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As colleges pivot, delay or reverse plans for fall instruction, we risk losing sight of what is the greatest potential tragedy for higher education: millions of students have had their learning and path to their degrees disrupted, again. Low-income, first-generation and minority students are hit the hardest. And it’s not a one-and-done for the 2020-21 academic year, either. The consequences of this disruption will be with students, our society and our economy for years ahead, as the ripple effects delay degree completion or lead students to drop out.

Our mission as educators must be laser-focused on equitable, long-term student success: establishing smoother and more predictable paths to completion for a wider spectrum of students, and delivering a high-quality educational experience that encourages persistence and engagement. We have an opportunity to effect real change and drive toward a greater level of inclusion and student success in the aftermath of this pandemic -- if only we have the will to do so.

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show us that, even pre-pandemic, the degree achievement rate for all students nationally was only about 62 percent. New York Times columnist David Leonhardt and graphics editor Sahil Chinoy have called it “The College Dropout Crisis.” And lower-income students fare far worse, with only a 21 percent chance of earning a degree in six years.

Coronavirus now further threatens students’ ability to complete college: poor online course experiences in the spring, family income loss and other negative consequences are all taking a toll on students’ ability or willingness to pursue their educational plans. For students of color, low-income and first-generation students, the persistent gap in educational attainment is likely to widen again. Research shows us that, once disrupted, vulnerable students are less likely to get back on track toward achieving their degree. There is simply less flexibility for uncertain circumstances, and less cushion for students to cover gap years, unpaid internships and time missed.

Richard Whitmer, author of The B.A. Breakthrough: How Ending Diploma Disparities Can Change the Face of America, wrote about these trends in The Hill in June. “At stake here is the fate of tens of thousands of students, most of them low-income and minority, who only recently started achieving the only kind of progress that matters, which is not just enrolling in college but graduating,” he wrote. “Given the overwhelming evidence that only a bachelor’s degree is likely to lift students who grew up in the lowest-income families to middle-income levels, these setbacks will tear at our social fabric for generations.”

A study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that a one-year delay in starting college may cost students $90,000 in lifetime income. The pandemic has made a college degree even more valuable, greatly increasing the employment gap between high school graduates and those who earn a four-year degree.

When I announced in mid-July that our university would conduct all fall instruction and co-curricular activity online, mine was an outlier voice. At the time, fewer than 10 percent of colleges were choosing that path, with most institutions opting for some in-person and hybrid course activity. But we were acutely aware that clarity, consistency of direction and a focus on quality online engagement are essential factors for our students to have an equitable experience in an academic year that will be like no other. The well-being of our community and equity across that community have been foundational guiding principles in our decision making.

We look forward to our return to campus when it is safe to do so. But in the meantime, the journey we at Simmons University have been on since the sudden shutdown in the spring may offer some lessons that go beyond the short-term crisis, as we work to close the educational attainment gap and keep more students on track toward their goals and the future opportunities they deserve.

Lean into innovation with high-quality online instruction. In this unpredictable year, the best and steadiest way to support student success is to create quality online learning that is widely accessible and can be conducted without interruption. After the challenging 2020 spring semester ended, Simmons faculty began work to reimagine and redesign 300 undergraduate courses for consistent, effective, synchronous and asynchronous delivery focused on successful learning outcomes.

This was a massive undertaking with two goals in mind: ensure a high-quality educational experience online for fall 2020 instruction, should it be necessary, and build a completely online Simmons undergraduate program for adult learners who, for whatever reason, cannot access a full residential experience. Done right, online learning provides a quality alternative for students who are not in a position to afford or interrupt their lives for a traditional, residential college education. Instead, it provides multiple paths to an undergraduate degree, one that allows students to tailor their education to fit into the lives they have, wherever they are.

Support the whole student with caring co-curricular activity. Research on students’ feelings of social isolation, on top of the heightened anxiety brought on by the one-two punch of pandemic and stark societal injustice, demonstrates how much of a toll the pandemic is taking. Finding ways for students to make meaningful connections in our socially distanced and virtual environments is crucial. Student life and student support services teams must design creative opportunities for co-curricular engagement, mental health support and peer-to-peer connectivity as we move through pandemic.

We know, too, that this is not a time to sit on the sideline: we can help students develop inclusive leadership skills and stay civically engaged in service to their communities. Importantly, let’s learn from the experience we are gaining now: we can assess what works and what does not, identify best practices, and develop the next generation of holistic student support for students whether studying in person, in a hybrid model or fully online.

Develop highly sensitive financial aid support systems. This is no time for a financial aid runaround. The pandemic’s long-term effect on the economy cannot yet be known, but what we do know is that lower-income families and families of color are disproportionately suffering short-term financial consequences, which may lead to long-term harm. We know well that families and students perceive higher ed’s financial aid formulas and calculations as confusing gobbledygook and a barrier to understanding a college education’s true costs. These concerns are now on overdrive. Our financial aid teams must be sensitive to families’ changing circumstances and as responsive as possible to their concerns. Now is the time, too, to simplify and clarify processes for a more family-friendly experience over all.

Stop the institution-centric thing: it’s about student, family and community well-being. I have been thinking a great deal about the empathy necessary to lead in the midst of, and in the aftermath of, this crisis. Let’s face it: we’re all burned out. It’s not just our students carrying a heavy emotional burden these days. Our faculty, our staff and our alumni have all had it.

We need to move out of the institutional bubbles we build for ourselves in the marathon hours of Zoom leadership team meetings, and instead put ourselves in the shoes of our community members. I come from the African American tradition of valuing kinship networks, where we lift as we climb and we do what we can to build support networks for one another. Gallup’s well-being framework identifies five dimensions we need to feel secure about in order to thrive: career, social, financial, community and physical. Each of these has been especially strained during this time, and each needs care and attention. As we move through and past COVID-19, I hope we will put community well-being at the heart of our work. After all, we cannot fulfill our mission of student success and societal good unless each of us can bring our best self to the work at hand.

Communicate, communicate, communicate. During the pandemic, colleges have to communicate more clearly, more frequently and with more heart than many were used to. And you know what? It works. We need robust, multichannel, two-way communication with stakeholders. We have to be clear and consistent, anticipating concerns and encouraging feedback and input. As we are learning, we have to be agile in our communications, too: we are building the bridge as we cross it. Finally, let’s check that institutional tone at the door. Our outreach must be humane and empathic as we help students, families and the whole of our community stay on track toward their goals.

If we can master these skills during the pandemic, we will have helped all our students at a time when they face enormous obstacles. But we will also have created a better and more just educational setting for the future -- one that welcomes young people who have historically been turned away, meets them where they are, accounts for the particular conditions they face and helps them to a successful outcome. We all claim that as a goal. We have the chance, now, to make it a reality.

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