Largely low-income, Hispanic, and with parents whose own educations didn’t get past high school, the young people in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas over the past decade started doing something few of their predecessors had done: going to college.
As the community near the Mexican border came together to prioritize education, scores in math and reading on state standardized tests rose. So did high school graduation rates, to 92 percent, from 87 percent, and the proportion of students filling out the federal application for college financial aid. The number who went on to higher education inched up, to 57 percent, from 56 percent.
“We got a lot of people talking about how important going to college is,” said Katherine Díaz, who helps coordinate this work as deputy director for the nonprofit RGV Focus, which stands for Rio Grande Valley. “More students started seeing, ‘Wow, I can do this.’ And they thought, ‘I’m doing this because I want to show my cousins that they can do this too.’”
Then the pandemic descended.
Unemployment in what Texans call “the Valley” peaked at more than 17 percent in the spring. The rate of infections and deaths from Covid-19 was nearly twice what it was in the rest of Texas. Even since tighter restrictions were imposed, the area continues to account for 7 percent of all of the state’s confirmed cases, and two of the eight most affected counties.
Now there’s fear that the Valley’s hard-won educational progress will reverse. As many as half of students from some local schools lack Wi-Fi access, educators say. Many of their families face intensified financial hardship. The proportion of students filling out that financial aid application—an early indicator of intent to go to college—is down at more than half of Rio Grande Valley high schools, the US Department of Education reports.
Community and business groups around the country share the same concern. For the last few years, they have been pushing schools and colleges to improve high school graduation and college enrollment and completion rates—especially for low-income Black and Hispanic students—increasing the supply of skilled workers to compete in the global economy. Many were making measurable progress.
With the pandemic disrupting in-person education and straining budgets, there is growing fear that this momentum is reversing.
“That challenge just got harder,” said Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the chamber of commerce in Detroit, which has been working to raise the low proportion of students in that city who go on to college within a year of graduating from high school.
With schools mostly online, nearly one in four public school students in Detroit aren’t logging in or showing up, the superintendent says—many because they don’t have laptops or Wi-Fi. That’s significantly more than in a typical year.
Absenteeism in the spring and fall has been similarly high in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Dayton, Hartford, Los Angeles, and other cities, according to data compiled by the Brookings Institution. Experts say that this means dropout rates, which had been declining for more than a decade, will likely start to rise again.
“The students we’re losing—the ones who aren’t showing up or logging in—that’s the future of our workforce,” said Laura Ward, senior vice president for talent development at the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.
Her coalition of advocates in Nashville dedicated to improving the college readiness of local high school graduates now is confined to meeting remotely every Friday morning. Among other things, its members talk about the obstacles confronting students.
“I have literally hung up the phone and had to cry, because the problems are so deep,” Ward said. “There are transportation barriers and food insecurity and housing issues, and it’s getting cold. When you don’t have basic needs met, you can’t learn.”
Heather Hunter, a psychology major at Wichita State University, has a part-time job in a foster-care agency, where she helps with a workshop assisting high school students in foster care with filling out the federal financial aid form. This fall, only four students showed up. Last year, 50 did.