Logan Balfantz arrived at the University of Notre Dame last fall considering himself one of the lucky graduates in 2020: His university was among the first to reopen fully in person, so his college plans didn’t change because of the pandemic.
But that smooth transition hit an early hurdle. “About two weeks into the semester, we had a big spike of COVID cases on campus,” he said, “so they called off class in person, and so we were still living residentially in the dorm, but all the students were attending Zoom classes.”
Yet he’s grateful he has been able to remain on campus, unlike some of his classmates from Patrick F. Taylor, a magnet high school in Avondale, La., who he said are still attending college entirely from home.
“We have six now,” he said, referring to his family at home, “and, you know, I love them all, but I just think it’d be a very difficult place to try to do schoolwork.”
Balfantz’s mother and grandparents both had to change cities during the pandemic, and he found himself crashing with other family members while preparing for the move to college.
“Life is just a lot different, a lot of uncertainty,” he said. “When I got a full ride to Notre Dame, I was just like, you know, this is the one thing in my life that gives me stability while all the other things just seem to be all over the place with COVID and moving,” he said.
In persevering into a second year of college, Balfantz is indeed one of the lucky ones. The share of college freshmen who persisted in college the following fall dropped by 2 percentage points from 2019 to 2020, to just under 74 percent, and the share of 2019 freshmen who returned to or earned a credential from their first college by their sophomore year also fell to 66.2 percent, a decline of .7 percentage points. Those represent the largest one-year drops in persistence and retention since the economic recession in 2009, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which tracks college enrollment and attainment.
He’s pursuing a marketing major with minors in education and entrepreneurship and said he hopes to develop new curricular materials for schools.
Balfantz credits his successful transition in part to QuestBridge, a program that connects low-income, first-generation college students like himself to selective colleges, both via financial planning and academic and social-emotional supports like mentoring. Balfantz was able to attend Notre Dame’s summer-bridge program, in which students live on campus and attend classes with professors four to six hours a day. “We had meals in the dining hall, just like a regular college experience, got a capstone class for 10 days on the state of race in 21st-century America,” he said. “It was just completely mind-blowing to have that access to higher education.”
When I got a full ride to Notre Dame, I was just like, you know, this is the one thing in my life that gives me stability while all the other things just seem to be all over the place with COVID and moving.
While the Notre Dame campus reopened within a few weeks, the pandemic has continued to color Balfantz’s college experience.
“They have a lot of restrictions, a lot of things that kind of just made college life and having a college experience a little bit harder,” he said, such as trying to attend extracurricular activities or social events virtually or socially distanced.
“We couldn’t go inside each other’s residence halls. So Notre Dame, they actually built these—I don’t know if you’d call them rooms—but they’re made out of plexiglass or like plastic, hard plastic structures and they put different things in there like chairs or ping pong tables,” he said. “So you’re able to go and meet your friends outside and be warm.”
Although the university has opened up additional counseling to students coping with stress, Balfantz said some of the most helpful supports have been virtual, such as free stress-relief apps he now uses between classes.
“I know it sometimes sounds a little woo-woo out there, but my college actually provided a subscription service to this app called Calm, a meditation app,” he said. “I was like, gosh, different breathing exercises and stuff. I’m a meditation guy.”
Coverage of the education of exceptionally promising students who have financial need is supported in part by a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, at www.jkcf.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.