early March, 73.4 percent of Amistad seniors had completed the FAFSA, according to the state tracker.)

Such nuanced guidance is harder to achieve in schools with large caseloads, Goldberg said.  That makes nonprofit partners a valuable source of help. This year across the country, they report more students delaying college plans.

This is raising alarms. Research shows that not going to college right after high school decreases chances of earning a degree.

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“Time is ticking, and I’m still here by myself, trying to figure it out,” Rosé Aliya Smokes, a senior at Metropolitan Business Academy in New Haven, Conn., said of her frustration with the federal college financial aid application form. Credit: Payton Smokes

What worries Steve Desir, a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern California who studies the transition from high school to college for Black, Latinx and low-income students, is what happens next.

“The handoff from high school to college is a space that nobody owns,” he said. “It is not clear who is responsible for guiding students during that period. The student is really on their own.”

He does not blame schools or counselors. “They are doing a great deal,” he said. “What we are seeing is a system that was separate and unequal, and you add a pandemic and you have a system that is more separate and more unequal.”

At Metropolitan Business Academy, Leslie Blatteau, who teaches a peer leadership class, noticed low FAFSA completion rates in late January — just 43 percent of the senior class had applied — and prodded students to organize a peer support session. During a Zoom class, students eagerly volunteered for tasks like making a slide deck and designing an electronic invite.

But given the year’s many challenges, they debated what to cover. Should they just press peers on the FAFSA? One student suggested, “Kids would more like to figure out what they want to do, instead of joining a session of something they hear about but might not want to do.”

Washington, the aspiring nurse who decided not to apply to college this year, is a member of this class. She urged offering support so students “feel less alone.”

After class, she spoke about her decision. Next year, she will work (“a clothing store, or Target or Walmart”) to earn money for college. “I don’t think my mind will ever get off wanting to be a nurse,” she said. But neither could she have imagined the emotional toll of Covid and remote school.

“If somebody five years ago said your senior year you would be deciding to take a gap year,” she said, “I wouldn’t believe it.”

This story about high school students applying to college was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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