The Uneven Cost of COVID-19 on College Completion in California

By: Nancy Wong

Analysis of data from our January 2021 survey of California college students shows that, as a result of the pandemic’s impact on students’ budgets, the majority of students (59%) now expect to receive their degree later than planned.[i] Of particular concern, community college students,[ii] older students,[iii] and Filipino, Black, Indigenous/Native American, and Latinx students,[iv] are all more likely to report expecting degree delays.

To see full data on expected delays by sector, age, and race/ethnicity, visit https://tabsoft.co/3eNsdq6

Our survey asked students to explain in their own words how the COVID-19 pandemic affected their college plans.[v] Among students who expect to receive their degree later than planned because of the pandemic, new financial strain, challenges with online learning, family obligations, and limited course availability are common themes. These challenges are often interconnected in ways that collectively impact students’ ability to continue their enrollment.

Financial Strain

“I was going to apply for work study but since the pandemic, that wasn’t possible.” — White student at California Community College, under the age of 25

While college affordability challenges predate the pandemic, 57 percent of students expecting a delay to their degree timing report decreasing their course load because of changes to income or expenses — over twice the share of those not expecting a delay (27%).[vi] Many of these students have seen changes to their employment that would make it more difficult to continue covering college costs.

“I registered for college in the fall of 2020 but decided to not attend due to Covid-19. My priorities changed. I need to have a stable source of income.”- Black student at California Community College, over the age of 25

Two in five (40%) students expecting a delay report losing their job, and half (50%) of these students report that at least one parent also lost a job during the pandemic. In addition to job losses, these students were more likely to indicate experiencing changes in their job hours. Over half (58%) of delayed students report seeing their job hours reduced, compared to 44 percent of non-delayed students.[vii] More than one in three (38%) delayed students also report having to take a lower paying job, as opposed to just over a quarter (26%) of non-delayed students.

“[The pandemic] made me drop out because everything was shut down and I had no job to pay for the necessities.” — Filipinx student at the California Community College, under the age of 25

Among those expecting a degree delay, older students are also more likely than their younger peers to report negative employment disruptions during the pandemic: about two-thirds (65%) of students aged 25 and older report reduced work hours, compared to 54 percent of their younger peers. Older students are also more likely than their younger peers to report taking a lower paying job (44% compared to 34%).

Online Learning

Remote learning has, in many cases, been the best — and often only — option for students to continue their studies safely during the pandemic. At the same time, many students report struggling to adapt to the shift from in-person to online education, with their academic progress suffering as a result. Others report concerns about the quality of online education.

“Classes are not the same as in person, and I have been suffering academic wise. I feel I am not learning.”- Latinx student at the California Community College, under the age of 25

More than one in three (37%) students who did not re-enroll in the Fall 2020 term report not wanting to take courses online as a reason for not enrolling. Similar shares (38%) of students not enrolling in the January 2021 term point to concerns about taking courses online.

“The change of in person lectures to virtually learning was a major struggle for me. This has pushed my graduation date back an entire semester. This means my student debt will be even larger when I graduate as well.”- Asian student at California State University, under the age of 25

Family Obligations

“Since my stepson had to stay home. I had to teach him along with online school. That along with my health concerns. It’s not possible for me to continue.” — Black student at the University of California, over the age of 25

Family obligations, like child and elder care, are ongoing concerns that, for some students, have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Students report similar concerns about their ability to remain in classes given shifting care responsibilities that created new time constraints, and strained many students’ ability to focus on coursework. Respondents now expecting degree delays have higher rates of being unable to attend class or complete homework due to family care obligations (27% of delayed students vs. 20% non-delayed students), and need to homeschool family members (20% delayed students vs. 14% non-delayed students).

“My two children are now homeschooled which was too overwhelming to continue my own studies at the moment.” — Latinx student at California Community College, over the age of 25

Course Availability

“[The COVID-19 pandemic] totally destroyed my college plans. I’m a science major and I can’t even take lab courses on campus.” — Indigenous/Native American student at California Community College, under the age of 25

About two in ten students who didn’t re-enroll in Fall 2020 cite the lack of availability of courses they wanted to take as one factor in their decision to not re-enroll. An even higher share (32%) of students not re-enrolling in January 2021 cite courses not being available.

“It affected me because I am trying to go to cosmetology school. And I am unable to attend in person in classes, which is essential in what I want to do.” — Latinx student at California Community College, under the age of 25

Some delayed students report that courses and training they need to complete their programs are, by virtue of their subject, not able to be delivered online. For example, students enrolled in programs that require labs or other hands-on training (such as for medical professionals who require clinical hours, or students in welding programs) have limited opportunities to continue their training. While some students report certain courses being cancelled altogether, others report that new course size restrictions for courses still offered in-person limit their ability to enroll in the courses they need. For example, a student reports that after enrollment caps in their nursing courses dropped from 20–30 students to 10 students that they were unable to enroll.

“The COVID 19 pandemic has affected my college plans by taking away from my learning experience and limiting my nursing school clinical hours, making for less time and experience with real patients.” — White student at California State University, under the age of 25

With time to completion already protracted for many students,[viii] pandemic related delays risk exacerbating many of the inequities in postsecondary attainment that pre-date the current crisis. Degree delays also push the potential economic benefits of higher education further into the future, threatening to undermine an equitable recovery from the financial impacts of the pandemic. Targeted efforts to support college completion, including by addressing identified barriers like financial constraints, concerns about online education, family obligations, and course availability, will be critical to helping higher education fulfill its potential to support an equitable path out of the hardships wrought by the pandemic.

Nancy Wong is a senior research associate for The Institute for College Access & Success

Originally published at https://ticas.org on May 24, 2021.

[i] In January 2021, The Institute for College Access and Success, with support from the Michelson 20MM Foundation, developed and commissioned a survey to learn how the pandemic has changed students’ finances, and how those changes impacted their ability to complete their degree. The survey was administered by Hart Research Associates. A total of 875 respondents enrolled in Spring 2020 across all college sectors throughout California completed the survey. All respondents had not yet completed their program by the beginning of the Fall 2020 term.

[ii] Two-thirds of California community college students expect to receive their degree later than planned, compared to 52% of CSU students and 48% of UC students.

[iii] 63% of students ages 25 and older compared to 57% of students younger than 25 reported expecting to receive their degree later than planned.

[iv] More than three in five Filipino (80%), Black (69%), Indigenous/Native American (64%), and Latinx students (63%) reported expecting to receive their degree later than planned.

[v] 830 out of 875 total respondents (about 95 percent) also shared in their own words how the pandemic affected their college plans. Responses were matched by gender and race and ethnicity.

[vi] Students who report not expecting a delay include those who reported expecting degree acceleration and those who did not expect any change to the timing of their degree in response to the question: “As a result of the pandemic, have any of following impeded your ability to attend class or complete homework or other assignments?”

[vii] “Delayed students” refers to students who reported expecting a degree delay in response to the question: “As a result of the pandemic, have any of following impeded your ability to attend class or complete homework or other assignments?” “Non-delayed students” include students who reported expecting a degree acceleration and students who did not expect any change to the timing of their degree.

[viii] National Center for Education Statistics. 2020. Fast Facts, Time to Degree. https://bit.ly/3hCyLv0

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The Institute for College Access & Success

Source of research, design, & advocacy for student-centered public policies that promote affordability, accountability, and equity in higher ed. ticas.org