Around the world, people are starting to turn hopeful eyes toward the new year as the fervent desire to banish 2020 grows. Many have tried to find meaning from the loss we’ve experienced over the past year. But the lessons to be learned here are not new or unique to the pandemic. If we have learned anything, it is only that COVID-19 discovered our nation’s failures 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 as white, or middle-class.
Higher education is no exception. Our nation’s postsecondary system has struggled and largely failed to adapt to the evolution of the students it is serving. The policies and practices that have governed higher education for decades no longer reflect the needs of the majority of students, nor the realities of combining work and caregiving responsibilities with college attendance.
Students with lower incomes, students of color, parenting students, first-generation students and immigrant students—those whom we at the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice refer to as #RealCollege students—face lower college attainment rates compared to their peers. These students, who arguably stand to gain the most from a postsecondary education, face the compounding barriers of systemic racism and declining college affordability (due to federal and state disinvestment), combined with stagnating wages and the rising cost of living. And this was all true long before the pandemic, since the reach and effectiveness of public support programs have eroded over time, serving fewer eligible people and with fewer resources.
The pandemic exacerbated what was already a tenuous situation for some students and placed many more at risk. Research clearly shows that food and housing security are essential conditions of learning; students need enough to eat and a safe place to sleep in order to graduate. For example, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a 2018 report on food insecurity among college students, stating that “increasing evidence indicates that some college students are experiencing food insecurity, which can negatively impact their academic success.”
Our research also shows that students were struggling to meet their basic needs before COVID-19, and our survey completed at the pandemic’s onset showed this only became worse. Three in five students were food and/or housing insecure. Two-thirds of students who had previously been employed were experiencing reduced wages and even total job loss.
COVID-19 has further exposed the societal repercussions of institutional and governmental policy choices that make it harder for students to persist and to complete, placing the educational and economic future of millions of Americans at further risk. Unfortunately, higher education initiatives tend to overlook basic needs and focus primarily on the academic aspects of college completion, targeting what was once the “traditional college student.” Despite having been here before, the 2008 recession resulted in little structural change to address these problems. Researchers, advocates, and some policymakers (though not enough) recognize that while short-term support such as stimulus checks are necessary, this crisis is not because of a one-time event.
If we are going to make it to the other side of this pandemic and into 2021 as a thriving—not just surviving—society, we must do more to support students through college completion, including fixing our social safety net. Current public benefit policies promote “work first” even if it is low-wage, low-mobility work, unduly and unjustly discouraging education as a pathway to economic mobility and security. Yet this goes completely against the trends we saw after the 2008 recession, and even today: The vast majority of new jobs require some form of postsecondary credential. If we genuinely want to improve the likelihood that our nation can recover economically—at a stable enough pace—we need to improve college student success AND their basic needs security.
We cannot be pacified with a return to “normal.” Normal was not working for millions of Americans. A return to normalcy means little guidance for students on the real price of attending college; institutional support allocated through a formula that views students as “contact hours”; denial of public supports for college students, and a misguided focus on students’ academic performance as a proxy to sustain institutions.
The barriers that minoritized and lower-income communities face will continue if we do not acknowledge that systemic inequities existed long before the pandemic, were exacerbated by the pandemic, and will only be remedied by policy change explicitly focused on equity and improved outcomes. We must think radically and imaginatively about creating opportunities for students to attain an education that has demonstrably proven to improve the wellbeing of individuals, sustain families, and generate economic growth.
This op-ed is part of a series of year-end reflections EdSurge is publishing as 2020 concludes.