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…