What the next 12 months will look like for colleges and universities is uncertain. At the time of this writing, some schools have announced plans for the fall semester, while others are still in the planning stages. Some of the announced fall plans were covered in our discussions of the 15 Fall Scenarios (Fully Remote, HyFlex, Students in Residence, Learning Virtually), others were ones we mentioned but didn’t discuss fully (Starting and Finishing Early). The point of our 15 Fall Scenarios was never to provide an exhaustive or exclusive list of strategies for universities during COVID-19. Our goal, instead, was to provide our colleagues with a framework in which fall planning could occur. A good framework provides both a structure in which decisions can be evaluated, as well as a set of defined terms that can help ensure a baseline of shared understanding.
The overnight shift from residential to remote learning has revealed much about what matters most, and what accounts for little, in the bundle of services, structures and relationships that constitute higher education. As the 2020-21 academic year unfolds, we will learn more. At this point in the story of higher education under COVID-19, at least three themes have come into focus: equity, place and learning. Over the next three articles, we will discuss these three themes in detail. Today, we’d like to look briefly at how the spring brought the issue of equity and access to the forefront of our discussions about higher education.
Theme #1: Equity
The first area that the systemwide pivot to remote learning illuminates has to do with equity. What we are learning during the pandemic is that residential education can act (if imperfectly and unevenly) to normalize at least some aspects of the college experience. While it remains very much the case that success in college is not randomly distributed, with students from more privileged backgrounds retaining many advantages across measures of student success (attrition, STEM success, time to graduation, etc.), it is also true that residential education does create some opportunity for success that may not be available to all students in their home lives. Students from less privileged backgrounds might not come to campus with the advantages of years of tutoring or access to resources from well-funded secondary schools, but the experience of being an undergraduate offers some consistency of opportunity that may not necessarily be available to all students at home. First-year students from different backgrounds have access to space in residence halls. Students from across the socioeconomic spectrum attend class in the same classrooms, study in the same library and work out in the same athletic center. Wealthier students may have newer computers than their less well-off peers, but everyone logs in to the same Wi-Fi.
Again, we don’t wish to deny or minimize that there are huge differences in opportunity faced by students within any given college or university, based on their backgrounds and access to resources. Too many of our students must navigate the basic challenges of housing, food and educational materials -- even within wealthy universities. Students of color and LGBTQ students continue to face significant issues of bias and harm on campuses across the country. First-generation students are often at a disadvantage in managing the expectations of college. These issues can make it incredibly difficult to be a successful college student. Many residential campuses acknowledge this and try to do better. They have developed support structures to address some of these disparities and work toward equality of opportunity.
The pandemic has both revealed and exacerbated the higher education opportunity divide. We’ve seen just how important access to these fundamental services and these basic support structures are to the well-being and success of many of our students. During the months of enforced remote learning, we have witnessed how advantages in resources can accrue into advantages in learning. Students with private places to study, reliable Wi-Fi and less economically stressed home environments enjoy tangible benefits in their efforts to navigate online courses. If the future of higher education might include less time spent on campus, then colleges and universities will need to figure out how to extend the residential-based resources that students rely on for success to a more virtualized environment.
During the spring under COVID-19, the role of supporting learners through complicated and difficult situations has often fallen to faculty and staff. Professors and support staff have been on the front lines of responding to the broad array of student needs. Going forward, and even if we return to a situation that resembles a pre-pandemic higher education, it is likely that faculty and staff will have a sharpened appreciation and knowledge of the obstacles and challenges that their students face. How this knowledge will impact pedagogy, as well as the institutional structures designed to bolster student success, are questions that should be top of mind for everyone who works in higher education.
As schools think about the fall, student success will depend heavily on their access to the fundamental services of their institutions. Without careful attention, moving away from residential education will likely result in less equity, particularly in areas of student learning and other student success outcomes. Each of the scenarios we proposed impacts this access in different ways. Decisions around timing -- when the semester starts -- could keep students away from these services longer. Choices about student population and location might disadvantage certain students over others. This is especially true if the scenarios are taken as sacrosanct. We expect and hope that all schools are in fact making adjustments to these scenarios based on the unique characteristics of their student body and institutional circumstances as they work to support their students in greatest need.