Via Shutterstock

Guadalupe Cordova had always been a good student, but when Red Rocks Community College moved online in the spring, her grades plunged.

Her struggles became so bad at the Lakewood college she failed an anatomy and physiology class, a major blow for the aspiring nurse from southwest Denver.

The online format, she said, didn’t fit her learning style. And cut off from family and many of her friends, she missed their support to cope with her stress. She spiraled into depression and on some days struggled to get out of bed.

“The whole world was falling apart,” Cordova, 19, said.

She’s one of an undefined number of students this fall deferring their college dream. Much of the national attention has gone to debates in richer families about whether to take a “gap year.” Those students, though, come from backgrounds where college — because of family wealth or expectations — can seem inevitable.

But for so many minority and lower-income students, real-life pressures may intervene, and putting off college may risk never earning a higher education degree. National studies have found that when college students from first-generation backgrounds take a break from school, two out of three never finish college.

Community leaders worry that with so much stacked against students, their decision to defer college because of the conditions created by the coronavirus will leave a lasting negative impact on not only them — but also on the communities they come from. 

Guadalupe Cordova is taking time off from college because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Cordova, who is working as a caregiver, understands the risks of taking time off from college. She is determined to return next year.

“I’m hoping that my motivation to keep growing will keep pushing me forward,” Cordova said. “I do want to go back to school. I want to go back to school really bad.”

Community leaders are worried about students’ futures

Denver school board member Angela Cobián can’t shake how powerless she feels watching young adults with college dreams set their goals aside. 

Cobián represents the southwest part of Denver. She is also a cousin of Cordova. Cobián works with many high school students to help them head to college and train for jobs that will someday pay them well.

Cobián knows the value of education and what it’s meant to her life trajectory. An immigrant, she began her early education as an English language learner. She later became the first in her family to go to college and is now a leader in her community and works with the national Leadership for Educational Equity nonprofit.

Cobián said she worries most during the pandemic about the long-term economic, social and political power of the communities she serves if students decide to forgo college.

“I fear that whatever growth we were making as a community is completely being threatened, and it will send us into a complete devolution of progress,” Cobian said.

Cobián has tried to convince her cousin, as well as many other students, to attend college this fall. But many students she’s talked to worry about the threat of the pandemic, as well as the high cost of tuition during a time when the mostly remote environment creates a diminished return on investment.

Cobián says she has changed very few young minds. 

A recent national survey published in the Journal of Public Economics shows students from low-income families are the most likely to say they will not attend college this fall. The survey found of 1,500 surveyed students, those that are low-income were 55% more likely than their higher-income peers to delay graduation due to COVID-19.

And fewer low-income and minority college-bound students are submitting the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which worries college advocates because the federal aid it could offer helps cut the high costs of college and could increase the likelihood of attendance this fall, according to a study by EAB, a national college research firm.

Marie Bigham, executive director of the group ACCEPT, said recent data and surveys suggest a troubling future for students who haven’t traditionally been served by colleges and universities. ACCEPT, which stands for Admissions Community Cultivating Equity and Peace Today, is a Louisiana-based organization that focuses on strategies to help underrepresented student populations access college. 

It’s difficult to estimate the number of students who won’t attend college in the fall because of the pandemic. Bigham said the pandemic is producing many stories like Cordova’s.

“What I was hearing from kids of color from the very beginning is they were saying, ‘I don’t think I could go this year,’ “ Bigham said.

Before the pandemic, students already had to weigh the cost of college against the benefits, Bigham said. The pandemic has made tough family circumstances even tougher.

Recent high school graduates and college students have had to pitch in more to help buoy the finances of their family, she said. COVID-19 has hit diverse and low-income families harder than it has wealthier families. That’s left current and prospective students asking whether schools are going to protect them when they’ve already faced tremendous hardship. 

Those who steer clear of college this fall will face a hard road to fulfill their higher education dreams, Bigham said. Studies suggest that students who delay enrollment become less likely than their peers to graduate. And studies focused on students who take time off from college show a decreased likelihood of graduating at all.

Bigham said the studies highlight the risks for students without means during the coronavirus, and that “when they step out of college, they will have a hard time returning.”

College advisers bet on resilience; practice maintaining relationships

Jordan Stewart teetered on his decision to attend college this fall. In the end, the 18-year-old decided the pandemic had stacked too much against him.

His first college of choice — Johnson and Wales University Denver — closed permanently due to the pandemic. His second choice, the University of Colorado Boulder, is too expensive for him without substantial aid.

And his third choice, remote education at Metro State University of Denver, wouldn’t offer an environment where he feels he would thrive. Stewart opted to work at Safeway and save money. 

He wants to attend MSU Denver in the spring, even if he must go back remotely because he is worried that he will altogether lose motivation.

“Right now, my main focus is just to make sure I have enough money before getting into college,” Stewart said. “In the spring, I just think it’s a good enough time.”

College counselors and close friends encouraged him not to take time off from his education. For the many like Stewart who decide college isn’t for them during the pandemic, college advisers work to keep them connected to college options.

When high school students graduate, they leave the familiar network of counselors who help push them toward furthering their education. 

Latino American Educational Foundation’s Rigo Rangel, who oversees the organization’s student services and scholarship work, said that in seven years he’s seen that Denver-area students are extremely resilient. He has faith that, with guidance, many students will someday again decide to further their college plans.

“This generation of students are goal setters and they feel the impact that continuing with their education could do for their communities and for their immediate family,” Rangel said.

Denver Scholarship Foundation Executive Director Lorii Rabinowitz said she has the same faith in student resilience. Her organization, which serves low-income and underrepresented communities, has worked overtime during the pandemic to get students the college counseling they need to pursue their dreams.

The organization saw three times as many students in the summer than usual, meaning students were still interested in college options, but unsure of what to do during the pandemic, Rabinowitz said. Against all odds, Rabinowitz said the scholarship foundation increased the number of students it advises who plan to go to college this year.

However, she also said she’s seen many opting out this fall. The foundation offers college resources, including counselors, to recent high school graduates for up to a year. 

Resources and relationships with students are more critical than ever this year to ensure students can go to or finish college, Rabinowitz said.

“We will stay really closely connected to our students, and when the timing is right, we will help them go to college,” Rabinowitz said.

Motivation to keep learning

Cordova doesn’t believe she will be another student who stopped going to college and never returned. She wants to attend Emily Griffith Technical College in Denver next year to become a licensed practical nurse.

Nonetheless, she is worried.

“I’m hoping that my drive to keep moving forward and keep learning will still be there,” she said.

But Cordova also doesn’t want anyone to judge her decision. Her family is supportive, she said. They have pushed her to aim for graduating from college and attain opportunities that weren’t afforded to them.

“My dad, especially, is worried that I won’t go back to college,” she said.

She said she understands many people don’t end up going back to school, but she felt it was necessary to put her happiness first. The depression she felt still haunts her.

“What good would I be if I was a nurse and I wasn’t mentally stable, where I was always anxious and always depressed and always worried,” she said. “I wouldn’t be the best version of myself.”

Higher education reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado in partnership with Open Campus.