Today’s students didn’t need a pandemic. They didn’t need the added financial pressures, their kids at home, and their lives interrupted. They also didn’t need a pandemic to know that higher education wasn’t built for too many of them, or that changes need to happen to support their success.
Today’s students—adult students, student parents, low-income students, and many others— already faced an uphill battle. Now, an estimated 28 million American adults have cancelled their education plans as a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic. Today’s students need our help now, and there are clear actions that can be taken to ensure that they do not fall further behind, or get shut out of higher education all together, in a post-COVID economy.
1. Provide Financial Support to ALL of Today’s Students
In response to the pandemic, the federal government has provided support in the form of emergency aid—supporting critical emergency financial needs such as housing, food, transportation, and child care. But, it also left too many students out of the equation. Secretary Devos’ recent guidance to institutions on that emergency aid excluded nearly 600,000 undocumented or international students, as well as those enrolled less than part-time Congress’ formula for states only counts “school age” populations under 24, when we know that 37 percent of today’s students are older than 25. As many as 9.3 million students were not eligible for a stimulus check because of their tax status.
Now is not the time to leave any students out of the equation. Emergency aid should be able to go to any student in need, as determined by their institution. State and institutional aid formulas should include students of all ages. And dependents between the ages of 18-26 should be eligible for a stimulus check.
2. Ensure Today’s Students Can Get Access Online, and Quality Learning When They Get There
Today’s students must be able to access learning at home. Access to computers, quiet spaces, and reliable internet are a luxury for many. A more permanent, or even episodic, move to online education must include support for students’ broadband access through the Lifeline and E-Rate programs and high-quality digital learning materials through Open Educational Resources.
We also need a framework that ensures that students are receiving a high quality online education. When Secretary Devos waived rules allowing any institution to move to an online platform, many schools took their in-person platform and simply moved it online. While the right move in an emergency, that plan fails to provide students and faculty with the needed pedagogy and plans for a high-quality learning experience. And, it calls for robust transparency and oversight of institutions’ plans by the Department of Education and accreditors.
3. Provide Clear Flexibility in Financial Aid
Financial aid systems must be dynamic and recognize the changing economic picture of students. The FAFSA—the application form for federal financial aid—is a snapshot of a students’ financial picture from two years prior to the application. While in most times that is an accurate picture of current needs, financial aid administrators and policymakers should not assume that is so for the next academic year when so many Americans have lost jobs or suffered reductions in pay. The Department of Education should issue guidance like what was issued in the last recession to be clear that institutions can adjust students’ awards to reflect new financial information. In the absence of guidance, students and families should look to tools such as the newly released SwiftStudent, which helps students request changes to their financial aid packages, to begin a conversation with financial aid offices.
4. Prepare for the Future
Finally, and most long term, individual and national economic recovery will rely on a system that enables adults to return to higher education for skilling and reskilling. While it is true that many students will be reluctant to return to higher education in the fall, 26 million Americans are out of work. A return to higher education for new, refreshed skills to meet the job market demand can be expected. These students will likely be older, may be parents themselves, and may be some of the 36 million Americans with some college but no degree. Policymakers must act swiftly and boldly to invest in community colleges and other institutions that are ready to provide.
Now, more than ever, today’s students need the support of policies that address their situations. We must ensure that students in college, and those who planned to enroll in higher education in the future, have the support they need to reach their goals despite the challenges and uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic.