Rapid global and societal shifts have forced higher education institutions to adapt and address existing issues that otherwise may have dragged on in ongoing bureaucratic gridlock. As the pandemic continues to challenge campus life, administrators, professors and students alike are reconsidering how issues like student debt, student homelessness and food insecurity affect campus populations (often unequally across racial and socioeconomic lines), and how universities are grappling with and attempting to mediate ongoing crises.
Prior to the pandemic, universities were already facing a decline in enrollment, with the number of college students decreasing by 11% since fall of 2011—even leading some schools to closure. Increases in tuition and subsequent decreases in state aid provided have made higher education less accessible to some, especially people of color and those of a lower socioeconomic status.
Dr. Trevor Logan, the Interim Dean of Social Behavioral Sciences at the Ohio State University, hopes that the exacerbation caused by the pandemic can be a starting point to address enrollment declines—and the socioeconomic pressures that keep students from enrolling.
“I’m just hoping that [the pandemic] allows us to invest more in higher education. One of the things that we’ve seen is declining enrollment, say, at community colleges, for example. And these are real engines of social mobility. So I’m really, really concerned that we might lose out on some gains and some experiences that people should have in higher education because of this pandemic,” he said.
But for those who are attending, student debt has been a hot-button issue far before the pandemic put additional strain on both university and student budgets. Need-based aid has not outpaced tuition increases, and depending on future salary outcomes and employment opportunities, taking out loans is not always a feasible option.
“I think a big issue that people were talking about before the pandemic was about affordability in higher education and at a broader level,” he said.
As the national student debt has risen to 1.7 trillion—owed by about one in every eight Americans—higher education professionals are considering, in particular, the pendulum policies around for-profit colleges. For example, Berkeley College of New York has been sued by New York City for misrepresenting facts about financial aid, the admissions process and career outcomes. Under the Obama administration, legislation was put in place to combat aggressive recruiting and practices to protect students, only to be reversed and weakened in the subsequent administration.
“There were two discussions about student debt that were going on [prior to COVID],” Logan said. “One about debt of students at traditional universities and then the rise of this for-profit sector that was indebting students, and those students also had much lower rates of completion of programs.”
Many (although not all) for-profit colleges engaged in predatory practices to increase their enrollment of students, almost three-fourths of whom identify as low income.
“A big part [of the student debt story] were people who were not going to universities, but were going to more specialized, for-profit institutions and were going into a lot of debt,” Dr. Logan said.
The pandemic having left some in more precarious financial situations than ever, students are reconsidering the value of traditional higher education routes, especially when they can’t physically be on campus or have the traditional “college experience.” During the 2020-2021 school year, many students chose to defer enrollment, take a gap year or semester or not enroll at all..
Another issue Dr. Logan saw exposed more during the pandemic was the pervasiveness of basic needs insecurities among students, especially as they were sent home because of COVID-19. For many, being on campus was home.
“We got to send these kids home only to realize there is a non-negotiable number of students who don’t have a home to go to or whose home is less safe than the place that you are trying to send them from,” Dr. Logan said.
The dorms that students once had access to—as well as on-campus markets and dining courts—were now inaccessible to students.
On top of these insecurities, virtual learning has posed a challenge to students without personal computers or reliable internet connections, particularly students from rural areas and non-traditional students who have other responsibilities, such as childcare or full-time employment.
“There is a dearth of laptops. There’s a lack of good and strong enough broadband access,” Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education, policy and sociology at Temple University, said in an interview with PBS. “And let’s be honest — if you’re going to do Zoom every day, you actually have to have pretty high-speed Internet, and your laptop actually has to be really high-functioning.”
Jayla Langford, a senior at Purdue University, noted the lack of technology and access she’s seen just in her community over the past year.
“Well, there’s another access to technology and computers and laptops that some minority students don’t have access to, even when schools closed in the spring and people have to go back home where there was no Wi-Fi or something,” she said. “And I know they don’t have any access to Wi-Fi and they don’t have any access to money to pay for the laptop or the computer. So it was a struggle to see.”
Even so, online options may be here to stay—and may offer more flexibility to some students.
