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COVID-19 could worsen equity gaps. Higher ed must fight back.

May 13, 2020

Before moving to the Washington, DC, area more than nine years ago, I didn’t know much about the political disenfranchisement of the District’s residents. Though I proudly display my “Taxation Without Representation” DC license plate, that statement doesn’t begin to describe the inequities felt primarily by people of color in the District who make up a majority of the population. Lately, COVID-19 infections and deaths have made health disparities very clear: 46% of the District is Black, but Black residents make up 80% of COVID-19-caused deaths. And Washington, DC, is not alone in this appalling situation.

Health disparities are the most obvious ones within the coronavirus crisis, but there are many others. When it comes to higher education, we do not yet know how the virus’s disruption will change attendance, persistence, and completion rates at colleges and universities, but current data does not look promising. If history repeats itself from the Great Recession in 2008-2009 and causes more families of color and already low-income families to lose both jobs and accumulated wealth, higher education will need to take proactive steps to support its underserved students.

This post explores the ways COVID-19 could lead us to a more inequitable future and highlights five ways student success leaders can fight against this trend—in the immediate future and beyond.

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.?”

5 Steps to Ensure a More Equitable Response to COVID-19: Now and into the Future

1. Find and remove barriers to reenrollment

Advisors and student success leaders have used every tool they know to get students access to the technology in this virtual environment. But students still face many obstacles on the path to returning in the fall. This is indicated by lagging reenrollment numbers: Many schools report pacing up to 40% behind their previous year’s enrollment numbers. College and university leaders should use this as an opportunity to leave no stone unturned when finding and removing persistence barriers for current students—reforms that you might have wanted to pursue in the past but lacked the support to pass.


Many schools report pacing up to 40% behind their previous year’s enrollment numbers
Many schools report pacing up to 40% behind their previous year’s enrollment numbers

Colleges and universities have already used much of the CARES Act funding to support students’ basic needs right now, while also holding some back to ensure they have engagement and aid campaigns for summer and fall. Those institutions that conduct coordinated multi-channel communication campaigns will improve their chances of success across demographic groups.

My colleague Ed Venit recently highlighted the importance of removing registration holds during this uncertain time to promote persistence and student equity. Summer outreach, previously a new student issue, has now become all-important for student success goals and institutional viability. For example, if some students withdrew or failed courses because of the switch to remote instruction, a summer outreach campaign could help them get connected to online education support resources and convince them to return in the fall.

2. Ensure temporary policy changes don’t hinder student persistence and transfer

Both community colleges and four-year institutions moved quickly to give students flexibility in grading and assignments when they went remote. This admirable quick decision is not without downstream consequences, however. For example, if one institution in an area has many students who opted for pass/fail grades in response to COVID-19, are transfer destination institutions and, most importantly, every individual department within them ready to accept that credit?

Transfer processes often break at the individual course or department level, so academic and student success leaders will need to ensure that all academic programs adjust articulation agreements to accommodate the policy changes made this term. Transfer is already an underreported equity challenge, and helping students navigate the transition during COVID-19 will make the difference between a more or less equitable higher education ecosystem in a given region.

3. Make equity a key pillar of future financial and academic scenario planning

States and institutions are bracing for significant budget shortfalls in the coming months because of state funding declines, room and board reimbursements, and summer program cancellations. But potential cuts made to advising, financial aid, and academic programs that attract and engage many historically underserved students (e.g., culture-specific academic programs and faculty, scholarship programs for first-generation students, TRIO and similar programs, etc.) can simultaneously harm an institution’s reputation among underserved populations and its ability to serve those students who do enroll.

In determining where to target budget reductions and cost containment as well as where to solicit funds from donors, equity must be a central theme or institutions will lose progress. To ensure equity advocates contribute to budget reduction conversations, institutions will need to conduct rapid reviews of the spring term that include but are not limited to:

  • Course completion rates, by demographic, instructor, and modality, to target faculty development resources for the fall
  • Completions and enrollment by department, disaggregated by demographic, to determine where focus populations of students may need support
  • Registration status for the summer and fall, by demographic, to emphasize reenrollment outreach from advisors, faculty, and staff
  • Student support service utilization, by student demographic, to determine those that are most critical for engaging underserved students

These data should become part of budget reduction planning to ensure that academic and financial leaders know the equity impact of any decision they make. It may also be necessary to include equity leaders on budget reduction task forces so that this strategic goal does not get lost during the crisis.

4. Prevent a lost generation of graduates by engaging employer, alumni, and community partners

The last recession’s disproportionate impact on low-income and underserved populations increases the urgency to address equity concerns during this recession. Additionally, millennials who graduated during the depths of the Great Recession have still not fully recovered their earning potential.

The pandemic’s economic downturn has already led to rescinded job offers, canceled internships, and disrupted experiential learning. A recession that limits work opportunities could intensify preexisting inequality by only leaving those with strong professional networks in a position to compete for a limited number of jobs.

Institutions need to ensure recent graduates have the resources they need while also lobbying employer partners to maintain job offers and experiential learning opportunities. EAB’s study Integrating Academic and Career Development provides guidance on virtual internships and employer-provided projects in courses so that students can gain relevant experience from a distance.

5. Build a self-sustaining student success budget model for the future

If we enter a long recession, few areas of the institution, even student success, will escape budget cuts. Instead of merely tightening belts, colleges and universities should consider more dramatic reforms. Consider moving from centralized funding to a self-sustaining model: institutions should allow success efforts to reinvest net gains in tuition and fee revenue from additional retained students while also giving some back to central administration and academic units.

This change will require significant buy-in from campus units and perhaps even organizational redesign to centralize student success activities. Institutions will need a way to measure and attribute retention gains to individual student success initiatives. Therefore, it is a longer term strategy, but given some recession projections, many institutions may need to reconsider their fundamental operating principles to ensure equity and student success.

Higher education, like so many parts of American society, cannot hope to return to business as usual. Policies such as paid family leave and direct stimulus payments to individuals once seemed impossible. Now, they are widely supported. The choices college and university leaders make in this tumultuous summer and fall will reveal their true values and priorities. Now is the time to reveal a renewed commitment to equity and to emerge from this crisis as more inclusive institutions. 

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