Over the last five years, we’ve seen the increased efforts of state and local governments, foundations, employers, and colleges and universities to reduce the education equity gap. As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses in the United States, early indicators suggest that the virus is unraveling that work.
What was initially pronounced as a “great equalizer” is instead mirroring societal inequalities across race and socioeconomic status that already exist. CDC data indicates that Black, Latinx, and Native communities have higher rates of infection and death. The same communities disproportionately bearing the economic impact through lost jobs are also those who find themselves dubbed “essential” and on the frontlines—often without a college degree. When the dust settles from the pandemic, we will likely find our equity gaps have widened.
Achievement gap implies that the onus for the disparate outcome is on the student. That is, they failed to achieve something, and therefore, there exists a gap. Equity gap, on the other hand, refers to any disparity in a metric like graduation rate or term-to-term persistence along racial, socioeconomic, gender, or other major demographic groupings. Instead of, “what did the student do wrong?” we’re working together with our partners to ask, “what processes, policies, strategies, etc. did the institution put in place that created or exacerbated these disparities by race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc.?”
The initial response to COVID-19 has focused on getting students enabled for virtual learning, which includes making sure students have access to computers and internet connection. This is worthy and necessary work, but it is not sufficient; these students continue to have unmet basic needs (e.g. shelter, food, or income) or heightened feelings of emotional distress. Our action or inaction will support our students’ continued presence on campuses, or sadly their departure.
What can campus leaders do? We’ve gathered examples from schools doing the necessary work to create connection points for students.
By this point, many schools have already addressed digital connectivity needs for their students. If you haven’t, this is where you need to start, especially as digital connectivity could continue to be an issue for students in the fall, if courses remain virtual.
Expand laptop loaner programs
Negotiate discounted/free internet
Include the cost in student fees to ensure students have access, even at home. Comcast and Spectrum/Charter are offering 60 days of free internet for K-12, college student, and educator households.
We found that public colleges and systems can often negotiate rates with providers, which could be included in the total cost of attendance and subsequently covered for their academic year.
More resources to transition to remote instruction
10 strategies to address equity challenges
Connect students to financial support
Everyone is hyperaware of the fragile state of the economy, and students are no exception. With anticipated changes in enrollment decisions campus leaders must provide comprehensive, yet timely tools and resources for students to address the loss of income and change in day to day responsibilities.
1. Connect eligible students to unemployment and SNAP benefits
Some suddenly unemployed students may have never accessed these services before and will need help navigating the system. For colleges without Single Stop, you’ll want to train advisors to screen and triage students who need financial, legal, and tax support to community services. Additionally, colleges should petition on student’s behalf to the state for good-will exemptions to expand student eligibility and access.
2. Help students update financial aid packages if their financial circumstances have changed
Many students don’t realize that a sudden change in income can make them eligible for additional funding, including funds in your institution’s CARES Act package. If your students are unsure of how to write their appeal letter, resources like Swift Student can help them explain that they or their families have lost a job or seen reduced hours.
3. Adjust student account policies to allow more students to register
Some schools have been able to eliminate administrative barrier attrition simply by raising the maximum balance threshold, or temporarily waiving bursars hold policies entirely.
4. Connect with nonprofits, churches, food banks, community and advocacy groups
Maintain personal connection to college
The shift to digital and remote instruction has created or exacerbated academic challenges for many students, but it can also improve equity in the classroom if done well. To help students navigate this transition, enlist faculty and staff to connect with students through multiple communication channels, such as Zoom, phone, text, or email. By encouraging the use of campus technology and apps, you are empowering students to create connection points to staff, peer support, and resources.
5. Call your students
A phone call can matter much more than an email or text. With minimal contact outside of their quarantine buddy or group, an outward sign of compassion, concern, and support will provide a needed mental boost. We’ve heard of schools redeploying staff who’ve had their responsibilities reduced during the pandemic, from librarians to advancement staff, make these check-in phone calls.
6. Conduct an outreach campaign
Conduct the campaign across multiple digital engagement criteria such as low/no LMS logins, low/no contact with faculty, or lack of response to college emails. Need additional campaign ideas? Take a look at our four-year and community colleges advising campaign infographics. Or create your own.
7. Assess student need by deploying quick polls or anonymized surveys
8. Encourage faculty to promote the use of tech to create online engagement
The Study Buddy feature in Navigate provides additional academic support, peer accountability, and homework help to support our virtual classrooms.
9. Provide virtual tutoring support for critical courses
Utilize out-of-work student workers to expand your tutoring capacity while supporting those often at risk for failing in an online environment. Navigate can be used to assist with appointments and scheduling.
10. Direct peer mentors to connect with students
Encourage mentors to connect weekly to offer support, guidance, and/or referral.
COVID-19 is highlighting the very real consequences of education inequity on our health and lives: many of us who have the privilege of working remotely and sheltering in place can do so in part because of our college degrees. We must do our part to offer the same opportunities for those who have been systemically excluded and left vulnerable. At this critical moment in higher education, our focus on human connection will strengthen our ability to weather whatever comes our way.
More on student equity
As the community college landscape continues to evolve, leaders face a critical imperative: improve student outcomes for at-risk populations and close chronic gaps in achievement.
Leaders at Hispanic Serving Institutions share three principles for meaningfully impacting Latinx student success, equity, and retention.