There is no playbook for how to best respond to a global pandemic, and while it is virtually impossible to predict the lasting impact that COVID-19 will have on our students and the State of California, the Campaign for College Opportunity is pivoting our work to ensure students remain front and center. As one of the state’s leading racial equity advocates in higher education, we want to ensure vulnerable students still get to college, that they aren’t knocked off their college paths, and that state leaders understand that investing in higher education is critical, especially in times of crisis.
We do not know when this pandemic will end or how severe the economic fall-out might be. But we do know that our community colleges and public universities produce the health workforce that is essential in responding to this pandemic. We also know that those who will weather the storm best are college graduates.
The Campaign continues to work tirelessly toward ensuring greater racial equity in higher education by demanding that education leaders work to close the gaps in college preparation, access, and success for all students. If anyone doubted the inequality of opportunity that exists in our nation, this pandemic has spotlighted it. For many students, especially low-income and first generation students, as well as students of color, the abrupt move to online distance education is impossible without access to basic technology, educational software and broadband internet service. This crisis makes it clear that all students in the 21st Century must have access to a laptop and broadband internet; it is more important than pen and paper.
As our nation and California face a likely recession, all of us will be needed to champion higher education funding and protect financial aid. The Campaign will continue to identify policies and practices that remove systemic barriers to college access and completion. We will also be ready to leverage opportunities for significant student-centered reforms that would not have been possible under normal circumstances. And while we applaud our higher education leaders for the herculean task of moving our colleges and universities rapidly to online instruction, we must ensure they are offering quality online courses and strong support services, and that they have a keen understanding of the new barriers students are facing.
We will also bring attention to the needs of future college students so that they can enroll in their college of choice come Fall 2020 and 2021. The move to online learning has left many high school seniors with great uncertainty on course grading, without access to counselors to guide them in deciphering financial aid packages and deciding which college to attend. We continue to push colleges and universities to be flexible with deposit deadlines for incoming students and to change the deadline for students to commit from May 1 to June 1. Rising seniors will not be able to take the SAT/ACT, the standardized tests required for admission to many universities, so we are thrilled that the University of California has announced the suspension of SAT/ACT requirements for Fall 2021 admissions, a decision recently joined by the California State University.
Those are urgent and immediate concerns, but what also keeps me up at night are the long-term devastation this pandemic will cause without our intervention:
- Will hundreds of thousands of high school students who would have gone to college not go?
- Will a large number of current college students be uninspired by online instruction, and/or need to work longer hours just to survive, and feel forced to drop out?
- Will the inequitable and disproportionate impact of all of these challenges in higher education by race/ethnicity and income be irreversible?
- Will governors balance their budgets on the college dreams of our students?
However, what keeps me up at night is also what fuels my passion to fight for our students. It was financial aid, caring counselors, passionate faculty, and good public policy that allowed me to become the first in my family to earn a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree. I want to make sure others like me have that same opportunity.
We are fortunate to live in a state with one of the best community college and public university systems in the entire world. As the nation’s number one driver of economic growth, California has a duty to fortify college opportunity to ensure our residents, the state, and the country continue to innovate and thrive, especially in times of crisis. Other states would be wise to see this as a duty too.
During this pandemic we will continue to identify challenges facing our students and our campuses. Below is a listing of key priorities that we will urge policymakers and college leaders to focus on:
INVEST IN STUDENT EMERGENCY AND BASIC NEEDS
- Invest in emergency grant aid and coordinate with social service providers to address basic needs such as food, transportation, housing, and health care;
- Allow students with extenuating circumstances to access campus food pantries and housing to the greatest extent possible; and,
- Target additional aid for our lowest income students, undocumented students, and formerly incarcerated students.
ENSURE STUDENTS CAN LEARN AND SUCCEED
- Ensure students have access to basic technology such as broadband internet and a laptop to participate in online learning;
- Regularly monitor quality and effectiveness of online instruction, student success outcomes by race/ethnicity, and develop appropriate interventions;
- Invest in moving supplemental supports such as tutoring services and mental health counseling online so that students can continue to connect with essential resources outside of their courses;
- Communicate frequently with students and families, keeping them informed of instructional changes and supports while collecting feedback on their experiences and challenges;
- Provide flexible options for students to meet financial obligations including tuition/fees, deposits, loan repayment, fines, etc.;
- Offer a single platform for delivering online learning so that students do not have to use multiple services; and,
- Invest in equity-minded professional development for faculty to ensure they are delivering high quality online coursework.
GUARD COLLEGE OPPORTUNITY FOR FUTURE STUDENTS
- Hold the line on financial aid for our neediest students as the governor shifts budgetary allocations to address the impact of COVID-19;
- Maintain and strengthen transfer pathways for students transitioning to four-year universities;
- Extend the Statement of Intent to Register deadline for all California State University (CSU) and University of California (UC) campuses to June 1st so students have more time and support to make informed decisions amidst this global pandemic;
- Applaud the UC and CSU action to employ a standardized test-optional policy for the Fall 2021 freshman application cycle given limited testing opportunities for students; and,
- Prepare to reevaluate financial aid awards and eligibility given the rapid loss of income that students and their families may be experiencing.
SUPPORT OUR PUBLIC COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES
- Press for state budget investments to increase enrollment funding to serve more California students in order to meet growing demand;
- Advocate for greater investments in federal aid for colleges and universities to support the additional costs campuses have had to absorb as a result of this pandemic;
- Ensure that financial aid remains available to low-income students whose education was disrupted by the pandemic by providing flexibility in the implementation of eligibility criteria;
- Call on the federal government to support states seeking to maintain their budgetary commitments to higher education and students; and,
- Extend federal subsidy programs for broadband access to postsecondary education to help bridge the digital divide and make distance learning feasible for low-income students.