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Women of color disproportionately reenrolled in college during the pandemic

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

During the pandemic, the overall number of students in college dropped sharply, but nearly 1 million people who had left school before COVID actually went back mid-pandemic. And among those students, women of color led the way. Kirk Carapezza of member station GBH in Boston reports.

KIRK CARAPEZZA, BYLINE: Zena Bennett (ph) had a decent job as a pharmacy technician when she enrolled in community college.

ZENA BENNETT: I decided I'm going to enroll in school even if it's part-time.

CARAPEZZA: Her goal was simple - to make more money. She started night classes in fall 2019. Months later, in the spring that COVID hit, she developed vertigo and had to quit both her job and her classes in the middle of the term.

BENNETT: I was working, like, 8- to 10-hour shifts a day. When I got the vertigo, I wasn't even able to stand, like, 8 to 10 minutes on my own.

CARAPEZZA: Bennett identifies as Black and Native American, and she says her illness gave her hours and hours stuck at home to think about her career. She decided to go back to school full time. More than a year later, as soon as she was well enough, she did.

BENNETT: I'm an ambitious person, and if there's anything that I want, like, I'm going to get it.

CARAPEZZA: Data from the National Student Clearinghouse shows that during the 2021 school year, at the height of the pandemic, more women who had previously dropped out went back to school than men. Among Black, Latinx and Native American students, the gap was huge. Nearly twice as many women reenrolled than men. More white and Asian women reenrolled than men in those groups, too, but the gaps were not nearly as large. Economist Nicole Smith of Georgetown University isn't surprised. She says women, specifically women of color, have long turned to education just to level the playing field.

NICOLE SMITH: So women know that they need an extra credential, one extra degree in order to earn what a man with one less credential are earning. Black women understand this, and they're going to school to try to get to that wage.

CARAPEZZA: Smith notes that when the pandemic dried up jobs in retail, hospitality and day care and school went online, women had an opportunity as well as a need to go back to school. But she says at the same time, men, including men of color, found other opportunities as the need for truck drivers and warehouse workers spiked.

SMITH: For young men, the pandemic really created a lot of opportunities. There are many occupations that young Black males can still earn a good living with just a high school diploma and some amount of training.

CARAPEZZA: More good entry-level job opportunities has long been tied to fewer students going back to school. That's why colleges across the country, including California State University, the City University of New York and Bunker Hill Community College here in Boston, offer special programs for men of color. Evans Erilus runs Bunker Hill's peer support group to recruit and retain men of color, trying to keep students from dropping out or get them to come back. He says he's fighting what he sees as a fear of failure.

EVANS ERILUS: Whether it's cool pose amongst the Black community or machismo amongst the Latino community, I think that's what's kind of getting in the way of things.

CARAPEZZA: His work started before COVID but has ramped up since.

ERILUS: I think what it comes down to is mattering and feeling a sense of comfort.

CARAPEZZA: That feeling can make all the difference. Marc Ramirez (ph) dropped out of college after having a child. During the pandemic, he decided to reenroll at Bunker Hill because of its support group.

MARC RAMIREZ: I just feel like with men, sometimes we are stuck thinking, like, oh, like, I have to make money now. Like, if I have a kid, I got to go make money now. I can't think long-term.

CARAPEZZA: Across town at Roxbury Community College, Zena Bennett, a mother of two, is wrapping up her associate's degree and already thinking ahead.

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CARAPEZZA: On a frigid morning, she rushes across campus to the library. When she recovered from her illness and reenrolled, she decided to study health care.

BENNETT: I'm a natural healer, so I feel like my purpose here is to take care of people, to give them that comfort. That's just something that I have to do.

CARAPEZZA: So after she earns her degree this spring, she wants to continue her education and become a registered nurse. For NPR News, I'm Kirk Carapezza in Roxbury, Mass. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kirk Carapezza
Kirk is a reporter for the NPR member station in Boston, WGBH, where he covers higher education, taking the time to capture the distinct voices of students and faculty, administrators and thought leaders.