All over the world, people are starting to keep hopeful eyes on the New Year as the ardent desire to ban 2020 grows. Many have tried to make sense of the loss we have experienced over the past year. But the lessons to be learned here are not new or unique to the pandemic. If we’ve learned anything, COVID-19 has only discovered our nation’s flaws, like Columbus “discovered” America. COVID-19 has only further exposed the dark underbelly of systemic racism and a petrified system of programs and structures originally designed for a population that is no longer so white or bourgeois.
Higher education is no exception. Our nation’s post-secondary system has problems and has largely failed to adapt to the development of the students it serves. The policies and practices that have governed higher education for decades no longer reflect the needs of the majority of students, nor the reality of associating work and care with college.
Lower-income students, skin color students, parents, first-generation students, and immigrant students – those we at the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice refer to as #RealCollege students – have lower college graduation rates compared to their peers. These students, who are likely to benefit the most from post-secondary education, are faced with increasing barriers to systemic racism and declining affordability of universities (due to federal and state divestments) combined with stagnating wages and rising living costs. This was all the case long before the pandemic, as the reach and effectiveness of public support programs has diminished over time, with fewer eligible people and fewer resources being served.
The pandemic exacerbated what was already a difficult situation for some students and put many more at risk. Studies clearly show that food and housing security are essential learning conditions. Students need enough food and a safe place to sleep in order to graduate. For example, in 2018 the US Government Accountability Office published a report on food insecurity among college students, which stated, “Growing evidence suggests that some college students suffer from food insecurity, which can negatively affect their academic success. “
Our research also shows that pre-COVID-19 students struggled to meet their basic needs, and our survey, conducted at the start of the pandemic, found that only got worse. Three out of five students were unsure about food and / or housing. Two-thirds of previously employed students saw lower wages and even complete job losses.
COVID-19 has further exposed the societal impact of institutional and government policy choices that make it difficult for students to pass and graduate and further threaten the educational and economic futures of millions of Americans. Unfortunately, college initiatives tend to overlook basic needs and focus primarily on the academic aspects of the graduate degree that target the former “traditional student”. While the 2008 recession was here before, it resulted in little structural change to address these issues. Researchers, advocates, and some policy makers (though not enough) recognize that while short-term support such as stimulus checks are necessary, this crisis is not a one-off event.
If we are to make it to the other side of this pandemic and a thriving – not just surviving – society by 2021, we must do more to support students through college graduation, including setting our social safety net. Current nonprofit policies encourage “work first”, even if it is low-wage, low-mobility work that inappropriately and unjustifiably hinders education as a path to economic mobility and security. However, this completely contradicts the trends we saw after the 2008 recession and continue to do so today: the vast majority of new jobs require some form of post-secondary qualification. If we really want to improve the likelihood that our nation can recover economically – at a sufficiently stable pace – we need to improve student success AND the security of their basic needs.
We cannot be pacified with a return to “normal”. Normal didn’t work for millions of Americans. A return to normal means little guidance for students at the actual cost of college attendance. institutional support through a formula that students consider “contact hours”; Denial of public support for college students and a misguided focus on student academic performance as proxies for maintaining institutions.
The barriers facing minorities and low-income communities will continue unless we recognize that systemic inequalities existed long before the pandemic, were exacerbated by the pandemic, and can only be addressed through a policy change explicitly aimed at equity and improved results. We need to think radically and imaginatively about creating opportunities for students to receive an education that has been shown to improve individual wellbeing, support families, and generate economic growth.
This statement is part of a series of year-end considerations that EdSurge will publish at the end of 2020.