Akron, Ohio

Diverted Paths in Akron

It may not be too surprising that far fewer graduates of the Class of 2020 enrolled in college this fall. But what’s startling is just how steep the drops are among students from low-income high schools.

Overall, the number of 2020 high-school graduates who enrolled in college this fall declined by close to 22 percent compared with last year, according to preliminary data released this week by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. At high-poverty high schools, that drop was closer to 33 percent.

Fewer than one in five of 2020 graduates from high-poverty high schools went to college this fall, according to that data. That’s significantly down from a year ago, too.

Why does this matter? And what can we do?

I talked with Marlise Ramsey, a school counselor in Akron, Ohio, about what she’s seeing.

At her urban high school, Buchtel Community Learning Center, at least 90 percent of students are from low-income families, more than 90 percent are Black, and many have parents who did not go to college.

“Most want to go to college,” Marlise says of her students, “but they just don’t really know how to do it.”

She’s spent a lot of her time helping them map out plans and navigate barriers. She learns what makes them happy, focuses them on those goals, and urges them not to give up on big dreams.

Pandemic or no, that’s still the essence of her work. But the complications of this year have narrowed the college path, at least for now.

Buchtel Community Learning Center in Akron, Ohio
College Delayed

Of the roughly 140 graduates in Buchtel’s Class of 2020, about 20 or 30 enrolled in college this fall, Marlise says. That’s definitely a drop.

A year ago, closer to 40 percent of the 2019 graduates enrolled in college immediately.

What kept her 2020 graduates from going to college? Mostly, she says, a dislike of online classes.

“They want that teacher there,” Marlise says. “Relationships are huge. They feel that they learn better.”

Many say they still want to go to college later, after the pandemic. In the meantime, they’re volunteering at church and earning money at fast-food jobs or gas stations or the hospital.

Mapping Out a Plan

The pandemic, Marlise says, is changing how she gives advice to students. She’s focusing even more on making sure her students have a clear plan — whether it involves college or not, or not right away.

She’s still disappointed when her students tell her they’re not going to college. She asks them to at least consider it. She’s especially dogged about this message: Don’t give up on your dream of college, even if it’s delayed.

And she worries about the drops in college-going and how they could widen an already enormous income gap in her community.

“The important thing I’ve learned, though, is to make sure kids are happy,” Marlise says. “You have to let kids choose their path. Maybe they need time to mature.”

She knows from experience. After she graduated from high school in Cleveland, she went straight to Cleveland State and then flunked out, she says. “I wasn’t mature enough.” After serving in the U.S. Army Reserve, she tried again, earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Akron and later going on to get several master’s degrees.

— Sara Hebel

+ Community colleges have been hit particularly hard by enrollment drops this fall, seeing a 9-percent decline nationwide. Read coverage from our local reporters about what that means for Northeast Ohio and for Colorado.

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Elsewhere on Open Campus

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In Pittsburgh, they are hoping for change under a new administration. But the turmoil has made them question whether they want to stay.

The high cost of cultivating potential in our kids
In his Next newsletter, Jeff Selingo looks at how students aren’t the only ones going into debt to pay for college. So, too, are parents.

All Ears

For next week’s newsletter, we’re asking readers and experts: What did 2020 teach you about higher ed’s role in society? Let us know.

Also: Are you in an income-driven repayment program for your student loans? We want to talk to more people about how it’s working out. Drop us a note here.

Long Recovery Ahead

Two financial outlooks for higher ed were released by bond rating agencies this week. Some highlights from the Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings reports:

  • Auxiliary services — housing & dining mostly — are still getting crushed. Drops there could drive revenue declines of 5 to 10 percent across all colleges.
  • Don’t expect a quick recovery. Moody’s suggests that tuition revenue and state funding will probably stay down through 2022.
  • Widening divides. It’s a story that keeps repeating itself. As Scott Carlson at The Chronicle said in his recap of the reports: “Winners will continue to win.” Smaller privates will face pressures to merge or close, while, Fitch says, “We expect the more highly selective and flagship research universities to weather these challenges better.”

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