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GUEST COMMENTARY: 40% fewer college applicants brings workforce crisis

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For many years I have been plagued by a concern that the rich get richer as the poor become poorer. Throughout my life, I have seen indicators that confirm my concern. In fact, the gap has widened significantly since my first realization.

While there have been jobs, some of these working opportunities create a situation that requires individuals to hold two or more jobs to survive financially. We know that one way to ensure economic stability for an individual or a family is college degree attainment.

Unfortunately, recent indicators nationally and in Northwest Indiana point to a problem that will widen the gap further due to the pandemic.

The pandemic has devastated families, businesses, and our economy. Close to 500,000 Americans have died this past year from COVID-19. While the spread of the virus is beginning to wane, the economic recovery will take many months and years.

In higher education, a very troubling sign of the impact of the pandemic gives me pause. This year, colleges and universities like Purdue Northwest have received 40% fewer applications for admission for fall 2021. Most troubling, the students who are not applying are first-generation, low income, Pell Grant-eligible and minority high school seniors. The universities that serve this segment of the population are the most diverse in the country and in the state of Indiana.

Statewide, the universities with the most diverse student bodies have seen significantly fewer applicants for fall 2021. This is a national trend, not unique to Indiana, according to the Common App.

Because of the pandemic-related move to online learning in high schools, guidance counselors are finding it difficult to connect with students and university admissions recruiters do not have the usual access to students and their families. For the first generation college student, navigating the admissions process can be daunting without help.

Fewer two-income households

In addition, it is not surprising that some of those lower income families who may have been working two or more jobs are now unemployed or under-employed. In other words, the two-income family has become a single-income family. In a discussion with a server at a local restaurant recently, I was told that both she and her husband have been unemployed at one point during the pandemic. She was lucky enough to regain employment. Her husband was offered part-time re-employment and the couple decided that it would cost more in child care than he would make part-time, so he is staying home with their children. Right now, they can’t even think about attending college or getting additional job training.

According to the Congressional Research Office, workers without a college degree are experiencing unemployment rates as high as 21%. Racial and ethnic minorities also have relatively high unemployment rates at 16.7%. In addition, many potential college students who would have normally worked in high school to save money for college or who are planning to work their way through college cannot find a job to do so. Unemployment for part-time workers is now about 24%.

Another sign of this crisis is the decline in high school students filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Only about 36% of high school seniors have completed the form, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The FAFSA qualifies students for federal, state and university grants and scholarships.

The form can be intimidating to fill out and requires a significant amount of family financial data. But without a completed FAFSA, students are unable to receive Pell Grants, for example. Pell Grants, in addition to other federal, state and university financial aid, can make a college education affordable.

My obvious concern is that we could have a two-year gap in which those who most need a college degree have been displaced due to consequences associated with the pandemic.

Recently, a high school teacher told me about a very bright minority student. The student had long wanted to attend one of the major state institutions. Of course, the student was admitted and awarded significant grants and scholarships. However, her parents now want her to forgo the opportunity so that she can stay home to help with her younger siblings, and they are still unsure about the safety of her leaving home. Again, the economy, the pandemic, e-learning, and other factors of our time may permanently impact the future of this talented individual.

What are the implications for the Northwest Indiana workforce? How will we find the skilled labor needed to care for hospital patients, develop new means of manufacturing, make steel, and educate our children? We will all be affected by our high school seniors not attending Purdue Northwest, Ivy Tech, or Indiana University Northwest.

It is urgent that we work together, as a village, to encourage our first-generation, low income, Pell-eligible and minority high school seniors to apply to college and, to assist with the cost, to fill out the FAFSA form. High school guidance counselors, teachers and university recruiters as well as academic advisers are readily available to assist students and their families. Time is running short for this high school graduating class. The crisis is now.

Thomas Keon is chancellor at Purdue University Northwest. The opinions are the writer's.

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