The Education Trust-Midwest on occasion welcomes partner organizations to submit content. The following is a guest blog by The Michigan College Access Network discussing the impact COVID-19 has had on college transition and access.

By Ty Forquer, Strategy Assistant for Strategic Engagement, and Jenny McArdle, Director of Service Strategy, at the Michigan College Access Network

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on college transition will be felt by the class of 2021 and beyond. Families face major questions about health and safety, the value of a virtual college experience, access to technology, and how to pay for college given changes to family finances. Despite these uncertainties, a college degree is becoming more — not less — necessary in a post-COVID-19 economy.

According to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, following the 2008 recession, the segment of the population with at least a bachelor’s degree gained 8.4 million jobs as part of the post-recession recovery. Those with associate degrees or certificates gained 3.1 million jobs. But those with a high school diploma or less gained just 80,000 jobs, after losing 5.6 million jobs in the recession. To put it more bluntly, for millions of Americans who do not hold a college degree, the recovery never happened. We expect to see the same pattern in the recovery from the COVID-19 recession.

Given this, college access is key to COVID-19 recession recovery. This message is particularly important for students who are low-income, first-generation college-going, and/or students of color — students for whom college may seem even further out of reach. So how do students and families navigate the challenges of postsecondary access in a COVID-19 world?

MCAN’s Response

In April, Michigan College Access Network (MCAN) launched a COVID-19 Response Grant program to provide schools and organizations with financial support to continue vital college access and persistence programs. Funding was used to move college preparation programs online, provide technology for online learning, and support virtual college access events, to name just a few uses. To date, MCAN and its philanthropic partners have invested nearly $600,000 in schools and organizations across the state.

In May, MCAN launched a college advising hotline to answer college-going questions from Michigan students. This hotline is designed to address the gap in advising created when many schools had to end face-to-face advising. Michigan students can call or text the hotline to get answers about college applications, financial aid, and Free Application for Federal Student Aid completion. The hotline expanded in scope when Governor Whitmer launched the state’s Futures for Frontliners program to offer free community college tuition to essential workers who worked through the state’s pandemic shutdown.

As Michigan colleges continue to adapt to new COVID-19 and economic realities, MCAN is regularly updating our College COVID Response Guide, which provides information on the evolving admissions processes at colleges around the state. Many colleges are not requiring standardized test scores, waiving application fees, and providing virtual campus visits.

We always encourage students to connect with their school counselor or adviser for help navigating the college-going process, but this can be more difficult in a virtual space. There are many tools available for families and educators to get answers to their college questions, and you can find these on MCAN’s College Bound Michigan Resource Site.

Paying for College

Figuring out how to pay for college was a huge hurdle even before the pandemic, and COVID-19 has introduced new economic challenges. It’s more important than ever for students to have accurate information on the financial aid available to them.

  • Complete the FAFSA: Beginning in November, Governor Whitmer will be challenging all Michigan high schools around a FAFSA completion goal. The FAFSA is the only way to unlock most federal, state, and local financial aid for college. Every year, Michigan students who don’t complete the FAFSA leave millions of dollars of student aid money on the table.
  • College Board Opportunity Scholarships: Students can win scholarships for completing each of the steps to get ready for college, including building a college list, taking the SAT, completing the FAFSA, and applying to colleges. Each step completed makes students eligible for monthly scholarship drawings, and students who complete five of the six steps are eligible to win a $40,000 scholarship.

Disruptions to the school year and the economic recession have posed and exacerbated significant challenges to college access. But it’s important that we encourage the Class of 2021 to not give up on their college dreams and to take advantage of the resources — financial and otherwise — that are available to them. Declines in college enrollment now would have long-term consequences for the state and the people who call Michigan home. As we recover from the pandemic-related recession, let’s make sure that Michiganders are ready.