The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

When she thinks about a student going through college, Kristen Renn imagines a seedling growing into a tree: There are a lot of things that could go wrong along the way.

“One cataclysmic event can do it in,” said Renn, a professor of higher, adult and lifelong education at Michigan State University.

An entire forest of potential future graduates is now imperiled by the cataclysmic pandemic that has large numbers of students saying they will delay their higher educations, take time off, opt for community college or shift to studying part time.

While attention has been focused on the impact of these choices on enrollment in the fall, each has also been shown to slow down or derail students on their way to degrees. For them, and for employers who need educated graduates, that means the effects of this crisis will be felt not just for one semester, but for six or more years.

graduation rates
Students move their belongings into a storage unit after leaving their dorm at the University of Michigan in March because of the coronavirus. Students who take time off from four-year universities, opt for community colleges instead or shift to part time all could end up spending longer in school and are more likely to drop out, history and research show. Credit: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

That’s how long it takes some undergraduates to finish college, if they ever do, even in the best of times. Now, just as happened in the last recession, it is likely to take them even longer and cost more, while — after years of hard-won progress — dropout rates rise and graduation rates fall.

“We’re so focused on the now and on the short-term future, said Laura Perna, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. “It’s much harder to think about the long term, but there are serious long-term consequences to this.”

Ten percent of high school seniors planning to attend a four-year college or university before the pandemic now say they’re going to do something else. But high school graduates who put off college often end up never going.

Most affected will be Americans who are already way behind their peers in completing higher education: those who come from low-income families and whose parents never finished college.

Related: With higher ed in limbo, students are switching to community colleges

“This could add a year or two easily to a student’s time to degree,” said Renn.

That’s the inescapable lesson of history and research.

Worried about having to take classes online or not sure how they’ll pay, for instance, 10 percent of high school seniors planning to attend a four-year college or university before the pandemic now say they’re going to do something else, the consulting firm SimpsonScarborough reports. About half say they will enroll at a community college.

But high school graduates who put off college often end up never going, the most recent available federal study on the subject found. And only 45 percent of people who enter community college full time earn associate degrees in even six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

“From high school graduation out toward college, we’re seeing Covid make it even less likely that low-income, first-generation students of color do what we hope they will, which is get a bachelor’s degree.”

Liane Hypolite, assistant professor, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

Some of these students say they ultimately plan to transfer from community college to a four-year university and get a bachelor’s degree.

But only 13 percent of community college students manage to achieve that goal, the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, says. (The Hechinger Report, which produced this story, is also housed at Teachers College.)

“For some students [community college] will be like a detour,” Renn said, “and for others it will be an off ramp.”

Of students who have changed their education plans, 15 percent say they will reduce the number of courses or the amount of training they take, another survey, by the nonprofit Strada Education Network, found.

The empty campus of Vanderbilt University. While attention has been focused on the plight of colleges if graduating high school seniors delay college or currently enrolled students don’t come back, those choices have less obvious but still significant potential long-term negative consequences for the students themselves. Credit: c

But studying part time also significantly lowers success rates. More than half of part-time students still hadn’t earned a credential six years after starting college, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center says.

Even if graduating high school seniors say they are only delaying their educations, and will eventually go to college, “their likelihood of actually enrolling a year or two years later is lower, and therefore their chances of getting a degree is lower,” said Watson Scott Swail, president and CEO of the Educational Policy Institute.

Some may find jobs, start earning money, and stay put, he said. Others will lose the helpful momentum of peer pressure. “You’re going to be behind your friends,” said Swail. “In your head, you’ve lost the race.”

Of course, many of these decisions about whether, where and how to go to college are being driven by new financial realities. While wealthier families still may largely be able to afford the cost of college, growing numbers of lower- and middle-income Americans — who were already struggling to pay — have now lost jobs or fear they will.

Related: Quarantine campuses: With dorms shut and class online, students DIY college life

“What’s happening right now is putting families into a very precarious position for whom paying for college was precarious to begin with,” said Lindsay Page, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education who studies how students get to and through college.

“This is not going to affect families for a semester. It’s going to affect them for a really long time.”

Lindsay Page, University of Pittsburgh School of Education

“This is not going to affect families for a semester,” she said. “It’s going to affect them for a really long time.”

Some low-income prospective students now are working to help their families, said Yolanda Watson Spiva, president of the advocacy group Complete College America; others are seeing record unemployment rates and wondering whether there will be any jobs for them, even with degrees.

“It’s hard enough under regular circumstances to help students understand why college is important,” said Spiva. “Trying to get students to understand the value proposition of college now is going to be a more difficult and arduous undertaking.”

All of these new barriers and delays will likely further widen the nation’s broader socioeconomic divide, Page and other experts said.

Related: Little-noticed victims of the higher education shutdowns: college towns

Incoming freshmen listen to a more senior student at a University at Albany summer orientation program in 2017. In-person events like this have proven to reduce dropout rates for first-year students, but some may be canceled this year because of the pandemic. Credit: Sarah Garland/The Hechinger Report

“It’s middle- and lower-income students who I think will be wildly thrown off by this,” Renn said.

