COVID-19 has changed life as we know it this year—and mostly in very undesirable ways. That statement might be one of the few things about which Americans can agree this year. The virus has provided a turning point for millions of people, launching us onto unexpected paths that–for some–involve only inconvenience, isolation, and anxiety–but for others brings illness and death.  

We are only beginning to grasp the pandemic’s direct and indirect effects on humans, but already we know that its impact is greatest on the people who already were among society’s most vulnerable.

Last week, we looked ahead to the Third Annual Ride-4-Recovery here in mid-coast Maine. (And a great event it was! Thank you, riders, speakers, and supporters.) Our family members, neighbors, and friends who struggle with Substance Use Disorder can ill afford the kind of isolation that comes with the pandemic.

Dunkins Pierre Speaks to Riders about Recovery

Higher education too has been hit hard by COVID-19, with many institutions turning completely to distance learning or to some hybrid use of it. Needless to say, the “going to college” experience has completely changed, at least until a vaccine becomes available.

Recent high school graduates from families of a certain socio-economic level may embrace the idea of a “gap year,” but first-generation college students face no such option. They’ve taken jobs, if they can get one. Often, low-income students attend public institutions, including community colleges, but even these workhorses of higher education, designed to help just such students, are experiencing lower enrollment than usual this year.

The latest crisis: Low-income students are dropping out of college this fall in alarming numbers

Many low-income students say they don’t have good enough WiFi at home to take online courses.

A recent article in the Washington Post, The latest crisis: Low-income students are dropping out of college this fall in alarming numbers tells the story of a young woman who this fall “became the first person in her family to go to college—and the first to drop out.” (Main photo by Stacy Kranitz for the Washington Post.)

Lack of access to WiFi did her in. “The local library turned her away, not wanting anyone sitting around during the pandemic. She spent hours in a McDonald’s parking lot, using the fast-food chain’s Internet, but she kept getting kicked off her college’s virtual classes because the network wasn’t ‘safe. Two weeks after starting at Roane State Community College, she gave up.”

Washington Post writers Heather Long and Danielle Douglas-Gabriel describe this as a national trend: “Low-income students are the most likely to drop out or not enroll at all, raising fears that they might never get a college degree.”

Consequence? Bill DeBraun, data director for the National College Attainment Network, sounds the alarm. “The ultimate fear is this could be a lost generation of low-income students.”

Some schools are working creatively to help students facing such problems. The same article reports that Pennsylvania’s Harrisburg Area Community College “has given out hundreds of computers to needy students and ‘close to 400’ hotspots.” HAAC’s President fears, however, that the multitude of life challenges, including those related to COVID-19, will cause low-income students to give up on college.

How can you help low-income students? Consider NOT giving to your alma mater this time around. If you attended an institution that is recognized as an upper tier school, chances are they really don’t need your contribution. Your local community college or similar state-supported university has funds to help their students in need. You might be throwing a lifeline to someone who will go on to do great things in your community. You can be the person who creates a truly valuable turning point in the year of COVID.

Ned Bachus is the author of Open Admissions: What Teaching at Community College Taught Me About Learning (Wild River Books, 2017) and of the TURNING POINTS blog on City of Brotherly Love (Fleur-de-Lis Books), his book of stories, was awarded the 2013 IPPY Gold Medal for Literary Fiction.