Naomi Harris is the higher education reporter for PublicSource focused on colleges, universities and research based in the Pittsburgh region. Previously, she was the K-12 education reporter for The Capital Gazette newspaper in Maryland. Her reporting there focused on inequities in education, services for students with disabilities, discimination, racism and hate incidents in schools. She has also written for The DC Line and the Washington Afro American newspaper. She graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park, in 2017 with a dual bachelor’s degree in journalism and anthropology. While in college, she was a scholar with the White House Correspondents’ Association. Naomi has a deep passion for local reporting and believes journalism can connect communities to one another. In particular, she wants her work to elevate voices of the underrepresented and marginalized. Through a partnership with PublicSource, Naomi also is part of Open Campus, a nonprofit news organization focused on strengthening local reporting on higher education.
America’s student loan burden totals $1.7 trillion, impacting 44.7 million people nationwide. In Pennsylvania, more than 1.7 million residents have unpaid student loans, totaling $61.5 billion. For many former students, carrying tens of thousands of dollars in debt — or more — seems inevitable.
The deadly virus reduced national college enrollment, particularly for students of color. The percentage of high school graduates who went to college immediately after high school fell by more than a fifth last fall. Colleges and universities have made attempts to adapt recruiting efforts to avoid a similar or more severe drop from this batch of high school seniors, but it is unclear how students will respond, even amid vaccine distribution.
Facing a deepening pandemic, another stretch of mostly online classes and a national backdrop of political turmoil, Pittsburgh-area students are turning to their colleges — and to each other — to meet growing mental health needs. Kayla Koch, a senior at the University of Pittsburgh, said students were already struggling with the transition that college life brings, but the pandemic has made everything harder. “The entire pandemic is a time of trauma," Koch said. "We are all living through a trauma and expected to produce and exist as if we are not.”
She's working to create a space for students to talk honestly about mental health. “Our goal is to come into these meetings and say, ‘This is normal.
With COVID-19 cases rising following the holidays and an expected lengthy vaccine rollout, Pittsburgh-area colleges and universities are bracing for another difficult semester. How things will look for students and faculty this spring will be informed by lessons from the fall. “The whole thing has been a real challenge for everybody, but I believe that the response from the students and the faculty and the administration has really made the best of this particular time,” said Susan O’Rourke, faculty senate chair at Carlow University. Colleges are readjusting schedules to start the spring semester later, expanding COVID-19 testing, asking for student input on the fall semester and creating connections with classmates and professors — both online and in-person. Meanwhile, they face challenges like tighter budgets and deflated enrollment.
The University of Pittsburgh, for instance, has been monitoring case metrics and advice from health officials in deciding when to bring thousands of students back to campus.
PublicSource wants to report on how college debt has impacted the lives of Pittsburgh residents and we need your help. How has college loans factored into your financial decision-making? Do you believe $10,000 is enough or too little relief? How has college debt impacted your life overall?
Recent data surveying over 700 higher education institutions reported a decline in international enrollment this semester due to the pandemic, and some institutions also point to the limiting environment created by the Trump administration. If the trend continues, it could negatively impact the Pittsburgh economy.