Another big assignment for post-pandemic America: Get young people back in college

Truman College in Uptown, is one of the City Colleges of Chicago. CCC officials are taking steps to reverse an enrollment decline sparked by the pandemic, and other schools should follow suit, the editorial board writes. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

An additional 560,000 young Americans opted against going to college this past fall, largely because of the pandemic. Millions of young people are making do with virtual college classes this fall because of COVID-19.
But more than half a million would-be students, many of them lower-income and working class young people who already faced longer odds of earning a degree, are missing out on higher education altogether.

New data from the National Student Clearinghouse shows that undergraduate enrollment nationwide took a steep 3.6% nosedive this fall, a loss of more than 560,000 students from 2019.
The sharpest rate of decline — 21% — was in community colleges, often a first stop for lower-income young adults striving for more education and a chance at a good-paying, middle class job.
“It’s completely unprecedented,” as Doug Shapiro of the Clearinghouse told WBEZ, which first reported the clearinghouse data. “That’s a lot of individuals whose lives are on hold, whose career and educational aspirations are suspended.”
Post-pandemic America now has another task: Ensuring that every young person who had to put his or her education on hold because of financial difficulties, health fears and other concerns sparked by COVID has the chance to get back in school.
The more education every American has, the better for them and for society as a whole.
President-elect Joe Biden has a higher education plan that includes free tuition to community college, among other measures aimed at making college more affordable.

It’s a plan worthy of serious debate. We lean in favor of it for now. A recent Georgetown University study found that Biden’s proposal would pay for itself, with hundreds of billions in additional tax revenue generated by a workforce of better-educated adults.
But there are steps colleges can take themselves to address the problem, while waiting on federal action — which must include another stimulus bill that includes money to shore up state budgets that help support higher ed.
At City Colleges of Chicago, where enrollment fell by 11.6% this past fall, administrators have been reaching out to offer incentives to young people who expressed interest in attending college but did not enroll this fall, largely because of pandemic-related financial difficulties, health concerns or a reluctance to attend school online. Those students can get privately funded scholarships.
“We’re mindful that this is a population of youth, and adults, who under any other circumstances would be pursuing their college goals,” City Colleges Provost Mark Potter told us.
There’s also the example set by the University of Illinois at Chicago, where some 700 fewer freshmen than expected enrolled this past fall. UIC also is reaching out to make sure those young people get support to
“We want to get kids in college somewhere,” Kevin Browne, vice provost for academic and enrollment services at UIC, told us. “The longer you wait, the harder it gets.”
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