The coronavirus pandemic should force a rethink of higher education

Sara Goldrick-Rab is Professor of Sociology and Medicine and Founding Director of the Hope Center

Sara Goldrick-Rab is Professor of Sociology and Medicine and Founding Director of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University. Christine Baker-Smith is Managing Director and Director of Research at the Hope Center.

As the fall season approaches, students and higher education administrators are preparing for a difficult return to college.

With both the coronavirus pandemic and overdue attention to systemic racism confronting the sector, one thing is clear: For many, a new mindset is required to produce positive results for students. 

The American public and a preponderance of legislators think college is still 20 or even 30 years ago. Say “undergraduate” and their minds conjure a rose-colored, movie-constructed utopian scene: Mom and Dad dropping off their son at his new dorm, setting him up to study for a bachelor’s degree fueled by sushi from the dining hall, parties with his friends, perhaps a part-time job at the library, and regular support from the monthly allowance they generously provide.

Michelle Gougler, right, helps her daughter Morgan Gougler,a student at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, move out of her dorm on March 31, 2020. (Photo by AMANDA ANDRADE-RHOADES/AFP via Getty Images)

But students like these are now the exception rather than the rule. Barely 15% of undergraduates live on campus (that includes less than 1 in 2 students at four-year institutions). That means the normative experience is paying rent to a landlord, not an institution, and cooking meals at home, not getting takeout from a dining hall.

Furthermore, less than one-third of parents pay for their child’s tuition and almost one in four students have children of their own. Despite their claims, most scholarships don’t cover the full cost of attending college since the real price of college is much higher than institutions tend to admit. And 75% of undergraduates attend public institutions operating on diminishing per-student support without substantial endowments. 

A realistic approach

In other words, the typical vision of higher education is largely divorced from reality. 

Students feel the effects of that disjuncture every day as they suffer the consequences of insufficient financial support from both states and the federal government as well as insufficient attention from their colleges and universities to their real needs.   

Those needs start with the most basic human requirements for food and housing. Surveys we have conducted at nearly 500 institutions of higher education over the last five years show that even before the pandemic, at least 2 in 5 students experienced food insecurity, at least as many experienced housing insecurity, and between 10-20% experienced homelessness. During the pandemic, those needs were heightened and racial disparities were even more pronounced.

A student reads on the campus of Columbia University in New York, October 5, 2009. REUTERS/Mike Segar (UNITED STATES)

In higher education parlance, living expenses are typically considered “non-academic expenses” and are often cast aside as not unique to college students. Unfortunately, food and housing insecurity exert negative effects in college classrooms, just as they do in K-12 education. College students are at greater risk of those challenges than the other adults, since they face higher prices for food and housing (thanks in part to price gouging on and near campus), have less opportunity to work well-paying jobs, and are systematically excluded from much of the social safety net.

Following the Great Recession, the recovery only happened in a meaningful way for workers with at least some education post-high school. The same thing is happening now. The failure to recognize the real needs of today’s students is leaving millions of them in debt with no degree.

Higher education, long touted as part of the American Dream and central to social mobility, hasn’t yet adapted to ensure that it provides meaningful opportunities. The outcomes of this failure are also disproportionately concentrated in Black and Brown communities, further exacerbating inequality.

The fairy tales of higher education ended long ago. We must stop retelling them. It’s time to begin educating, resourcing, and supporting the students we have, not the students we wish we had.

Students walk on the campus of University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in Los Angeles, California on March 11, 2020. (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)

Putting an end to the fairy tales

Some college leaders are leading the way.

In the conservative Texas panhandle, President Russell Lowery-Hart has re-envisioned the culture of Amarillo College to embrace an ethos of caring that has also improved the practice of medicine. Over in the Dallas metropolis, President Michael Sorrell is placing his students’ health and well-being front and center by reshaping learning this fall to accommodate the realities confronting students at Paul Quinn College, a historically Black institution.

This summer, the Digital Pedagogy Lab helped faculty and staff around the country rethink instruction and assessment to support all students, whether or not they come to college with economic or racial privilege. Some professors are adding “basic needs security” statements to their syllabi, and centering students as humans first.

Students walk on the campus at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles, California on March 11, 2020. (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

Letting go of a single conception of college and of a college student will also save money. We need to focus less staff time on campus-based social cohesion activities and more on helping students connect to communities on and off campus.

Rather than thinking of student support as the sole responsibility of colleges, we should engage non-profit partners and human service agencies while also aligning social policies with higher education policies to advance affordable housing and food.

We should stop insisting that students attend college full-time and instead enable the part-time learner and the lifelong learner, who will cycle in and out of college and work as their lives allow. They will attend classes both online and in-person as their schedule and health dictate.

This is real college and real life now, and it is here to stay. 

College students participate in a sorority activity at the University of South Carolina on August 10, 2020 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

How to make the change

Embracing this vision requires changing how we talk, how we speak to students, and how we make policy.

Congress could lead the way this fall by suspending the 20-hour weekly work requirement for SNAP benefits at a time when employment opportunities both on- and off-campus are scarce. Government support at both the state and federal level must also shift away from the full-time-equivalent (FTE) funding model to one that recognizes the needs of part-time students; the House Democrats’ HEROES Act includes a far better head-count model.

Updating our understanding of college will help the nation with its economic recovery. More students will complete degrees and certificates in both technical and academic fields, and go on to more successful experiences in the labor market and at home.

Clinging to a past where economic, racial, and gender privileges gated college access will prevent that progress.

Sara Goldrick-Rab is Professor of Sociology and Medicine and Founding Director of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University. Christine Baker-Smith is Managing Director and Director of Research at the Hope Center.


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