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In recent times and particularly over the past five years, higher education has broadly coalesced around the shared goals of advancing equity and boosting degree completion as the sector works to better serve students and the public. The efforts of leading universities, associations, service providers and foundations have resulted in real progress in equity at some institutions and some improvement in degree completion nationally. Although the progress is measured across the sector, the local impact of this work is far more profound: more equitable outcomes and more graduates who go on to live fulfilling, civically engaged and prosperous lives. The stage was set for much more progress to come.

Yet the COVID-19 pandemic puts these hard-won gains in jeopardy. The students most in need of support -- first generation, low income, those from underrepresented groups -- are the very ones most at risk of dropping out or not enrolling. But the growing momentum around equity and completion in recent years illustrates the power of individual institutions and the collaborative work of associations, service providers and funders. That network holds immense capacity, and we need to mobilize it to address the challenges COVID-19 presents -- and fast.

While we don’t know how long this pandemic will last, its impact is already massive and growing by the day. Higher education faces a national challenge, and we need a national coalition to tackle it. This effort needs to center on two goals: keeping and recruiting students, especially those at risk, and building a digital infrastructure for the long haul.

We know students are experiencing new hurdles amid the pandemic. The challenges are particularly acute among low-income students, first-generation students and those from underrepresented groups. Research is clear that students who stop or drop out are likely to never return. That’s why deeper engagement with students, through basic and more comprehensive advising, is so critical now.

We should also leverage the students who are closer to graduation. Through mentoring and tutoring, upperclassmen can provide essential learning assistance and keep other students engaged in their studies. This same outreach approach can be used to recruit new students, facilitating deep engagement immediately after admitting them. Institutions may also want to start working to identify innovative ways to engage new students once their studies start, even if it’s remotely.

Faculty members have moved courses online with extraordinary speed, skill and grace given the circumstances. But to ensure students are effectively learning over a sustained period, we’ll need a sustainable digital learning infrastructure. Thankfully, we already have a good idea from our experience in recent years of what that infrastructure should entail. Its key pillars include working with the faculty to strengthen online instruction, quickly expanding aggressive advising, curating courseware for large-enrollment courses and making them broadly available, and counseling institutions about digital engagement with their students.

None of this will be easy; it’s born out of necessity. But it’s also an opportunity. Most colleges and universities are facing enormous financial shortfalls. Even if the higher education community is successful in making the case to Congress for additional financial support, institutions will still be challenged. Even with these challenges, though, we have existing networks of institutions, systems, associations, service providers and key funders that are deeply committed to better serving students. Those networks, including APLU’s Powered by Publics effort, provide essential infrastructure for universities to collaborate on a national scale. As a community, we can start to address this crisis by developing virtual convenings to establish shared goals and strategies. Universities, associations, funders and others will need to take the lead to move this work forward.

We face huge challenges that only a national coalition can tackle. But if we act quickly, thoughtfully and collectively, we can not only address the urgent needs of our students today, but also build a future that better serves more underserved students. Now is the time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

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