Lay Lay, Let Let, and Saylia Moo are close friends who hope to attend college together. As first-generation students, navigating the college application process remotely has been tricky. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

St. Paul high school seniors Saylia Moo, Lay Lay, and Let Let have a lot in common. 

Lay Lay and Let Let, who are twins, recently turned 18, and so did their friend Saylia. They all came to the United States from Karen refugee camps in Thailand as young children. They work part time at Panera Bread, and they want to attend the University of Minnesota to study biology and pursue health care careers. Before the pandemic, they all volunteered at Regions Hospital. 

Also, they all thought they would have more college applications submitted by now. Without the structures of in-person school, however, the process has been challenging.

“It is harder mentally because we kind of have to be our own support,” Lay Lay said. “Sure, we get support from our school, but it’s virtual and we don’t get that connection.”

One major hurdle: figuring out the financial aid paperwork.

“You’re never taught how to look at a tax form and what those numbers mean,” Saylia said. “Our parents don’t know how to help, they don’t know what to do. They don’t read English. That’s just really hard.”

Typically, high schools host FAFSA nights to show students and their parents how to fill out the form with a clunky name: Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This is the process that qualifies students for loans and grants. In person, counselors can demonstrate how lines on tax forms match questions on the FAFSA, and help families make connections between the different documents. 

That’s harder over Zoom. Counselors can tell students how to fill out the forms and demonstrate on a shared screen, but that’s different from showing them in person.

“They can’t help us do it ourselves,” Lay Lay said. “Once you’re alone again, you’re like, Oh shoot. What do I do?”

The teens’ experience is not uncommon. Nationwide, the number of high school students completing the FAFSA has dropped by 17 percent compared to this time last year, according to the National College Attainment Network, a nonprofit focused on college access for underrepresented students. At Minnesota high schools with high populations of students of color, the rate of FAFSA completion is 29 percent lower than last year. 

It’s not the only sign that opportunity gaps may be widening for this year’s high school seniors. Common App, which allows students to apply to many colleges through one application, reports that Minnesota applications are flat this year compared to last year. That is, the same number of students are submitting them. But applications have dropped 16 percent from Minnesota students whose parents didn’t attend college.

These numbers are preliminary. Final application deadlines haven’t yet passed, and counselors say some students may have delayed making plans in an uncertain time. But the trend has some experts worried.

The graduating high school class of 2020 saw a 22 percent drop in immediate college enrollment, compared to the class of 2019, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. That decline was most acute for students in high-poverty high schools and in community college enrollment. 

For many students who are first in their families to attend college, higher education represents an opportunity to find more career choices and financial stability than their parents had. Some experts say that delaying or opting out of college due to the pandemic could leave a generation behind.

A decision to put off college now could have life-long ramifications, explained Kumar Balasubrahmanyan, the senior director of community partnerships and engagement for College Possible, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that provides college access support for high school students. That’s especially problematic for students who are already economically marginalized.

“I really hope that students are able to still stay focused on the future,” Balasubrahmanyan said. “But we do know that students who don’t enroll in college right after graduating high school are less likely to get a degree in a six-year time frame.” 

If students delay college, hoping for more favorable conditions—an end to the pandemic, guaranteed in-person learning, better financial circumstances—it’s less likely they will go at all, he said. “By that point in their life, other barriers might have arisen that prevent them from taking advantage.”

‘Without school, we have to find that motivation ourselves’

When they’re not thinking about school, Lay Lay, Let Let, and Saylia enjoy hanging out at each other’s homes, eating ramen noodles with spicy rice cakes. They experiment with makeup and dressing up. They’re organizing a COVID-19 school supply drive for families in need. And they like to go on outdoor adventures: biking, hiking, swimming. This summer, they went cliff diving at the quarry in St. Cloud.

Standing on the cliff looking down at the deep waters below was scary, they said. But once they jumped in, the water was refreshing.

“It took me forever to decide if I’m going to jump or not,” Lay Lay said. “But once I do it—”

“It’s nice,” Saylia interjected.

“Kind of like high school,” Lay Lay laughed. “We’re scared, it took a lot of courage to jump. But once you’re done, you’re just done.”

