Last spring, Derek Hernandez sat his parents down and drew a two-column chart. On one side he listed what life would look like if he continued his education as a political science major at the University of Texas at El Paso while keeping his job as a tutor at Horizon High School. On the other side, he listed what life would look like if he no longer pursued those things.

The conclusion: he would not be enrolling at UTEP in the fall to complete his senior year. He also would be resigning from his job.

“I know from past experiences that I don’t do well with online classes,” Hernandez said.

The pandemic caused thousands of students in El Paso to at least temporarily pause their pursuit of higher education. UTEP and El Paso Community College are working to get them back.

In March 2020, most El Paso students were on spring break when COVID-19 reached the border, causing schools to shut down and transition to online learning. A year later, classes are still online and COVID is still rampant.

UTEP enrollment fell by 1.2% between fall 2019 and fall 2020, according to university data. Among its largest student populations, UTEP saw a 0.5% increase in Hispanic students, a 13% decrease in international students, and 6% decrease in white students.

At El Paso Community College, enrollment decreased 10.4% between fall 2019 and 2020, according to data provided by EPCC officials. Amongst its three largest student populations, there was a 11% decrease in Hispanic students, 16% decrease in white students, and a 17% increase in students who identified as “unknown.”

Across the country, enrollment at colleges and universities decreased 2.5% in the fall of 2020. Public two-year institutions suffered a 10.1% drop.

Getting students back

Before enrolling at UTEP as a political science major, Hernandez took his basic courses at El Paso Community College. Once completing those courses, he transferred to UTEP, where one of his first classes was online. He recalls failing that class, miserably.

“The material is harder for me to grapple when it’s online,” he said.

Despite only having five classes to take before graduating, Hernandez decided that the transition to only online classes would hinder his education experience.

“I decided that it was too late in the game for me to take a risk considering what my goals are,” he said.

Those goals include being on the President’s list, a prestigious academic achievement, and increasing his GPA.

Hernandez also had to quit his job as a tutor, where he worked for a college readiness program.

“They hire tutors that are specifically college students. So to meet the requirement you have to be actively enrolled,” he said. “My decisions we’re contingent and related to one another.”

Now that a year has almost passed since being in school, Hernandez says he feels deprived.

“It’s a huge part of how I learn, it’s a huge part of my thought process, and it’s a huge part of just who I am,” he said. “I miss it.”

Hernandez says he will return to school once it is safe to have classes in person. He doesn’t know when that will be.

UTEP admissions and enrollment offices declined a request from El Paso matters for an interview.

At EPCC, Steve Smith has worked various roles for over 32 years. Now as the vice president of instruction and workforce education, he said COVID-19 is probably one of the most challenging things that the education scene has seen.

“The speed at which it came on (COVID-19) is probably the biggest factor,” Smith said.

He saw a sharp decrease in incoming students.

“What we’re seeing is a decrease in first-time college students, meaning that students who have recently graduated from high school are opting to not come into the institution,” Smith said.

Hardships with finances have also been a reason why students may opt out, he said.

“Many students have lost their jobs, have been furloughed, or have had hours cut back,” Smith said.

He also said many students who are parents have placed managing their children’s at-home virtual schooling first.

“We have seen many students who have furloughed their education so that they can oversee their children’s education,” Smith said.

Smith said the college has implemented initiatives to recover students.

“Our student services have created ‘Operation College Bound,’ where they go out to every high school and talk to graduating seniors,” he said. The operation will roll out late March.

For current students, Smith said the college has sent constant communication about the availability of scholarships through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) by the U.S. Department of Education.

“We’re also providing laptops and hot spots to students that need them but don’t have them at home,” Smith said. With virtual classes, EPCC has found that many students’ households don’t have enough bandwidth to allow for multiple people to engage in online learning.

UTEP is implementing similar strategies to get its students back.

According to responses provided by UTEP officials via email, UTEP is also using the CARES Act to provide economic relief to its students. They also said they have provided “technology equipment to support online learning.”

For future graduating high school seniors, UTEP will be hosting various virtual events to get the word out about enrollment and the financial aid process.

A high school senior plans her future

Bel Air High School senior Anjolie Miranda found the process of applying to college to be long and somewhat unmotivational.

“After eight hours of being on the computer for school, I didn’t really want to go back on to research things about college,” she said.

Miranda said that while she doesn’t think the process of applying to schools would have been much different without the presence of COVID, she does believe her personal motivation would have been different.

“Having to do this process with the same four walls around me has been really difficult,” Miranda said. She said the process has been filled with anxiety and she wished she could have seen other students who were going through the same things as her.

“Being able to bounce ideas off of one another and ask ‘did I do something wrong’ or ‘did I miss something’ would have been really helpful,” Miranda said.

But after taking a tour of the UTEP campus with her older brother, who is a UTEP graduate, she decided the university will be her new educational home.

Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.