Will Allen withdrew from college a couple of months into his freshman year.
“I was going through a very severe depressive episode,” said Allen, 19, of Lake Mary in Seminole County.
He is just one of many college students who have suffered through the pandemic and in particular due to the isolation of online classes and fear of contracting COVID-19.
Nationally, college enrollment is at a historic low with one million fewer students enrolled today than before the pandemic, according to NPR.
Moreover, there has been a 5.1% drop in enrollment in the last two years since the pandemic as of fall 2019, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
With Florida having among some of the least expensive universities in the nation, enrollment has steadied, said administrators at the University of Florida, University of Central Florida and University of North Florida.
And yet Florida college students are not absolved from the effects of COVID-19.
Allen, a freshman computer science major, is giving college another go. After working various jobs and seeing a therapist multiple times a week, he felt compelled to come back to UF.
“I just felt like I needed to come back; it was like I was being pulled back,” he said. “It’s still hard every day, but it’s easier.”
In the fall semester of 2019, 26.1% of the 2.6 million students who started college did not come back the next year, according to The Hechinger Report.
The pandemic has created a more challenging environment to learn in with Zoom classes, isolation, fear of contracting the virus and financial hardships, according to college students across Florida. Those who stayed enrolled do not struggle any less than the ones that leave.
“I was already worried about finances and paying for things, and then I lost my job,” said Alisa Gonzalez, 22, a senior majoring in social work at Florida Atlantic University.
Gonzalez, of Broward County, said COVID-19 uprooted her life right as she was getting adjusted to college. She, like many of her peers, learns better in person, which made is difficult for her to grasp material with online classes.
“I used to be an orientation leader, and I know a few that never enrolled,” Gonzalez said.
Olivia Ott, a senior at Florida State University from Oviedo, said mental health and financial struggles have been hot topics at her school. With majors changing formats both conceptually and physically, it has negatively added to student experience, Ott said.
“I know a lot of people that haven’t dropped out, but thought about it,” she said while conceding her own uncertainty at times. “It feels like the world is ending.”
At minus 5.2 percent in spring 2019, Florida was leading the nation’s decline in college enrollment, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. However, north central Florida universities have provided data that it experienced consistent enrollment despite the pandemic.
“I decided to move to Florida to have the fullest grad school experience,” said Lyanne Ortiz, 24, who is studying emergency and crisis management at UCF.
Ortiz said she took a gap year but did not want to wait longer to begin her graduate studies, and was eager for the face-to-face class option.
Still, some young people across Florida said online learning proved to be better for them.
“In short, my past fall semester went well – honestly I realized I can do anything when I am online,” said Liberty Streeter, 20, of Tampa.
Streeter works as a DJ, server, nanny and has a virtual internship so, when her University of South Florida classes got pushed back to in person, it wasn’t going to work with her schedule.
“Even if I were to drop down and only take a couple, I would lose my scholarship through USF,” she said. “Could I have taken classes this semester? Yeah. But would I have had to sacrifice a different part of life that I didn’t want to sacrifice? Yeah.”
Streeter is one semester away from graduating but still taking the semester off. One reason, she said, is the pandemic has made it even more difficult to find a suitable apartment.
“Life is short, life is precious,” she said. “Don’t throw yourself into something if you’re not happy doing it.”