Diving into the college application process has been daunting, too. The teens have needed to figure a lot of things out on their own, with remote support from school. Besides the FAFSA, they’ve tackled the Common App, the scholarship search, and budgeting for college.

Lay Lay and Let Let, who attend Humboldt High School in St. Paul, say their counselor has been responsive to their emails when they need help. But it’s not the same over Zoom. “I gotta be in person,” Lay Lay said.

Saylia attends St. Paul’s Highland Park High School, a larger school where her counselor has a higher caseload. That means she doesn’t always get a response right away, she said. When Saylia needs to schedule an appointment with her counselor, there’s sometimes nothing available, she said. 

Kim Esso, Saylia’s counselor, works with 350 students, a third of them seniors. Esso told Sahan Journal that at the start of the school year, counselors responded every day to 150 student emails. And she often had 20 Google Meets a day. Since the rush at the beginning of the year calmed down, it’s easier for students to make an appointment. And the online scheduling system has largely worked well, she said. But it’s not the same as being able to connect with students in person.

In a traditional school environment, students can pop into a counselor’s office to ask a question without having to schedule an appointment. They may run into adults in the hallway or the cafeteria and get reminders to finish their applications. They can ask a teacher for a letter of recommendation at the end of class.

But without gathering in a school building, checking those boxes becomes more complicated. “High school students’ brains are still developing,” Balasubrahmanyan said. “They require a lot of reminders and support. Without the consistent engagement and reminders, it can be harder for students to take some of those steps on their own.”

Let Let has experienced that feeling. “Our motivation is not so high right now,” she said. “If we were in school, we would have counselors talking to us about our college applications, we have support groups. But without school, or any of the staff or adults helping us, it’s basically we have to do everything on our own, and find that motivation ourselves.”

‘Forget dreams. Can I pay this?’

The looming financial stress of college also means the three friends have to figure out how to pay for it. Here, distance learning is an advantage: Their school schedules are now more accommodating to the jobs that help them save for college. 

They’re also applying for scholarships, but those feel like a “game,” Saylia said. They never know if the time they put into the scholarship application will pay off. 

“That’s why we work,” Saylia said. “Because the only thing you can actually depend on is the actual income that we’re seeing.”

“Forget dreams,” Lay Lay added with a laugh. “Can I pay this?”

The twins each work 20 to 25 hours a week making sandwiches and salads at Panera Bread. Saylia works there two days a week, and also has two more jobs as an organizer and a phone canvasser for the Asian American Organizing Project, a local youth organizing nonprofit. 

They’re grateful for the opportunity to earn money, but it can be challenging to balance work and school responsibilities, college applications, and pandemic stresses. “With work and everything you feel tired,” Let Let said. “Then you have to come home and do homework. Sometimes you just want to rest and watch a movie. But you don’t have time for that.”

When Saylia’s parents contracted COVID-19 this fall, they couldn’t work and the family had to quarantine. Though she couldn’t go to her Panera job, Saylia became the primary breadwinner for the family, paying bills with her college savings and continuing to work remotely for the Asian American Organizing Project. 

This level of responsibility is common for first-generation students, Balasubrahmanyan said.

“The students who are responsible for taking care of younger siblings, who are responsible for earning income for their family, trying to balance all of those things with a virtual school and applying to college, they really are at a disadvantage,” he said. “The playing field isn’t fair.”

Supporting seniors from a distance

When it’s not a pandemic, College Possible provides after-school support to low-income high school juniors and seniors. These students apply to participate in a cohort, and their coach guides them through the college application process. Over the last few years, the organization has developed a virtual support program to help students in greater Minnesota. So when the pandemic hit, they pivoted to use the remote program with students in the metro area, Balasubrahmanyan said.

“What our virtual coaching has forced us to do is much more one-on-one support,” he said. “When you have a one-on-one basis, every single coaching conversation that a student is getting is individualized to their needs.” It’s an innovation the program hopes to continue even when in-person instruction resumes, he said. 

It hasn’t all been easy. Sometimes a student just needs the moral support of someone who can sit with them and boost their confidence as they complete an application. Still, 80 percent of the seniors have connected one-on-one with their coach, and the vast majority have submitted a college application, Balasubrahmanyan said.

