By Ansleigh Edwards

Higher education has undergone vast change since the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.

When school systems closed within a matter of days, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said institutions were blindsided and the crucial planning to thoughtfully transition from in-person to remote did not happen.

“It was this huge domino effect, between Thursday and Monday everything had closed down,” Weingarten said.

According to reports from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, college enrollment dropped nationwide in fall 2020 by around 560,000, compared to fall 2019.

Factors that led students to take time off, pursue a gap year or even drop out of college continue to obstruct students from achieving their academic goals. New data from CNBC shows that 25% of students postponed college amid the pandemic, with some students choosing to postpone indefinitely.

While strict COVID-19 restrictions remain in place in many states, most colleges and universities across the U.S. have returned to mostly in-person learning. With this return to a sense of normalcy, many students find themselves grappling with the financial ramifications caused by the pandemic.

When the pandemic closed college campuses for remote learning in spring 2020, Griffin Clark, a junior business student at College of Coastal Georgia, couldn’t justify continuing to pay full tuition for virtual instruction.

Instead, he chose to withdraw from school for the remainder of the school year and devoted his time to working full-time.

For Clark, the return to in-person classes didn’t make things easier. Just months before he was expected to return to school, he sustained a rotator cuff injury that needed immediate surgery.

Even with instruction back to normal, he knew the experience would prove to be difficult.

“It’s been so long since we’ve seen people,” Clark said. “On top of that, there’s the lack of mobility and I can’t write papers without my dominant arm.”

The decision to forgo another full year of school to undergo the procedure and continue to save money hasn’t been an easy one for Clark.

“I’ve been battling it, some days are definitely better than others,” he said of his recovery from the injury, combined with the isolation of being away from campus.

Across the board, many students believe that virtual learning took away from their college experience, a deliberation which could lead students to further their education through graduate school. Additionally, with remaining economic uncertainty and a changing landscape in the workforce, students are hesitant to jump into jobs.

In a survey conducted by Prospects Luminate, 36% revealed they now plan to pursue more education rather than join the workforce following undergraduate graduation.

For Amanda Bellis, a senior marketing student at the University of Georgia, pursuing graduate school will allow her to gain back much needed time lost in the classroom.

Bellis was recently accepted into UGA’s master’s program in business analytics.

She said another year of school will be a financial commitment, but she hopes that an extra year of school will make up for time lost due to the pandemic.

“Do not get me wrong, I was considering graduate school before covid, but I do feel like it took away from my college experience since I didn’t get a full four years,” Bellis said.

Ansleigh Edwards is a journalism student at the University of Georgia.