The following article was originally published by USA Today on Feb. 22, 2021.

Recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center indicates the COVID-19 pandemic is exacting a punishing toll on low-income students. College enrollment among this group dropped 29% in 2020, compared with a 17% decline among students at higher income high schools.

As troubling as that ratio is, its historical context is even more so. Low-income students have been left behind, not just in 2020, but for decades.

Despite recent improvements, the group attends college at less than half the rate of their richer counterparts, and those who do go often attend lower-quality schools. As it has in other areas, COVID-19 is laying bare, brutally, a longstanding societal inequity.

While the reasons for this disparity are numerous, among the most important is the yawning gap in guidance and college counseling between rich and poor school districts.

Affluent districts are able to generously staff their guidance offices, and students often supplement in-school support with expensive private counseling. By contrast, ratios of 900 students to one counselor aren’t uncommon in poorer districts, almost four times the maximum rate recommended by the American College Counseling Association, for a population that needs more, not less, support.

And the situation is worsening. Far from growing their guidance staffs, schools have been forced to cut budgets and personnel in the COVID era. Guidance counselors are often the first to go.

How everyday citizens can help

So what can be done to provide students in underserved communities with the information and encouragement they need and deserve?

I’d like to propose a radically democratic solution: that everyday citizens — shop owners, police officers, bankers, nurses, coaches and more — step in to fill the breach, functioning as citizen counselors, informing and inspiring students about why they deserve to go to college and how to get there.