A note from the authors: We conceived of and wrote this post before the tragic and senseless murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests for justice. More than ever, equity and systemic racism need to be at the forefront of our national conversation, not just for law enforcement but for all institutions, including our own. There is no better time than now for higher education leaders to recognize where and how systemic racism still impacts our campus communities, including how these inequities are being exacerbated by the pandemic. We stand with you.
In recent years, a handful of colleges and universities have made meaningful gains in closing higher education’s persistent gaps in degree attainment for students of color, first-generation students, and students from low-income backgrounds. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to reverse what gains we have made. Students from minoritized and low-income communities are among those most vulnerable to the move to remote learning and the overall social and economic strain of the lockdown on their communities and their families.
It seems likely that equity gaps in retention will expand this fall, but by how much? And who will be most impacted? With registration still underway at many schools, we likely will not fully understand the impact of COVID-19 on different populations until schools complete and publish their student censuses in September. Schools that want to minimize the impact of the pandemic on equity do not have that long to wait.
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.?”
Fortunately, there are a handful of indicators we have right now that show how the pandemic might affect equity in the fall and beyond. You can use this information now to make the case for equity-based changes with your colleagues and campus leadership team.
Indicator #1: Unemployment data
The latest job loss data shows that more than 36 million Americans are out of work, which is more than four times the job loss from 2007 to 2009 during the Great Recession. Families of color are disproportionately impacted, with unemployment at 16.7% for Blacks and 18.9% for Latinxs, compared to the overall national unemployment rate of 14.7%. We should be appropriately concerned that these families will have trouble affording college in the fall.
First-generation students and their families are likely to be disproportionately impacted by a recession. During the Great Recession, the employment rate gap was much higher for workers without a college credential, a trend which persisted for years after the Recession ended. If the same holds for the anticipated pandemic recession, we could soon see families of first-gen students finding college out of reach for their children, forcing many to drop out.
Indicator #2: Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) renewals
Financial aid plays an important role in financing college for most students, but it is especially vital for low-income and first-generation students who need financial resources outside of family contributions to make college a reality. College students applying for financial aid must submit a FAFSA and renew each year they want assistance. Failure to complete this process is an indicator that the student doesn’t plan to return to school. The National College Attainment Network (NCAN) has been tracking the year-over-year change in FAFSA renewals. FAFSA renewal rates are down 4.4% as of May 1, 2020, although this number is likely overly positive as it includes filings that happened before stay-at-home orders.
More alarming, renewal rates are down 5.5% for low-income students eligible for Pell Grants. Across the period of March 15 to April 15, there were nearly 25% fewer Pell-eligible applicants than last year, a potential loss of almost 250,000 students. This trend points to further student uncertainty in the value of the degree, the potential health risk, or the ability to continue their academic pathway.
Indicator #3: Results from student polling
Polling done after campuses closed and students returned home suggest that they are deeply uncertain about their future college plans. In a SimpsonScarborough study of college students found that 64% of students of color said their college plans were being affected by COVID-19, compared to 44% percent of white students. The same poll found that 32% of currently enrolled students of color are unsure or unlikely to return to their same college in the fall, versus 22% of white students. Many students have already changed their plans to be closer to the family should the second wave of infections take hold.
Another poll by Student Loan Hero reveals that Black and Latinx students are experiencing higher levels of financial strains due to the pandemic, including food and housing insecurity. Black students are twice as likely as white students to be worried about access to the technology needed for online courses. These financial and virtual enablement issues could spill over to impact continuing student enrollment in the fall.
Indicator #4: Community infection rate
Public health data gathered since the onset of the pandemic in the U.S. shows that the communities most impacted by the disease are also those with a significant representation of people of color. The first comprehensive analysis of infection rates and deaths by race shows that the 22% of U.S. counties with an above-average representation of Black Americans account for nearly 60% of deaths in the U.S. Among native and indigenous people, the Dine and Hopi families, part of the Navajo Nation, have the largest infection rate in the country, surpassing even New York and New Jersey.
The psychological shock of this devastation within their communities will weigh heavily on many students. Some students may have to sit out the fall term to care for a loved one, pick up a job to make up for lost wages in their families, or simply decide not to return to school because they aren’t mentally ready to learn again. The pandemic is straining the resiliency of students who were already trying to cope and persevere against staggering health, financial, and academic odds.
How to understand and respond to these indicators on your campus
These proxy indicators paint a bleak picture, foretelling retention losses for students of color, first-gen students, and students from low-income backgrounds. While we believe these indicators make the case for broad action, schools must look at their own numbers to best understand where to focus their efforts for maximum impact.
Once you find where to focus, use your student success management system to begin running reenrollment campaigns targeted and tailored specifically to these students. Use polling data, phone calls, and anecdotes to understand the specific challenges these students are facing right now. Then deploy your coordinated care network of faculty, mental health counselors, tutoring staff, and advisors to remove their specific barriers. Reanalyze your registration numbers daily or weekly across the course of the summer to track your progress in supporting and reenrolling students.
The COVID-19 pandemic will continue to bring enormous disruption, and some of the challenges faced by our students will remain out of your control. However, this is a lot that student success leaders can do to reach out to non-registered students to address unmet needs, connect them with financial resources, and build confidence that they can rely on their school for support and assistance when they need it. Taking multiple actions will help minimize the impact of the pandemic on your equity gaps and create a digital and community infrastructure to support these students for years to come.
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