As people take to the streets in the U.S. and around the world to protest systematic racism, universities are also taking a deep look at the ways that they have been impacted by and may be complicit in the inequitable structures around us. Only weeks after finishing spring semesters and terms unexpectedly delivered entirely online, universities are now beginning to ask if the move online in response to COVID-19, while enabling students to finish classes remotely, may have exacerbated inequities that already existed in the system, and, in some cases, increased them.
Has the pivot to online course delivery in the name of social distancing and sheltering in place created a digital divide that further entrenches the potential for racial divisions? Are the technologically well equipped separated even more starkly from the rest, their chances of success in the world of multimodal education substantially improved, while those struggling to afford a smartphone are even more disadvantaged than before?
COVID-19’s impact on universities is in part a reflection of broader social inequities. The global pandemic has hit African Americans and other people of color disproportionately. The latest data suggests that African Americans who contract the virus are 2.4 times likelier to die than whites and 2.2 times likelier than Asian and Latinx patients. In Washington, D.C., for example, African Americans are less than 47 percent of the population but account for 80 percent of its 445 coronavirus deaths, according to The Economist.
Added to this stark reality of increased risk of illness is an economic outlook in which people of color are losing employment at a greater rate and thus may be less able to afford college tuition or attend college in lieu of working to support their families. This combination of negative forces puts students of color at greater risk of not being able to attend college in the fall, due to illness and personal finances.
And those who can attend college this fall will find that the institutions with the largest percentage of students of color are at the greatest risk of closing because of escalating financial constraints brought on by COVID-19. Robert Zemsky has recently noted that “African Americans are more than two times as likely to attend an institution at risk, compared with Hispanics and whites.” But in the last months that number has no doubt grown, with projections of college closures now rising from 10 percent to 20 percent of all U.S. colleges.
This spring has shown us that those students who do enroll in online, hybrid or blended classes this fall will face increased pressures based on family income and race. Before the move to remote teaching this spring, universities worried about how the digital divide and differentiated access to connected technologies like laptops and mobile devices would impact students. Despite efforts to support students, access to the internet and connected devices proved to be an even greater hurdle than many imagined. Almost half of the world’s population, after all, is still not online, and in the U.S. 20 percent of students don’t have the technological capabilities they need for online or in-person education, with students from low-income families and students of color disproportionality affected. And in many homes, families still rely solely on shared computers and mobile internet with limited data plans. These technological barriers are making learning extremely difficult if not almost impossible for the most vulnerable students.
COVID-19’s impact on students from low-income families and underrepresented minorities will continue to resound at universities for a decade or more because of its effects on K-12 students. As The New York Times reported this week, rural and lower-income communities received much less live teaching this spring because of a lack of school and home resources. Taken with other factors, according to McKinsey & Co., an average student lost as much as seven months of learning this spring, with greater losses among African American (10 months) and Latinx students (nine months). This giant step backward for students added to the already existing “homework gap,” as FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworce labeled the divide between students from connected homes and those struggling to meet the technological bar required to learn in the 21st century.
Universities have been assuring students that college and graduate school admissions officers as well as employers will understand the chaos of the spring 2020 semester when they look at transcripts. And on an individual basis, that may be the case. But admissions staff and business recruiters must also be prepared to account for the societal divisions widened by COVID-19.
This week, we’ve seen institutions of learning around the U.S. and around the world making resolutions about how they will combat racism and improve their structures and culture. As institutions committed to fostering and sustaining environments of inclusive excellence, universities rightly are looking to expand curricula focused on social justice and civil rights; to stimulate greater diversity among staff, students and faculty; and to build infrastructure that supports an atmosphere of equality and tolerance on our campuses. Central to these laudable efforts should also be initiatives that increase internet access and put digital tools at the disposal of students who continue to be disproportionally left out of the digital age.
Faculty also need to be sensitized to the varied student experience created by conditions of differentiated access, and they need to be aware of pedagogical practices -- like asynchronous delivery and downloadable course content -- that can help to even the learning playing field. Even as post-COVID universities take greater advantage of online learning to accommodate students with a variety of learning challenges, simply getting online and participating in the digital classroom is an even more distant dream for many students than it was before the pandemic.