By COLIN BERESFORD of NerdWallet

The pandemic has upended what it meant to be a student as new barriers to learning emerged in the spring of 2020: in-person classes were forced online, family obligations became more pronounced, and economic hardship spread.

“All of these factors came together to create this perfect storm,” says Mamie Voight, president and CEO of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a nonprofit focused on college access. She says students from low-income backgrounds and those with responsibilities outside of school — like jobs and children — faced the toughest challenges.

According to National Student Clearinghouse Research Center estimates, there were 5.1% fewer students enrolled in fall 2021 than in fall 2019. And between fall 2019 and fall 2020, the percentage of students re-enrolling has declined the most since 2009.

Still, it might be time to come back, especially if you’ve had to be away for the past two years. A strong labor market and increases in earnings for low-wage workers may, at first glance, make higher education less attractive. But the long-term picture remains clear.

Those without a college education see a median lifetime income of $1.6 million, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. That’s $1.2 million less than the median lifetime earnings of $2.8 million for bachelor’s degree holders. The median associate degree holder sees lifetime earnings of $2 million.

“For students, the answer is pretty clear: going to college is a better economic choice than not going,” says Voight. “And re-enrollment, if you quit… will make all the difference in terms of job opportunities and salary growth over a person’s lifetime.”

The longer you wait to go back, the less likely you are to graduate, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. And for those who have delayed entering college, it comes at a cost: The Federal Reserve Bank of New York estimates that postponing college for a year results in a potential loss of $90,000 in lifetime earnings.

Although the difficulties of the pandemic have not disappeared, colleges are better equipped to help students overcome the obstacles.

COLLEGES HAVE ADAPTED TO NEW EXPECTATIONS AND NEEDS

Students have returned to campuses, but many colleges are keeping the changes they made.

Community and four-year colleges have adapted to better reach students, says Matt Bergman, associate professor of organizational leadership at the University of Louisville.

“We have so many opportunities for students to come back in ways they couldn’t have done as recently as five years ago,” adds Bergman, who studies the learning of adults and graduation.

Course offerings have become more flexible, with in-person and virtual classes as well as hybrid formats, says Bergman. They are also becoming available in synchronous (learning with a class) and asynchronous (learning at your own pace) formats.

Community colleges have made many changes to meet the needs of their students, according to Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges. These lasting transformations can make it easier for students to return to school.

“I think the pandemic has changed the landscape of course offerings and that change is going to last,” Parham said. “So it looks different in different places, different students, different colleges, but there are a lot of services and programs in place to ensure student success at all levels.”

STUDENT SUPPORT IS AVAILABLE

This fall, college students have more federal financial support available than in the past.

The Maximum Annual Pell Grant, aid you don’t have to repay, has increased from $400 to $6,895 for the upcoming academic year. Eligibility for the Pell Scholarship is determined by your financial situation and the cost of attending the institution you are considering. To be eligible, you must submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA.

Many colleges also have more financial resources than in the past, thanks to the $76.3 billion in federal pandemic relief funds provided to institutions across the country.

“Right now, in particular, is a great time to go to community colleges because they have so many resources directly available to students,” Parham says, including tuition and book funding, transportation, food and housing assistance and technology. .

If you need daycare, choose the school that offers it, Bergman says. If you have work experience, look for colleges that offer prior learning assessments, giving you college credit for the skills you learn. The important thing is to choose a school that best suits your needs, adds Bergman.

Finding the right school can be as simple as visiting a school’s website or calling the admissions office to inquire about the resources they offer.

Fall application deadlines are well past four-year colleges, but you can often apply to community college shortly before the semester begins. If your goal is to earn a bachelor’s degree, going to a community college transfer can save you money — but be sure to plan your coursework to ensure credits transfer to a bachelor’s-granting institution.