COVID-19 brought unique challenges, both for college students and those outside the college track


June 3, 2021

Editor’s note: This is the fourth in a series of blog posts examining how the pandemic has affected children in the U.S.

From the 17-year-old unable to thrive in remote learning who dropped out of school to the young adult in her twenties struggling to stay in college, the pandemic has thrown up daunting barriers to young people’s paths forward. When we discuss youth and COVID-19, it is important to explore the experiences of adolescents and young adults in all walks of life.

For young adults in college, the pandemic has brought on a new chapter in our nation’s rising mental health crisis. A survey by Boston University researchers found high levels of moderate or severe depression (39 percent) and anxiety (34 percent) among the nearly 33,000 college students. Over 80 percent of student respondents indicated that mental health is negatively affecting their education.

The researchers drew specific attention to how these figures are related to the experiences of disadvantaged student populations. “Students of color and low-income students are more likely to be grieving the loss of a loved one due to COVID,” co-author Sarah Ketchen Lipson said. They are also “more likely to be facing financial stress.” All of these factors can negatively impact mental health and academic performance in “profound ways,” she added.

The study supports CNBC’s interviews with college students, revealing struggles among this cohort. With online learning transitions, many students lost the resources and financial assistance their schools provided them. Combined with decreased availability of short-term employment and increased risk of front-facing jobs, many education plans have been uprooted.

The inconsistent access to technology is one major barrier to seamless schooling transitions, and consistent broadband is a privilege not everyone enjoys. “When Covid happened I was homeless, and I didn’t have access to anything. No access to a computer, a bathroom, because everything was closed,” Diosky De La Cruz, a master’s student at Florida International University, told CNBC.

The pandemic has thrown up daunting barriers to young people’s paths forward, uprooting education plans and opportunities.

Of students surveyed, nearly half of students say they can’t afford tuition anymore, and their graduation may be pushed back because of it. This trend is disproportionately common for students of color and low-income students, who reported they were taking fewer classes due to the pandemic and increased financial strain on their families.

“College was always a struggle for first-gen low-income students even before the pandemic,” said Gorick Ng, a Harvard career adviser and author of The Unspoken Rules. “If you’re the first in your family to pursue a higher education, if you’re coming from a lower socioeconomic status, you’re probably not just focusing on school. You’re working to support your family, you’re paying the bills, you’re paying your own tuition.”

Many of these students are now at risk of joining the group known as disconnected or opportunity youth, those between the ages of 16-24 who are neither employed nor pursuing education. Black and Native American young people are overrepresented in this group. Opportunity youth are more likely to have low incomes and have negative health outcomes and disabilities. Lack of support to guide them through more education and into employment diminishes their prospects to be taxpaying workers and leaves them more likely to rely on government services, at a cost to taxpayers of $1.6 trillion over their lifetimes in lost revenue and increased reliance upon social services.

Opportunity youth are often an invisible segment of young adults but make up about 10-12 percent of the youth-aged population. However, the percentage of those who can be categorized as opportunity youth is set to increase — some experts think it will climb as high as 25 percent this year, the same rate as during the Great Depression.

Programs aimed at assisting these individuals have faced serious problems during the pandemic. Many of these programs provide students with crucial financial support that allows them to earn high school or postsecondary degrees, but during the COVID lockdowns, work was limited and many students were not able to get the pay they had depended on.

“A lot of programs are just closing and they don’t have any opportunities to engage their young people,” said Adam Strong, a national advocate for disconnected youth and an alumnus of YouthBuild and AmeriCorps in Eastern Kentucky. “The online opportunities aren’t there. The infrastructure isn’t there. They don’t have the funds for that.”

However, despite widespread challenges, many opportunity youth have continued to participate in programs like YouthBuild during the pandemic and have provided essential work such as helping with the distribution of PPE to frontline workers. Other programs have engaged youth in apprenticeship programs developed through longstanding partnerships in their communities.

The Biden Administration’s American Jobs Plan includes new funding for subsidized jobs, apprenticeship programs, and training through community colleges. It tries to prevent young people from leaving high school before graduation through programs for middle and high school students. The Biden American Families Plan would fund free community college and other postsecondary education, increases the maximum Pell Grant, and provides for a number of initiatives to improve college completion. Biden’s proposed appropriations for the Department of Education include a dramatic increase in funding for K-12 schools in low-income communities. All of these proposals would combine to give opportunity youth more help and to assist those who’ve made it to college to be able to complete their education.

American Families Plan
American Jobs Plan