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Discouragement Gap in College Dreams Brings Civil Rights Value to Real COVID-19 Relief

Photograph Source: Steve Snodgrass – CC BY 2.0

Assaults on Civil Rights can be loud, with microphones or guns, but the effects of structural racism are often hushed, in the silence of dreams deferred. Whether we hear it or not, the Civil Rights rollback of 2020 is well underway.

To feel how Civil Rights are rolling back in a quiet, ebbing tide of college enrollments, take a look at two Austin, TX, high schools. The Liberal Arts and Science Academy (LASA) is three miles away from the Northeast Early College High School, but the two schools are worlds apart, according to the “schools comparison” tool at the Austin Independent School District.

The High School Divide

At LASA, ten percent of students are economically disadvantaged, compared to 91 percent percent of students at Northeast. And while LASA reports a 100 percent pass rate for state reading exams, with only a half-dozen English language learners out of 1,280 students enrolled, the Northeast school, with 450 English language learners out of 1,140 students enrolled, has a reading pass rate of 54 percent.

In terms of supports for students and families, Northeast is a community school with breakfast in the classroom, child care during the day, after-school meals, and community mentoring. LASA, a magnet school, has none of the above. LASA is 48 percent white, 23 percent Asian, 21 percent Hispanic, and 2 percent African American. Northeast is 80 percent Hispanic, 14 percent African American, 3 percent white, and 2 percent Asian.

Comparing these schools helps to grasp the meaning of the FAFSA completion rate, a measure of how many high school students have filled out the tedious federal application for college financial aid. At LASA, compared to last year, the FAFSA completion rate is up about 40 percent. At Northeast, compared to last year, that completion rate is down 65 percent.

Across the country and under our watch, 50,000 fewer high school students have completed the FAFSA application this year over last, reports the National College Attainment Network (NCAN). As our tale of two schools shows, within the overall decline lies a discouragement gap, where a 40 percent uptick at one school is contrasted against a 65 percent drop-off at another.

“In 2018, high school graduates missed out on $2.6 billion in free assistance for college because they did not submit a FAFSA,” says an Apr. 23 letter to the Department of Education (ED), signed by Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-TX) and 25 other members of Congress. “2020 is on track to be even worse, with FAFSA completion rates continuing to decline during the COVID-19 pandemic.” The letter asks ED to boost visibility of FAFSA and reach out to students more proactively.

Doggett’s district includes the LASA campus. The Northeast campus is captured within the district lines of Rep. Mike McCaul (R-TX), who was not a signatory to the Doggett letter. A May 9 search for “FAFSA” at McCaul’s official House website “yielded no results.”

The Retention Slide

While lagging FAFSA completion rates are troubling enough among economically disadvantaged high school students, an even larger problem is brewing among students already in college who are not renewing their FAFSA applications.

NCAN’s data guru Bill DeBaun reported May 6 that a quarter million college students who could be returning in the Fall have not yet completed their FAFSA renewals. “This cycle’s declines in FAFSA renewals have more than doubled since Feb. 29,” reports DeBaun, calling attention to a date two weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic was officially declared a national emergency by the President on Friday the 13th in March.

As our two-school comparison illustrates, declines are steeper in FAFSA rates among our most economically disadvantaged students. “With more data points now available, a grim picture for future enrollment at higher education institutions is beginning to emerge,” writes Owen Daugherty, staff reporter for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA).

Civil Rights

Polling results confirm these grim anticipations. Based on a late-April survey conducted by the women-owned firm SimpsonScarborough, 26 percent of enrolled college students say they are not likely to come back in the Fall. That’s a 12 percentage-point increase in pessimism compared to late March.

The SimpsonScarborough report documents a few more civil rights impacts of the COVID-19 landscape. Forty one percent of “minority” high school seniors are reluctant to commit to college in the Fall, compared to 24 percent of white students.

Thirty three percent of minority students report that “their top choice school has changed” due to COVID-19, compared to 15 percent of white students. And, among today’s enrolled college students, 32 percent of minority students say it’s unlikely they will go back to college in the Fall, compared to 22 percent of white students.

On the other hand, 18 percent of “minority” students would rather go ahead and finish with an online-only education, compared to 13 percent of white students.

Solutions Delayed

As the writings of Rep. Doggett, NCAN, and NASFAA demonstrate, there is a vigilant and organized community of support for disadvantaged students. The question is, will there be leverage enough to ensure that college student relief is amply funded in the next rescue package, styled HEROES.

Public funding for higher ed has already taken two big hits this century. And while the Recovery Act of 2009 filled a sizable pothole at the time, some states “are still well below pre-recession levels of state funding while a handful have recovered,” says a comprehensive review by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO). “Most states have increased tuition revenues to more than make up for cuts in state funding for higher education, but almost one-third still have lower total revenue than before the Great Recession.”

As the real SHEEO tells it, slowly but surely, public support for higher education has eroded throughout the century, offloading more of the financial burden onto tuition, which in turn gets shoveled into multi-decade burdens of student-loan debt.

The battle for college relief in HEROES is not just about filling the pothole that the pandemic is causing these days. The deeper question of HEROES is whether America is going to wake up to the social value of higher education as we enter the third decade of the 21st Century. Rip Van Winkle slept for 20 years. Don’t we think it’s time to wake up?

College students do benefit, by and large, from their college experience. They are more prosperous as a group and have greater well-being. Furthermore, the communities that surround college campuses are nourished by the relative well-being of college life.

The question is, do we want to continue making college students to pay an increasing share of the complete structure of higher ed, like some fee for service, or do we want to start increasing our support from the public treasury, because a well-educated state is a wise public investment.

Student Leadership

Young Invincibles last Wednesday released a 5-point plan to protect young people: (1) job creation through tax credits and subsidies, (2) stimulus payments that do not swerve way around young people or DACA families, (3) food subsidies that reach more than three percent of college students, and (4) Medicaid expansion combined with access to the Affordable Care Act that, again, does not fence out DACA students. The final point (5) calls on Congress to “Make Higher Education Work Better for Students.

“At a time of unprecedented investment in the national economy and direct support for individuals, Congress should move to make a long-overdue commitment to public higher education,” argue Young Invincibles. “Congress should form partnerships with states that preserve student access and affordability.”

Finally, Young Invincibles speak of the elephant in the room: the student loan system of higher ed finance.

“More than 43 million Americans bear a collective total of more than $1.7 trillion in outstanding student loan debt,” state the Young Invincibles. Two months ago that sounded like a whole lot of money, that is, until the first CARES Act rang up a bill of $2 trillion or until the Federal Reserve Bank announced what Brookings calls “$2.3 trillion in lending to support households, employers, financial markets, and state and local governments” plus “$1 trillion in daily overnight repo.”

Whichever way we calculate the cost of doing too little for higher ed right now, we cannot forget that any average estimate of social damage in America always hides a discouragement gap that intensifies negative impacts along Civil Rights lines. Real support for young people across the board will be necessary to any rising tide in Civil Rights.

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Greg Moses writes about peace and Texas, but not always at the same time. He is author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. As editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review he has written about racism faced by Black agriculturalists in Texas. Moses is a member of the Texas Civil Rights Collaborative. He can be reached at

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