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Zachary Steward sees himself building a career in law, public policy, politics, or social work, fields where he could support marginalized communities. “So often I’ve seen that those who either look like me, or other racial and ethnic minorities, or minorities in general, they just aren’t seen,” says Steward, who is Black. “And if they are seen, they aren’t listened to enough, and it’s disheartening. And it’s sad. And it’s maddening.”

If it weren’t for the pandemic, Steward would be a junior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, double majoring in African-American studies and legal studies with a minor in psychology. But family financial difficulties, plus the loss of his on-campus job, left him unable to afford tuition for fall 2020. He says the university gave him two options: a payment plan of $900 per month or private loans. Neither seemed feasible.

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Steward is now living in Belmont and working two jobs, trying to save up the money needed to clear his student account balance so that he can re-enroll in school. In February, he created a GoFundMe campaign seeking $30,000 (at press time, he was about $2,500 away from his goal).

COVID’s financial fallout is causing widespread disruption in students’ college plans. According to a Gallup survey, one-third of students enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs in the United States considered leaving college last year; one-third of those said cost was a driving factor. Reports show that statewide, fewer high school seniors, especially those who are Black, Hispanic, or Latino, are filling out financial aid forms for the fall 2021 semester.

Korinne Peterson considers the drop in financial aid applications ominous. She leads the financial office at UMass Dartmouth and is an executive council member of the Massachusetts Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. “We’re seeing families with a lot of changed circumstances,” Peterson says.

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‘56 % of college students say they can no longer afford tuition because of COVID’

OneClass survey, June 2020

Pandemic pressures are butting up against ever-increasing college costs, with an uncertain job market on the horizon. From 2008 to 2019, the price of an undergraduate degree jumped 28 percent at US public colleges and 19 percent at private nonprofit institutions, after adjusting for inflation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Meanwhile, Black college graduates have $25,000 more in student loan debt than white graduates and are more likely to struggle financially while paying it back, according to educationdata.org.

Tuition isn’t the only financial barrier that can keep students from finishing college. Some have turned to the nonprofit Alray Scholars Program, which helps Boston public school graduates who’ve had to put their college studies on pause to return and finish their degrees. During the pandemic, the organization has been helping with groceries and laptops for remote learning, too. “We found that some of our students were using their phones for their schoolwork,” says Janet Altman, Alray’s executive director. “Try doing a 30-page paper on a phone.” (Alray was founded by Neil Swidey, the Globe Magazine’s editor at large.)

Though Alray participants experienced major disruptions in their lives because of COVID, far fewer had to leave school than Altman had originally feared. “These students are resilient,” she says. “They have the determination and the tenacity to go back to school and earn a degree, and hopefully boost their earning power. They get it. And they put in the hard work for it.” Alray received around 40 applications in October, almost double the typical number for that time of year.

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Peterson says college financial aid offices need students to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to determine their eligibility for financial help. She worries that this year, families will assume the process won’t help them because the form asks about the applicant’s financial situation from two years ago — before COVID devastated many families and obliterated jobs and industries. But, she points out, filling out the FAFSA makes families eligible to submit a financial aid appeal, and financial aid offices will work with students to update aid packages if changes are significant enough.

As for Zachary Steward, he remains involved with the Racial Justice Coalition, an on-campus initiative. He would’ve stayed at UMass if he could have. “I had fostered a pretty good community at UMass,” he says, “and the work that I’ve been doing has definitely shaped, and it continues to shape, what I eventually want to do.”


This story is part of a special report was produced in collaboration with an Emerson College writing and publishing course led by assistant professor Susanne Althoff, a former editor of the Globe Magazine. Mary Mangual is pursuing a master’s degree. Send comments to magazine@globe.com