Jasmine Justice hit her breaking point during the last week of September.
Overwhelmed at the juggling act of three full-time gigs - as a community college student, an employee and a mom - Justice crumbled. She ignored reminder emails from her instructors to send in her assignments. "I wasn't comprehending what I was reading. I was looking at diagrams that made no sense." On Zoom work meetings, she noted her pale complexion and dark under-eye circles. Her appetite disappeared. She snapped at her 17-year-old daughter, Josiah, a high school senior also cooped up inside their small apartment.
"Being a community college student, it's a balancing act," says Justice, 39, a student at Pierce College in Lakewood, Washington, about 50 miles south of Seattle. "And at any moment, the scales could tip."
Across the country, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to upend normalcy and infect Americans, students of every level are trying to adjust to virtual learning and socially distanced schools. But the virus and the ensuing recession have taken a particularly hard toll on community college students like Justice. They're often older, balancing school and full-time work. Many are single parents. Statistically, they're often the first in their family to pursue post-secondary education and likely to come from a lower socioeconomic bracket - which impacts access to distance learning necessities like high-speed internet.
And during the pandemic, they're dropping out, or sidelining their education plans. For these students, delaying their education could have devastating consequences.
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Race- and class-based gaps already rampant in college achievement could grow to a gaping chasm, experts fear, long after the virus is under control.
"We've never experienced anything like (the pandemic) in our lifetime. … The majority of our students are lower-income earners, and if faced with, 'How am I going to put food on the table?' versus 'How am I going to take a class at community college?' we know what one they're going to pick," says Martha Parham at the American Association of Community Colleges. "We already see evidence that the gap is widening - but how do you plan for that when you're building the plane in flight for the students you have?"
Enrollment is already down 8% nationwide - unusual during a recession - and the economic impact could be significant. Community college programs tend to graduate students who feed directly into the workforce, people like nurses, electricians, mechanics and dental hygienists. In 2012, for example, community college-educated workers added roughly $800 billion to the U.S. economy.
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For Justice, now in her third year at Pierce, the possible effects of the pandemic are more personal.
"College degrees show you are capable of completing something, that you have technical knowledge and not just on-the-job training," she says. "You wanna be a boss? Then you need letters after your name."
Online learning brings unexpected expenses
By August, a number of things had gone wrong for Justice. After living with and caring for her sick grandmother the last three years, she and Josiah were forced to move into their own apartment - an expense they hadn't budgeted for - when her grandmother's health deteriorated and she moved to a nursing home. When it became clear schools were going to stay online, Justice purchased at-home internet, another unexpected expense.
She's fortunate, she says, to have a work laptop that she uses for school, though she admits she's not sure if that's technically allowed. And the bills are piling up. She's paying off a car she bought in January. ("It seemed like a good purchase at the time, but now we're stuck at home," she says wryly.) She recently spent $300 on books. A new computer system at Pierce has delayed many loan disbursements, and Justice is still waiting, impatiently, for the rest of her financial aid to come through.
At Pierce, Justice is studying to get her bachelor's of applied science and business management after earning her associate's degree in 2016. The three-year gap in her education came because of caring for her grandmother. She works full-time at Pierce's equity and diversity office, constantly counseling students on the brink of giving up to hang on just a little longer.
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"I don't want them to be like me, stopping and pausing their education. I don't want them to be my age and still trying to get their associate's degree. It's like with smokers who quit: If you give in and give up, it's so hard to start over," Justice says.
But she recognizes the challenges. Students have panicked about a lack of financial aid, worried about an economy hanging in the balance. At least one confessed to Justice that she'd slept in her car, in the school's parking lot, because of money issues. She knows two students who couldn't come back this fall because of COVID-related issues.
"I don't know how we're all holding on, I really don't," Justice says. "Community college is like a second chance at life. We all want to better ourselves and our situations…" Her voice trails off, and she starts crying.
For some, it's a brutal climb.
