The Cover Story
Applying to College Was Never Easy for Most Students. The Pandemic Made It Nearly Impossible
By Katie Reilly
Staff Writer, TIME

Anyone who remembers high school—or who has watched a coming-of-age film in the last few decades—can recall the dual feelings of stress and excitement that come with standing on the precipice of adulthood, figuring out the next step.

The pandemic complicated all of that for the Class of 2021, making school more challenging and the college application process more daunting, especially for the most vulnerable students. For the new cover of TIME, my story looks at how the coronavirus disrupted the pathway to college for many of them. I began this reporting after numbers showed that freshman enrollment in college had plummeted in fall 2020, especially among low-income students, first-generation college goers and students of color. And for those who think student loans are the answer, my colleague Alana Semuels explains how graduating with college debt can alter the trajectory of one's life. Her story details the barriers college graduates encounter when they try to access loan forgiveness programs.

Guidance counselors—who, by this time of year, would have typically turned their attention to younger students—described how they’re still working overtime to track down seniors and get them across the finish line of graduation.

I spoke with teenagers who lost touch with the friends, coaches and teachers who were once their lifeline as they navigated this school year under the weight of multiple crises, taking jobs to support their families, guiding younger siblings through online learning and applying for rental assistance while also applying for college. Many students have found it hard to focus on homework assignments or financial aid forms in the midst of so much turmoil.

“We’re supposed to be the future,” one high school senior told me. “And I’m not sure how the future will be for us.”

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