September 10, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has been among the most disruptive forces in recent memory, altering the way political, economic, and educational systems are governed and operated. Within the education space, higher education has seen among the greatest disruptions resulting from the pandemic. In the spring, priorities in higher education included adjusting to the new reality brought on by the pandemic, some of which included ensuring that students could complete their degrees, advance in their coursework, and/or have their non-academic needs met, particularly for students who face food and/or housing insecurity. Now, the conversation has turned to campus re-opening and re-integrating students following months of virtual learning and potential disengagement (the “summer slide”). To ensure safe and effective re-openings of campuses, institutions of higher education (IHEs) have built testing infrastructures, deployed multiples kinds of personal protective equipment (PPE), and use strict social distancing protocols. Despite these precautions, there remains much uncertainty in the higher education space, and in The Hunt Institute’s latest installment of Supporting Innovation in Education, The Institute sat down with Dr. Carol D’Amico of the Strada Education Network, Sarah Sattelmeyer of the Pew Charitable Trusts, and Tina Gridiron of ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning to discuss how higher education students can be best supported amid this uncertainty.
“The main reason people are hesitant to pursue higher education is self-doubt, wondering whether or not they can really do this. The next reason is flexibility. Adults are juggling a lot right now and we need to support those who need it at this time.”
– Carol D’Amico, Executive Vice President, Strada Education Network
To address the challenges facing higher education during the pandemic, data will be critical, and Strada Education Network has been conducting surveys to gather information on what current, incoming, and prospective students need – and what they are looking for – in their higher education experiences. In March, Strada launched the Public Viewpoint Survey, asking participants about their future education plans, how income and previous education experience influences those future plans, and how participants feel about the workforce during COVID-19. This survey, which is routinely updated, reveals that a quarter of Americans may want to go back to school to re-skill or upskill, but Americans also express hesitation on going back for a multitude of reasons, including self-doubt regarding their ability to succeed in those programs, the need to balance higher education and work, and cost of attendance. D’Amico also shared survey results showing that higher percentages of Black and Latinx respondents said that they were interested in returning to higher education compared to other racial/ethnic groups. This demand creates an even stronger obligation for policymakers to establish supports for these students, especially because our system of higher education has not traditionally served them well.
One of the key themes that arose throughout the conversation was the impact the pandemic had on pre-existing challenges for higher education students that became even more difficult because of COVID-19 – including student loan repayment. As stated by Sattelmeyer, 20 percent of federal student loans are in default, and approximately one million individuals go into default each year. Sattelmeyer also discussed ways policymakers and stakeholders can work with student loan borrowers, particularly during the pandemic, highlighting the need to address different types of borrowers, organize robust outreach campaigns for borrowers, and provide additional flexibility for when current borrowers enter re-payment after the temporary repayment relief provided by the federal government expires on September 30, 2020.
“We recently conducted focus groups with more than 150 borrowers and combined this with previous research. We found that financial insecurity drives repayment, income-based repayment is difficult to access, & borrowers are confused by repayment transitions.”
– Sarah Sattelmeyer, Project Director, Student Borrower Success, The Pew Charitable Trusts
The panelists also discussed a number of additional challenges that have built on each other to drive uncertainty and trauma experienced by higher education students – including the reckoning with the role that racism plays in our society, mass job loss and income reduction, and the physical toll of COVID-19. Gridiron discussed the impact of these combined factors on students, and shared that ACT is focusing on providing wraparound services to students, families, and teachers. One example is the need to support students lacking on-campus housing, who are at risk of experiencing significant trauma.
“We know that residence halls can be a safety net for some students, and if they don’t have that safe space, there will be more challenges. We have seen universities make space for students who need it, even when the university itself is closed.”
– Tina Gridiron, Vice President, ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning
Gridiron also shared a number of helpful takeaways from ACT’s “Equity in Action” series, which highlighted a number of issues that had equity implications in the higher education space – including the digital divide and basic needs insecurities.
Towards the end of the conversation, the panelists discussed short- and long-term implications of the pandemic, particularly the opportunities that have or could arise to address systemic inequities. In addressing this question, the panelists discussed the need to provide more accessible, flexible, and affordable higher education options, reform student loan repayment systems, design coursework delivery systems to be more student friendly, and help more low income and first generation students succeed in higher education, which in turn will contribute to American success domestically and globally.
IHEs are among the many public and private institutions working tirelessly to ensure they can stay afloat in one of the most difficult and disruptive moments in recent memory. Working together to make it through the pandemic will be the dominating task in the short-term, but long-term reforms must emerge from the pandemic that serve as mechanisms to remove pre-existing inequities and serve higher education students better than ever before.
View the complete webinar below.