At Wellstone International High School, in Minneapolis, most of Chris Stoltenberg’s students are relatively new to the country. Stoltenberg works for AchieveMpls, a nonprofit that partners with Minneapolis Public Schools, as the school’s Career and College Center coordinator. In that role, he helps students develop their post-graduation plans. 

When the pandemic hit in March, his role pivoted to helping students meet their immediate needs: delivering food and assisting family members to file for unemployment. 

“They oftentimes have great responsibilities at home or might be the only one here working to support family back home,” Stoltenberg said. Flexibility is key, he said: “meeting the student’s needs first before we talk about geometry or a scholarship or things like that.”

Two fellow counselors and three interns who graduated from Wellstone are also working to support the school’s 60 seniors as they make post-graduation plans. Even with so much personalized attention, it’s been a challenge. They’ve had trouble reaching about a quarter of their seniors. And for many they can reach, the pandemic is changing their plans.

“I think a struggle is just the unknown,” Stoltenberg said. Students who are worried about taking care of their needs in a given week may not have capacity to make plans as far ahead as June. 

That uncertainty is daunting for Esso’s students at Highland Park High School, too. “Some decided, why would I move to Florida if I’m just going to be sitting in my dorm doing online classes?” she said. For first-generation students, it’s especially hard to think about paying so much to go away to college when they don’t know what the experience will be, she said. 

Many students have opted for community college instead of a four-year program, she said. She’s also seeing more seniors choose trade programs or the military. But, she said, the trend away from four-year colleges actually began before the pandemic, as more people have questioned the value of an education plan that can leave students deep in debt.

“I think this will be a year that will look very different,” Esso said. “And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.”

Dreams adapted—and delayed

The pandemic is also influencing some of Stoltenberg’s students to change their career choices. One student who had planned to pursue computer science is now thinking of a career in medicine, he said. For another, the precarity of working in food service through the pandemic has made him see he wants a more secure career.

At Wellstone, FAFSA applications have dropped significantly compared to last year. It’s hard for students to think about higher education when they’re worried about immediate needs, Stoltenberg said. Some students tell him they lost their job and haven’t been able to work for nine months. They need to support their family, they need to pay an immigration lawyer.

“So having to choose between, in a real sense, supporting themselves and their family and education,” he said. “Which unfortunately, I think a senior in high school shouldn’t have to make that decision. But—” he trailed off.

Stoltenberg expects that many of these students are waiting to make plans. Every year, a small percentage of students realizes in April or May that they need to figure out their futures, he said. This year, he anticipates that number will be larger—and he’s bringing on more counseling interns to help them in the spring.

Still, he knows the challenges are even greater at schools with fewer staff that serve more students. Minnesota’s low number of school counselors has dogged the state for years. The numbers have improved somewhat in recent years. But Minnesota’s student-to-counselor ratio is still third highest in the nation, according to 2018 data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. The pandemic has highlighted the need to address that gap, Stoltenberg said.

“In a non-COVID year, that’s an issue, trying to connect to the hundreds on your caseload, let alone now,” he said.

That ratio has improved in St. Paul Public Schools over the years with the help of a push from the union, Esso said. When she started working at Highland Park eight years ago, the school employed three counselors. Now there are five. Still, ideally she’d prefer to have a smaller caseload. “It’s a lot of students to keep track of,” she said.

Creating their own support system

Lay Lay, Let Let, and Saylia may not have in-person help available from their teachers and counselors right now. But they have created an in-person support system for each other.

Together, they figured out the FAFSA. (“It took us all day,” Let Let said.) They’ve each submitted an application to the University of Minnesota. Let Let has already been accepted. Lay Lay received the friend group’s first scholarship, from the Optimist Club. And Saylia has already saved $5,000 for college, half her goal. 

Now the other two are waiting to hear back from the University of Minnesota, because they want to go to college together.

“We basically motivate each other,” Let Let said. “She supports us, we support her.”

“If I find an opportunity for something, I tell them,” Saylia agreed. “If they find something, they’ll tell me. We’ll do everything together.”

“We kind of tell each other what to do,” Lay Lay added. “What keeps us going is our strong friendships.”

Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...