Already, only 12 percent of bachelor’s degrees awarded by age 24 go to people in the bottom quarter of income, new research from the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education finds, compared to nearly 75 percent that go to those in the top half.

“From high school graduation out toward college, we’re seeing Covid make it even less likely that low-income, first-generation students of color do what we hope they will, which is get a bachelor’s degree,” said Liane Hypolite, an assistant professor of educational leadership at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

Although college and university enrollment went up after the last recession, as more Americans sought education at a time when jobs were also scarce, there was a distinctive socioeconomic divide, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found.

Students from wealthier families continued to attend the priciest institutions while more lower- and middle-income families chose community colleges, which the College Board reports cost about a third as much as the lowest-tier public four-year universities and one-tenth as much as the lowest-tier four-year privates.

Dropout rates rose and graduation rates fell.

“It’s hard enough under regular circumstances to help students understand why college is important. Trying to get students to understand the value proposition of college now is going to be a more difficult and arduous undertaking.”

Yolanda Watson Spiva, president, Complete College America

Since then, both statistics had begun to improve. The proportion of students dropping out between their first and second years, in any kind of university or college, fell 2 percentage points, and the proportion earning any kind of a degree within six years grew  5 percentage points as institutions put more resources into prodding their students to succeed — often under pressure from policymakers who tied their funding to such measures.

“We were making some good strides in supporting those students and improving completion rates,” said Bradley Custer, senior policy analyst for postsecondary education at the progressive nonprofit Center for American Progress.

Related: Biggest gap year ever? Sixteen percent of high school seniors say they’ll take a gap year

How delicate these seedlings are, however, is evident from the fact that, even accounting for this progress, 26 percent of students still quit before their second year and 34 percent still haven’t graduated after their sixth.

Now there’s fear that financial problems could prompt institutions, some of which have already begun layoffs, to reduce support for students who need it. Student planning and advising offices consume $1 billion a year of university budgets, according to the consulting firm Tyton Partners.

“Those kinds of programs aren’t cheap, and colleges are really strapped right now,” Page said.

Already, fewer than a third of university and college advisers say they can always meet the needs of their students, Tyton Partners found in a survey of 2,500 administrators, advisers, counselors and faculty. The rest say their case loads are too big to keep up with.

That could take a particular toll on first-year students and returning adults, many of whom need extra counseling. And if their institutions continue to teach online in the fall, as some have announced they will, it may be even tougher.

“Our students are out there floundering,” said Hypolite, who still advises graduating seniors at a charter school in Boston where she previously worked. “Once they hit a few roadblocks, without a person and a contact and a human being who can help guide them through the process, they’ll say, ‘I’m over it.’ ”

Spiva likens the job of advisers right now to that of contact tracers helping to find people exposed to the coronavirus. “We’re going to have to do some contact tracing to find our students, in some cases,” she said. And that will have to happen even with advisers’ already high caseloads and the possibility that their funding will be cut.

Related: Desperate for students, colleges resort to previously banned recruiting tactics

There are glimmers of optimism. The experience of juggling work and family while being shut down at home, for instance, may have made the broader public more sympathetic to the challenges faced by working students with children, and more willing to support services that might help them, said Perna, at Penn.

Some students are opting for community college with a plan to transfer to a four-year university for a bachelor’s degree. But only 13 percent of community college students reach that goal.

“There’s a lot of complexity that most people haven’t been aware of,” she said. “Everyone as they’re trying to do work is understanding that colleagues have families and other sorts of constraints. When you have those multiple responsibilities, there’s a precariousness to it. The whole house of cards can crumble.”

Public attitudes toward community colleges also may warm, said Karen Stout, president of Achieving the Dream, which works with those institutions to improve their graduation rates and the odds that their students can successfully transfer to four-year institutions. “And that puts pressure on policymakers to ensure that there are strong credit-transfer policies.”

But there are other problems. Should large enough numbers of students put off college but then show up on campus next spring or the following fall, for instance, it could create a sudden surge in demand for required courses that outstrips the supply, Page said.

“Students may be facing these course-level pileups and also advising-load pileups” that delay them on the way to their degrees, she said. “By the time they register, the class is full.”

And, in a vicious cycle, anything that slows them down diminishes the chances that they’ll ever finish, said Swail.

“It’s like a 100-meter dash or hurdles,” he said. “If you make the race a little longer, you add another 10 meters onto it, it just gets harder and harder to reach the finish line.”

Even students who do show up in the fall may not experience the usual in-person first-year orientation programs universities and colleges have built up over the last decade to get them accustomed to the campus and introduce them to each other, which have helped reduce the dropout rate, said Jennifer Keup, executive director of the National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience at the University of South Carolina.

But Keup sees hope, too.

The purpose of those programs, she said, is to take “a diversity of individuals you’re bringing to a campus and make it into a community” by finding things that first-year students can agree they share in common.

And, said Keup, “we’ve never had a more common human experience than we’re having right now.”

This story about graduation rates 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.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *