by Ella Gotbaum
For the handful of weeks he spent as a freshman in college, Nathaniel Gotbaum* dreaded waking up for class. Every breakfast was devoted to mentally preparing himself to log onto Zoom, where he would spend half the time attempting to follow the lecture as the internet connection cut in and out. The other half was spent praying that the other students, none of whom he had ever met, weren’t looking at him from behind their blank boxes on his screen.
He rarely spoke in class, soon opting to keep his camera off at all times. Assignments for his theatre major that had previously been habitual to him, such as reciting monologues, became points of severe anxiety. With increased isolation and a lack of resources, the toll on his mental health worsened as he began missing emails, assignments and meals.
“I’ve never really had academic issues before, but suddenly it felt nearly impossible to keep up with school and take care of myself at the same time,” Gotbaum, 19, said. “Especially with no teachers, advisors or friends there to support me.”
After countless dropped Wi-Fi connections and a few panic attacks, Gotbaum withdrew just before midterms and was promptly emailed a bill for $10,000. He had only been on SUNY Purchase’s campus for 17 days.
Gotbaum isn’t alone in his choice to put his education on pause, with a U.S. Census survey reporting that 16 million Americans have canceled plans to go to college because of factors relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many didn’t apply at all, with college tuition deposits down 8.4 percent and 100,000 fewer high school seniors completing college financial aid applications in 2020, according to research done by the Education Advisory Board.
As students face physical and mental health scares, lost jobs and mounting student loans, many say they feel like all odds are against them.
“I realized I couldn’t do it anymore when I saw my bill after the fall semester,” said Lynn Woodley, 19, who studied psychology at York College of Pennsylvania. “It was $20,000 even after all the scholarships and aid, and I felt sick admitting to myself that I hadn’t really learned a thing.”
As the pandemic continues to take a devastating economic toll, Woodley is just one of thousands of students who feel unable to stay in school due to financial insecurity. An August 2020 survey taken by the U.S. Census Bureau showed that students with family incomes under $75,000 are almost twice as likely to cancel all plans to take classes this fall as students from families with incomes over $100,000.
According to research done by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, once a college student drops out, fewer than one in five return to school and even fewer graduate. As freshman enrollment at community colleges among Native American, Black and Hispanic students drops by up to 29%, educators worry that the pandemic’s impact on students could have grave effects in the long run.
The choice to withdraw can be as costly as the tuition, with the average college dropout making 35% less than a graduate, and Bill DeBaun, the National College Attainment Network’s data director, told the Washington Post that “the ultimate fear is this could be a lost generation of low-income students.”
For Katherine Vasilkin, the choice to drop out of SUNY Geneseo came soon after the pandemic hit. Vasilkin, a 21-year-old former international relations major, became frustrated one day when her “ancient” computer shut off unexpectedly in the middle of a Zoom class.
“It just hit me how stupid it all was,” she said, laughing bitterly. “My family and I simply can’t afford to pay an arm and a leg for a handful of online quizzes and call it an education.”
Vasilkin, who now works at a Brooklyn hot pot restaurant, said that months later, she still feels resentment around her decision to drop out. “COVID has shown me how ugly the college system is, honestly,” she said. “The constant stress of having to finance my education during a pandemic...took away any joy I once had for learning.”
*Full disclosure: Gotbaum is the reporter’s brother