Universities should support their most vulnerable students to champion education equity

At a time when colleges and universities across America are typically reflecting on the achievements and milestones of the prior semester, capped by a celebration of the accomplishments of another talented class of graduates, they are instead reflecting on one unlike any other.

In an effort to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, presidents at institutions large and small had to send students home, shift to virtual instruction, and postpone commencement exercises. As they look to the fall semester, much more uncertainty lies ahead in the wake of likely state budget cuts, impacted endowments, and the decisions of current and prospective students who might reconsider their college choices. And, of course, college leaders continue to grapple with the implications of how to offer classes in the midst of a pandemic.

As leaders of the American Talent Initiative (ATI)—an alliance of 131 colleges and universities with graduation rates of at least 70% that have committed to ensuring the graduation of 50,000 additional lower-income students by 2025—we urge colleges and universities to meet the needs of low- and moderate-income students even as they chart an uncertain financial future. We issue this appeal with added urgency as the nation seeks to address issues of systemic racism and the impacts of police violence on communities of color.

In the midst of this crisis, our most vulnerable students will lack access to stable broadband, quiet study spaces, and other critical support services that campuses reliably provide. With the loss of on-campus jobs and the onset of new family hardships, they are now at risk of losing ground in their academic journeys, incurring additional costs to make up credits, and potentially dropping out of college altogether. 

Even in a typical academic year, some 12,500 low- or moderate-income high school students do not end up attending the strong colleges for which they are qualified, despite having excellent academic credentials. Additionally, students from the top of the economic ladder are already far more likely to earn a postsecondary degree than those at the middle or lower rungs, exacerbating an opportunity gap that only threatens to widen during the current crisis.

Among ATI institutions, we have seen more than 20,000 additional low- and moderate-income students enroll in our colleges during the first two years of the initiative, but have also seen that curve of collective progress flatten in year three. At a time when that curve threatens to either remain stagnant or bend back in the other direction, we must redouble our efforts. Fortunately, we are encouraged by examples of progress, from institutions in our coalition and many others, that illustrate how higher education can lead the way in expanding access and opportunity for America’s young people.

Schools across the University of California system, for example, made immediate public commitments to accept additional pass/fail credits in the transfer process and suspend student payments on all of its education loans. And Ohio State increased its Pell student enrollment through innovative strategic financing practices, dedicated fundraising for need-based aid, and an emphasis on recruiting and retaining transfer, veteran, and other students from nontraditional pipelines.

Smaller institutions, too, illustrate how it is possible to make transformative commitments to equity, even with finite resources. Davidson College issued a groundbreaking commitment to defer all tuition payments for up to one year in support of its students and their families. And Colby College, with its Pay It Northward initiative, has deployed its full alumni and professional network to connect each and every graduating senior with a postgraduate opportunity.

These institutions and others prove what is possible, even in the midst of chaos and tragedy. All of higher education should follow their lead and double down on their commitments to their most vulnerable students.

But that’s also not enough.

We need to pair colleges’ enduring commitment to equity with a significant federal investment in higher education—a G.I. Bill for the 21st century—that not only mitigates the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, but provides the resources that every student needs. Community colleges and other parts of the sector that create educational opportunity for millions of people must be included as well. Individual institutions alone cannot solve this crisis, but a shared vision and bold investment can.

We know that as colleges and universities face increasingly difficult financial decisions and budgetary constraints, the opportunity for additional investments will only continue to narrow.

However, America’s future depends on our ability to nurture the talents and capabilities of our young people. Stepping back now—when the need is greatest—would be shortsighted. At a moment like this, there is a sense of moral urgency involved in the task of providing our young people with education and hope. Coming together and taking a collective leap for equity will be instrumental to that future.

Michael V. Drake is president of the Ohio State University.

Daniel R. Porterfield is president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, and previously was president of Franklin & Marshall College.

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