Some would-be first-year students stayed home out of fear they'd contract the virus or spread it to vulnerable family members. Others stuck around to support siblings with online learning. And some chose to work after a parent was furloughed or had their hours cut.

Next fall isn't looking promising, either. Applications for federal financial aid, a key indicator of intent to enroll in college, are down across the country, and more than 40% of prospective students in one recent survey said they may delay starting a one- to two-year program. In California, where students had to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid by March 2 to be guaranteed a shot at state aid, applications for the Cal Grant were down several percentage points from the year before as of mid-April.

Now, with many state and school scholarship deadlines fast approaching or already passed, districts, colleges and higher ed access groups are scrambling to prevent a repeat of this year's enrollment decline and get the high school class of 2020 back on track.

The stakes are high. If first-year enrollment at two-year schools doesn't rebound next fall, not only will those colleges' finances suffer, but thousands of individuals could be left unqualified for the jobs expected to shape the post-pandemic economic recovery. Following the last recession, nearly all the positions created went to workers with at least some college education.

"They won't have an opportunity to break the cycle of poverty," said Kim Cook, executive director of the National College Attainment Network.

Here are four ways school districts, colleges and access groups can help ensure students enroll.

  1. Talk to students
  2. Go 'old school'
  3. Sell yourself
  4. Prove you're worth it

Read the full article about college enrollment during the pandemic by Kelly Field at Higher Education Dive.