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Report Proposes Higher Education COVID-19 Recovery Policies

In a year defined by a deadly pandemic, economic crisis and racial injustice, colleges and universities were forced to reevaluate their practices, structures and delivery models.

As the United States transitions to a recovery phase, New America and the State Higher Education Executive Officers (SHEEO) sought to further understand the overall impact of these crises on the education sector.

Alejandra AcostaAlejandra Acosta

Through a culmination of interviews with over 100 college leaders and students, blog posts and focus groups, the “Crisis to Recovery” report details policy recommendations for federal and state governments and higher education institutions. The year-long research project—funded by the Bill Gates Foundation and Ascendium Education Group—focuses on the areas of college affordability, accountability, transparency, access and student support systems.

“There is so much urgency to just bring people back and it is going to be really easy to fall back on what we know because we know is not working,” said Alejandra Acosta, policy analyst for the Higher Education Initiative at New America. “I hope that this report serves as a guide, as an inspiration and [provides] ideas to move forward and come out of this crisis better than before.”

After the shift to online learning, students faced housing insecurity, limited access to broadband and technology and the inability to afford their education.

To ease the burden on both students and their institutions, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act was passed by Congress on March 27, 2020. Higher education received $14 billion. Shortly after, two other relief packages followed.

However, little information was made available on how funding was allocated by each institution. In an effort to be more transparent, the report suggested making the information public on an online searchable database.

With the funding temporary, one longer-term solution towards college affordability involves increasing the maximum Pell grant—which now only covers 59% of tuition and fees at public four-year institutions, according to the report.

Other options include reinstating the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) program to meet workforce demands and developing federal-state partnerships to stimulate state funding for public education.

The report also note that states can shift most of their financial aid programs to need-based aid and provide more resources to institutions with higher populations of students of color and low-income students.

With 22% of college students facing challenges in accessing stable internet connection, states can also offer internet subsidies to close the digital divide gap, the report said.

Sophie NguyenSophie Nguyen

“This pandemic highlighted a lot of the struggles that students experienced before,” said Sophie Nguyen, policy analyst for the Higher Education Initiative at New America. “Through the pandemic, we were able to see some of that funding effort happen and we really hope those funding efforts will continue afterwards.”

Similar to past recessions, many students chose to leave college for the workforce, Acosta said. To reengage those lost students, institutions can improve their transfer process, offer prior learning assessment opportunities and accept pass/fail transfer credits, according to the report.

On the other hand, the federal government must monitor “predatory” recruitment practices by for-profit colleges. Accreditation agencies can also closely monitor institutions’ finances and quality of programming. Similarly, states can also use outcomes data to hold “problematic” institutions accountable, the report suggested.

As many campuses plan to reopen for the fall semester, the report recommends that institutions analyze their safety measures to include access to COVID-19 testing and PPE, The report also emphasized the importance of addressing vaccine hesitancy and establishing public health plans in case a similar emergency arises again in the future. The report notes that institutions should also discuss the idea of whether or not to mandate vaccines, especially for those students living in residence halls.

Beyond emergency plans, the report recommended that institutions develop a contingency plan to prepare for a potential closure and create communication strategies to stay in touch with students.

Though online learning led to financial burdens for institutions and students, it also generated more flexibility within the classroom and support service offerings. With the return to in-person environments, resources such as mental health counseling, career coaching and academic advising can still remain online, the report suggested. This way, students have more options with scheduling appointments.

“I think the lesson learned from COVID-19—in one word—was adaptability,” said Acosta. “And now, looking ahead and ensuring that the system is changed to actually help students graduate and not just be the same thing because that’s how it has been.”

Sarah Wood can be reached at [email protected].

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