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Long before COVID, those of us who are privileged to serve as college or university presidents had no shortage of worries to keep us awake at night.

For nearly a decade, we have been bracing ourselves as we approach a demographic cliff in the next five years, beyond which lies the specter of declining enrollments and serious budget shortfalls. In the meantime, our current student bodies, from more diverse backgrounds than in the past and with shifting characteristics, have rightly demanded that we provide more support services on campus, and those services have significant costs attached.

In addition, while the social unrest the nation experienced in the summer of 2020 was new to some people, many of us as campus leaders have navigated student protests over racial and social inequities for quite some time. Those demonstrations have been an important catalyst for inclusion, however, and we recognize that we must address the elitist, exclusionary tendencies in higher education if we are to remain an engine of social and economic mobility for all Americans. The persistent achievement gaps in higher education, evidenced in the discrepancy between the retention and graduation rates of white students and students of color, reflect the reality that we have done too little to mitigate inequity.

Then there is what is likely the single greatest cause of our sleepless nights: the long-lamented broken business model in higher education. Expenses, demands and needs—along with price tags—are increasing rapidly, while families’ ability and willingness to pay lag behind.

All that was pre-COVID. During the pandemic, each of those issues has taken on even greater importance. Fragile demographics have been replaced by COVID-related crises on our campuses. According to The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice's 2020 report on their survey of 200,000 college students, 29 percent of four-year students and 39 percent of two-year college students experienced food insecurity during the pandemic. What’s more, 48 percent experienced housing insecurity and 60 percent experienced some basic need insecurity. And while those crises directly affect students and their families, the impact on our campuses—and our ability to truly serve and educate those students—is also real. How can you learn if you are unsure of where you will sleep or what you will eat? If our institutional missions compel us to care holistically for students, we simply cannot leave them on their own to resolve these very big issues. We know we must do more.

As a result of the past 18 months, social justice movements are finally demanding necessary and significant institutional change. That faulty business model is now in a million little pieces as the revenue losses and expenses of COVID have damaged—in some cases decimated—many of our institutions financially. And student need is greater than ever. Perhaps the question is no longer what keeps us awake, but why would we even attempt to sleep?

I, too, am troubled about all of the above. But I must confess that they aren’t what fuel my worst nightmares these days. What awakens me in a cold sweat is asking what will happen to our future students whose education has been disrupted by COVID. We know that the predicted learning losses of K-12 students could be the equivalent to an academic year in the toll they will take. And that is only a measure of the academic disruption; there will be a psychological toll, too.

We also know that that such learning gaps disproportionately impact low-income, Black and brown communities. For example, students of color were more likely to experience online learning in the fall of 2020, even though they have less access to the technology needed to support vibrant distance education and are less likely to experience the in-home learning conditions needed to support remote learning. Families and public school districts are not to blame; rather, such results are another reflection of larger racial and economic inequity. According to the management consulting firm McKinsey and Company, “While all students are suffering, those who came into the pandemic with the fewest academic opportunities are on track to exit with the greatest learning loss.”

The enrollment of low-income students and students of color in higher education has already begun to drop as a result of COVID. The fall of 2020 saw a significant decrease in college applications over all. Perhaps even more concerning, fewer students are applying for financial aid—another indicator that they will likely self-select out even if they do apply to college. And, again, the outlook is worse for students of color: financial aid applications are down 22 percent at colleges that primarily serve those students, compared to a decline of only 12 percent at predominantly white institutions. This gap also exists between low-income students and higher-income students in their applications for financial aid, decreasing by 20 percent and 14 percent, respectively.

Responding to the Moment

So what does all this have to do with sleepless college presidents? We now have an obligation to acknowledge, support and prepare for those students to arrive on our campuses knowing that their learning and development have been compromised. Part of this acknowledgment means partnering with K-12 schools in order to understand what will be needed and how we can support their efforts. Turning away and hoping for the best will be to our peril. Rather, we must prepare our institutions to be student-ready.

You see, the significant implications of our effort—or lack thereof—are not only individual but also systemic and societal. The pandemic and its attendant learning disruptions have powerful meaning for the students themselves. They are hurting, recognize the loss in learning and have no agency over how to respond. How do you take the SAT or ACT when you don’t have access to reliable internet service? How do you plan a college visit when the institution doesn’t allow you to visit? While younger students may bounce back—although I doubt that it will be that easy—older students recognize the potential and time lost and are desperate for guidance on how to respond to it. We must be prepared to help them navigate not only the learning loss but also the psychological and emotional turmoil that the pandemic has wrought.

We have a serious obligation to provide additional support for college-bound students even though we have a broken business model for serving our current students. Where do we invest in order to serve the students who need us most? How do we begin to reach beyond our campus walls to help those who need us most? How do we create durable, meaningful partnerships with K-12, and who pays for it? The solutions are there, and we must start a conversation with our partners in public schools to find them.

In addition, this learning disruption has powerful meaning for our frail democracy, for which an educated populace is essential. As Benjamin Rush stated in 1786, “Freedom can exist only in the society of knowledge. Without learning, [wo]men are incapable of knowing their rights, and where learning is confined to a few people, liberty can be neither equal nor universal.” Our nation needs informed citizens, and higher education has a vital role to play.

Right now, higher education must ensure that the role we play is an equitable one. If we do not seek to ensure that all students have access to a quality education in the aftermath of this disruption, then the inequities of society will only be exacerbated. Or, as another great political thinker, Harry Truman, proposed in 1947, “If the ladder of educational opportunity rises high at the doors of some youth and scarcely rises at the doors of others, while at the same time formal education is made a prerequisite to occupational and social advance, then education may become the means, not of eliminating race and class distinctions, but of deepening and solidifying them.”

College leaders must not solidify inequity. And yet as I toss and turn during another fitful night, I realize that if we do not take the initiative to respond in this moment, to actively address the urgent needs of K-12 students by becoming a legitimate partner with the public schools doing their best to serve them, that is precisely what we will be doing. And if that happens, we should all lose sleep.

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