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Reimagining the Road to Graduation

The Need for Extraordinary Systems to Get Students to and Through College

What are the lived experiences of young people navigating the road to and through college during COVID-19?



Mel   /   Anna   /   Xavier   /   Frankie   /   Alejandro


Meet Mel

Mel is a junior in high school in Minnesota’s Twin Cities who is passionate about criminology and business management. She wants to go to college and eventually earn her bachelor’s degree, but she has questions:

“For college, I'm worried about adapting to the community. When I get there, will I fit in? I'm the first generation in my family to go to college and I don't have any adults to talk to about this stuff.” 

Although she was concerned about college affordability before the pandemic, COVID-19 has created new financial pressure for Mel and her family. Her older sister started at a two-year college to avoid taking on excessive debt and to provide emotional support to their mom, who is a single parent. Now, Mel is wondering whether she should follow the same path as her sister. “I was planning to go to a four-year school but now I’m reconsidering. If I have to learn online at a four-year school it’s going to be additional stress. And a two-year school will be financially better, too.”

One challenge Mel has faced in the wake of COVID-19 is the switch to online coursework. Sometimes she doesn’t realize when her assignments are due, and it’s hard to keep on top of everything. In addition to school, Mel works about 15 hours per week at Target. “COVID-19 is like a reset. I need to find new ways of studying. It’s like an uphill battle, but there is nothing I can do.”

Mel is also grappling with the unrest in her community following George Floyd’s death. Tensions and violence have intensified, and many students fear for their physical safety. “I was interested in criminology before, but the death of George Floyd reinforced that. My mom worries about the police and the justice system. But to start the change you have to be involved and be educated.”

Mel has stayed connected with her friends and classmates through her high school’s Black Student Union. She has also grown closer to her mom and sister, spending more quality time with them while attending school virtually.

The biggest question on Mel’s mind is: “How can I find a college that is affordable and will set me up for my long-term goals to serve my community?”

Mel’s Supporters

Family: Mel’s older sister provides a lot of emotional support to Mel and their mom. She is Mel’s go-to family member to ask questions about college, since she is also a first-generation college-goer. Her sister works long hours, though, and like Mel, is balancing work, life, and school stressors. 

Peers: Mel participates in the Black Student Union affinity group, which is a source of belonging; the group hosts virtual meetings and organizes student advocacy. Her peers validate Mel’s experience of being Black at a predominantly white school, and their camaraderie has been helpful in processing the ongoing strife in her community since George Floyd’s death.

Counselor: Mel’s high school guidance counselor helped her complete the FAFSA form, and was intentional about engaging Mel’s mom so she could understand all the forms, too. Even though the counselor is only available virtually since the pandemic started, Mel relies on her for a range of concerns related to college — and beyond.

Learn more about these and other supporters in students’ lives here.

Mel's Challenges

Students are having to adapt quickly to new technology platforms, develop communication skills to engage teachers, practice diligent time management, and learn through virtual (often asynchronous) instruction. 

There are acute tradeoffs between paying tuition for a largely remote college experience versus pausing schooling to seek employment. Students may wonder whether putting college on hold to enter the workforce is a more rewarding option than sitting through virtual courses.

Fitting in at college is a big worry. Students who are in the first generation of their family to attend college often feel like “imposters” or outsiders in a college environment.

Learn more about the challenges students are facing here

Recommendations for Supporting Mel

K-12 schools and college access organizations can explore creative and informal modes of connecting students to counselors and mentors (e.g., virtual check-ins, texting, social media).

Counselors can bring families into the conversation about FAFSA and college planning.

K-12 schools and institutions of higher education can support students who want to create affinity groups and other peer-to-peer connections.

View our full set of recommendations here.