No internet, long commutes: Rural students hit especially hard
Community colleges have long prided themselves on access, ideal institutions for someone who might not have the time, money or knowledge to navigate the ins and outs of higher ed. Rural schools have been hit especially hard this fall, as they frequently serve a population of students who commute, sometimes long distances, and often don't have internet at home. According to the University of Alabama's Education Policy Center, 584 of the nation's 970 community colleges are rural.
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During the pandemic, leaders like Kevin Boys, president at Southern State Community College in Ohio, worry about students who already were teetering on the edge deciding college is too hard, and too confusing, to navigate during COVID. At Southern State, enrollment fell by 16% this semester compared with last fall.
"We have a lot of first-generation college students who are trying to muddle their way through the admissions process and learn the language of college," says Boys, whose college consists of three campuses in an agricultural area about an hour east of Cincinnati.
"We try really hard to make it user friendly, but I'll be the first to say it doesn't always work. 'What's the bursar's office?' The lack of personal touch right now is tough for community colleges. That's part of our DNA - the hand-holding, the face-to-face interaction."
Many students across the country are missing that hands-on teaching.
About an hour south of Atlanta, Noah Jones and his mom, Pamela, are trying to adapt to a mostly online model. It's not going well.
"I've never been good at classes online," says Noah, 20, who is on the autism spectrum and working to get his heating and coolingcertificate from Southern Crescent Technical College. Noah and his mother have no internet at their home in Griffin, Georgia. "$600 just to install the satellite dish is not an option when you're on a fixed income," Pamela Jones says. So she has to drive her son to campus twice a week to the school library, where scheduled appointments are the only way to access Wi-Fi.
Because of delayed financial aid, Noah didn't get his books until five weeks after classes had started. The $170 laptop they splurged on when classes went online has held up OK so far, but they don't have the money to put any anti-virus software on it. The school loaned out its limited supply of laptops in a matter of days, Pamela Jones said. If Noah's breaks, she's not sure what they'll do.
"This virus," she says, "has really done a number on our country."
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'What if I can't achieve my goals?'
Just outside of Portland, Oregon, Peter Lance is in his third term of nursing school at Mount Hood Community College. When the pandemic hit and schools closed - which meant no in-person labs - Lance was worried his whole cohort would be set back. But this fall, Mount Hood has brought back in-person clinical studies at a local hospital, with students wearing masks and staying socially distanced. Lance is relieved to practice tasks like drawing blood, but being around other nursing students from other schools has been eye-opening.
"It's been good for us to recognize we're not the only ones behind," he says. "There's going to be a whole generation, nationwide if not worldwide," in the same situation.
Lance is fortunate, he says, to have been able to adjust. He knows not every student is in the same position.
"Most people think of college students as young adults who are from upper-middle class backgrounds who go off to some nice looking dorm on a leafy green campus," said Doug Shapiro, executive director at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. He pointed out that recently, Harvard announced 20% of its first-year students decided to defer their enrollment.
"The 20 percent of Harvard's freshman class will be fine," Shapiro says. "Those are students who have a choice."
Others don't, and they're already worried they'll never catch up.
In Ohio, Destiny Smith is also studying nursing. But when the pandemic hit and everything pivoted online, the 19-year-old had to drop out from Southern State. "Not being able to have the teacher explain stuff to me in-person, it messed me up," she says. Because she abruptly dropped out of both spring and summer classes, she's still unsure if she'll get her full financial aid for the fall semester.
Last week, another obstacle arrived. Smith is pregnant, due in late December, and her doctor just put her on bed rest. That means what little in-person interaction she could have on a socially distanced campus is gone.
Already behind, she's worried she'll have to drop out again - and potentially be sidelined for at least a year. She's on academic probation after missing spring and summer.
"I'm really determined to get the degree I need and want," she says. "But it's really stressful - what if I can't achieve my goals?"
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID community college: Students dropping out could devastate economy