“Now, fundamentally, I think there are some things that are well suited to the online environment, that can translate very easily to the online environment that, frankly, might not necessitate the in-person experience,” Logan said.
But either way, Logan said the pandemic has shown that the college experience is more than just getting credits to graduate.
“This is part of a larger discussion about higher education more generally, right? I’m hoping what people understand now is that the college experience overall is not about the accumulation of credits, or taking a course, listening to a lecture, taking an exam, doing some reading, turning in, doing a problem, turning in problems—that experiential learning happens and can happen in a lot of different ways,” he said.
Although many institutions intend to resume with full in-person courses next academic year, COVID-19 will be far from a thing of the past—many universities are even requiring students to be fully vaccinated before returning to campus. Similar to COVID-19 protocols, universities have the freedom to decide the measures taken to reintegrate students into campus life. However, with the chance of herd immunity being unlikely, universities will need to consider the balance of tightening and loosening protocols.
After being in isolation for over a year, Langford noted that it can be difficult for incoming freshmen and rising sophomores and juniors to find their sense of belonging on campus.
“Most of the [campus] organizations are going through Zoom and you can’t really connect [through] the camera. Hopefully, there will be a way for students to maintain their sense of belonging and build relationships with one another.”
As universities were having these conversations, Congress issued billions of dollars in CARES relief funding to universities for students, many of whom were not eligible for the first two stimulus checks. But similar to COVID-19 protocols, universities were directed to establish their own allocation process for the funding to students. That meant many students didn’t know whether they were eligible or how to go about the process.
“We also knew that a big part of this is that students wouldn’t necessarily know where to turn right.
It’s not clear,” he said. “So who do you even ask to get the money? What is the application process like? And frankly, people you might traditionally go to might not know the answer. Your advisor might not know the answer. People of financial aid might not necessarily know because guess what? They’re at home, too. And this is all new to them as well….So it really did become an issue of how do we reach our students?”
And as a social movement marched on amidst the ongoing pandemic, existing inequities across racial and socioeconomic status in higher education became a central area of concern.
As a response to the injustices this summer, many universities pledged to create more inclusive spaces by hosting panels that focused on the racialized and marginalized experiences that many people face. For example, the University of Pennsylvania hosted a 13-part series called “Racism and Anti-Racism in Contemporary America” that focuses on systemic racism in major public sectors: public health, education and criminal justice. Ohio State University is grappling with similar issues.
“The university is considering ways in which we can strengthen the study of diversity, the study in particular of African American history and in African American studies more generally. And there’s not a university that I don’t know of [that] was not trying to hire people who are specialists in race,” Logan said.
But some students think more is needed.
“I don’t think there’s ever going to be a time that these inequities will be solved. People always say that colleges or universities are a business, and [that] they’re trying to basically brand themselves as the best that they can be for other people, and you sometimes don’t see the realness of the college until you get in,” Langford said.
Logan expressed a similar feeling of skepticism, but noted that there’s no better time than now to address issues that have been a long time in the making in the world of higher education.
“People like me who’ve been in this business for a while are really reserving judgment to see if there’s going to be truly, you know, transformative change in the culture of American higher education. So I’ve seen a ton of hiring initiatives related to diversity. I cannot say that this one is going to be different than the other ones that I’ve seen,” he said. “Some of them have been successful, some of them have not. None of them have fundamentally transformed American higher education. So that’s what I’m holding out hope for. And I don’t know if that’s going to happen in the next several years. This would be the moment to do it.”
Langford is continuing her education after graduating from Purdue at the College of Education at Indiana University Bloomington, and said that while her experiences over the last year have made her question the current state of higher education, they’ve also shown her how important it is.
“Even despite all the racial inequities this this summer, it exposed how valuable a Black person in STEM [and] a Black person getting their higher education, a degree in higher education or a degree in something else [is],” she said.
Logan similarly hopes that the aftermath of the pandemic will only further underscore the value of educational institutions and why we should invest in its future.
“My hope for the future is that we start realizing the value of higher education more broadly and that we really start to understand how fraught this whole system is and how fragile this whole system is,” he said.