College Voices

These college students worry they may not graduate on time due to the coronavirus pandemic

College students in crisis: Will they graduate on time?

The coronavirus pandemic has created a lot of economic uncertainty and that has put many college students in a challenging position. Students pivoted toward online learning, while experiencing job losses and changes in family finances.

And campus closures due to Covid left some students without the resources necessary to earn their degrees – including affordable housing. Now, a study by Gallup shows nearly half of U.S. college students say their anticipated graduation date may be pushed back.

"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," said Diosky De La Cruz, a Masters student at Florida International University.

Diosky De La Cruz, a master's student at Florida International University, was homeless during the pandemic when her campus shut down.
Source: Diosky De La Cruz

For some students who didn't have a lot in savings, the pandemic made their financial standing worse. According to a survey by OneClass, more than half of college students say they can no longer afford their tuition tab.

 "My mom wasn't able to help me. We don't really have much saved up. So it doesn't make sense for me financially to go to college during the pandemic," said former Fullerton College student, Keely DeLeon. "I was always terrified about pushing my graduation date… I was talking to my mom about it and I was like, what if this is the choice that ruins my life?"

Keely DeLeon dropped out of Fullerton College during the coronavirus pandemic and is worried she might not ever graduate.
Source: Kelly DeLeon

The same report by OneClass found half of all undergraduates said they need to figure out a new way to pay for school. Of those students finding means to pay for college, many ended up unemployed due to the pandemic. Others, like University of California, Riverside student Tristan Wilkerson, quit their jobs as frontline workers in fear of putting their families at risk of contracting the virus.

"In my skill set, I did not have the privilege to work from a computer or at least I didn't know any opportunities for that," said Wilkerson. "All of my jobs and all the ways I made money was going out into the public and doing EMT work or whatever side hustle job - all the things college students do to get by."

Tristan Wilkerson, a pre-med student at the University of California, Riverside, said it's taking him longer to graduate but he's just going to keep chipping away it.
Photo: Bernard Williams

Some students continued as essential workers, but couldn't afford housing; De La Cruz was one of them. During the pandemic, she was an international business student at FIU, working over 60 hours a week at an Amazon warehouse, but she didn't have a home to go back to at the end of the day.

 "My friends were willing to help me, but with Covid, I couldn't go to their houses because I was working in an environment where every day someone new was positive for Covid," said De La Cruz.

A study by the Center for Economic and Social Research shows that students of color and low-income students are more likely to say they're planning to take fewer classes, likely delaying their graduation.

Students planning to take fewer classes due to Covid.
Source: USC Center for Economic and Social Research

Financial hardships caused by the pandemic are exacerbating inequalities in higher education: Just 3% of white students said they planned to take fewer classes because of the pandemic, while nearly 30% of Asian-American, almost 25% of Latino, 7% of Black students and 18% of the lowest-income students said they expected to take a lighter course load. Financial hardships caused by the pandemic may exacerbate existing inequalities in higher education.

"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."

Latino, Asian-American, and low-income students are also far more likely to report more family care responsibilities resulting from Covid-19.

"My little brothers and stuff are used to going to school every day. Being their older brother, you want to make sure they're getting what they need," said Wilkerson, who studies pre-med. "I'm not their dad, I'm their brother. A lot of older siblings can relate to having to step up and do things when their parent can't, and it's a single parent household. So, we shoulder a lot of certain responsibilities."

More from CNBC's College Voices series:
These college students are working as contact tracers to stop the spread of Covid on campus
Student athletes worry the coronavirus pandemic could put their scholarships at risk
Here's what college students need to know about making a budget — and sticking to it

And as students take time off to support their families, they begin to question whether completing a college education is worth it. 

 "Even though we know the value of having a higher education is important, having cash in your pocket sometimes in the moment is what wins," said Dr. Sarah Whitley, the assistant vice president for the Center for First-generation Student Success. "That conversation is why many students we know have stayed working."

But experts advise that having a college degree is still the best, most direct path to a good career with higher earnings. In fact, delaying or taking time off college may incur even more debt and end up costing students more in the long-run.

"It's really important if you start the labor market earlier, rather than having these delays and it takes you longer and longer to get through the college experience, that has negative implications for students earning power over time," said assistant professor of higher education administration and policy at the University of Florida, Justin Ortagus.

In January, the U.S. Department of Education made more than $21 billion available to institutions of higher education to support students during the pandemic. Colleges and universities across the nation, like the  University of California, Irvine and the University of North Carolina, have used these funds to implement emergency grant opportunities, housing assistance and academic support programs.

Along with taking advantage of university resources to make it through graduation, advisors also recommend that college students appeal their financial aid offers, research external Covid-related scholarships and apply for jobs that will enhance their skill set for a future career.

"Consider this to just be an interruption and it's temporary and view it that way. But think about when you're going to go back, how you're going to go back. Make plans in your planner or your calendar for when you're going to re enroll," advised Dr. Yolanda Watson-Spiva, president of Complete College America.

Despite all of the hardships, many of these students remain optimistic about the future.

Oliver Richards, a Pasadena Community College student, said he's accepted that he won't graduate on time. But, he's going to make the best of it.
Source: Oliver Richards

Oliver Richards, a Pasadena Community College student said, "I just decided — you know what? I'm not going to graduate on time. That's just a fact. Doesn't matter. But how can I make the best of everything that's going on?"

Wilkerson said he's planning to apply for the fire academy to become a firefighter, while continuing to work on his side hustles like delivering packages for Amazon and working for the Victor Valley College bookstore.

"I'm gonna take my time with the schooling thing while doing these multiple jobs. I do realize this is a delayed process and I'm just going to keep chipping away at it," he said.

If students have no choice but to take time off from college, experts say it's important to make a solid plan to come back to school the very next semester. If you see the road ahead and keep the momentum going, the more likely it is that you will graduate – and set yourself up for success.

CNBC's "College Voices 2020" is a series written by CNBC fall interns from universities across the country about coming of age, getting their college education and launching their careers during these extraordinary times. Colette Ngo is a senior at Chapman University double majoring in broadcast journalism and business administration. The series is edited by Cindy Perman.

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