Standing behind a barber chair for the last year, QuangHuy Bui plotted his future.
Like many high school students who graduated during the coronavirus pandemic, Bui, 19, didn’t go straight to college. Bui didn’t like remote learning and figured he’d work in the interim as a barber, a trade he learned from watching friends and YouTube videos.
He was happy with the money that rolled in while he trimmed, faded, and edged hair. But the last year also clarified his bigger goals. He wants to own a barbershop someday — maybe even a franchise.
“I don’t want to be stuck where I am right now even though it’s solid,” Bui said. “I just feel like I have a bigger mindset.”
Driven by that larger goal — and his family’s refusal to let him get complacent — Bui is headed to the University of Colorado Boulder this fall, where he plans to major in business. He’s part of an influx of students picking up college plans that were delayed by the pandemic.
CU Boulder officials have seen about 10,000 more applications, or 24%, over last year, according to school admissions officials. The school’s admissions office also expects three times more students who deferred college than in previous years, or about 900 students.
The increase in enrollment represents a stark contrast to last year, when there was an 11% decline in first-time freshman enrollment for the fall semester. Statewide, Colorado colleges and universities saw a 3.3% decline in spring college enrollment, showcasing the lasting impact of the pandemic, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
Other schools across the state also project higher enrollment this year, including Colorado State University.
Heather Daniels, CSU admissions director, said enrollment projects to increase about 7% this fall and the school will enroll about 750 students who deferred a year, more than double the 300 that typically take a gap year.
College administrators are happy to welcome these students after last year’s enrollment drop squeezed university budgets, but they also know the students may need more support to readjust to the classroom, make up for disrupted learning, and graduate.
The increase in college attendance marks a return to pre-COVID normalcy. But college officials also worry about those who won’t return to school this fall — and might never return.
The issue highlights how COVID has created opportunities for some students while others have indefinitely delayed their college education.
Still, Bui has faced challenges during the pandemic year. He feels removed from school life even if the time off refreshed him for upcoming challenges
“I’m going to college with a better mindset,” he said. “I feel more ready now. Last year was just way too fresh.”
Bui considers himself fortunate to go back to school after getting to save money and map his future plans. His parents, especially his mom, were initially upset he took the year off. He felt it was what he needed during the pandemic. He’s gained independence and become more determined.
Not all his friends will head to school after taking the last year off, a reality he knows could have happened to him. It’s easy to get into a daily routine, he said.
“Recently, I felt like I was stuck making money, paying bills, sleeping it off, rinse, and repeat,” Bui said.
But Bui’s dreams and support system carried him forward.
When he heads to school at CU Boulder, he will do so fully in-person. Most Colorado schools across the state expect a return to regular campus life. To aid in a successful return, schools will require students, staff, and faculty to be vaccinated.
Daniels said state admissions officials have expressed concern about how best to support the fall 2021 incoming college class after such a tumultuous last year. For example, how should they get students who deferred but didn’t enroll interested in college again.
Daniels also worries about the readiness of students adjusting to college life after a year in which they might not have entered a classroom. In the last year, high school students saw disruptions that upended their learning and social lives. College officials know they will have to ease students more than ever into the new experience of campus life, Daniels said.
“We are making sure that they have everything they need to have a successful start to college,” she said. “That might mean we (admissions officers) have to stick with them longer to ease that transition.”
For Bui, the last year has helped prepare him for more than just college. While the tragedy of the pandemic isn’t lost on him, he’s also found ways to count his fortunes.
He’s discovered what it’s like to work hard and put a creative and personal touch on his work, which he hopes to carry into his own business someday. In the Westwood Barbershop, Bui’s booth stands out among the black walls. He’s equipped his corner with a custom lighting system, and invested in multi-colored hair clips and rainbow-hued purple clippers.
“I feel happier when I am working with these clippers, especially when I’m here all the time,” Bui said. “It’s kind of like a bedroom. You don’t want to walk in a bland bedroom. You want to be somewhere comfortable and somewhere fun.”
He hopes to continue to cut hair at CU Boulder, easing the costs of college life. He said he has plenty of friends in Boulder for possible clients.
He knows there are several friends who never made it to college like him after deferring their dreams last year.
At the start of the pandemic, counselors urged students to continue their dreams despite the hardships of remote instruction.
Emily Weiss, a Denver Scholarship Foundation college advisor, said the last year has required plenty of patience to allow students time to consider their options and family situations. It also meant stretching how long the foundation keeps in touch with students.
Weiss said she would call, text, and email students who deferred to check on what they were going through and how they viewed their future options. She didn’t want to see any students fall through the cracks, but knows only time will tell the true toll of the pandemic.
“I worry about the impacts of the pandemic on students and it’s definitely something that drives me to send one more parent email or call that kid one more time,” Weiss said.
Bui was one of the students with whom Weiss kept in touch. The last year made him feel like he got off track despite knowing he has big goals, he said. Weiss and the urging of his family helped him focus.
Bui hopes his story can help other students realize their dreams. At times, it might be tough, but even after the hardship of the last year, he said realizing your dreams can still be a possibility.
Jason Gonzales covers higher education for Chalkbeat Colorado, in partnership with Open Campus.