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How “Different” Will Post-COVID Higher Education Be, Especially for “At-Risk” Students?

Over the past couple of weeks, several colleges and universities have revealed plans for the Fall semester. From my vantage point, I see many institutions offering hybrid instruction, starting later in the Fall and ending in-person activities by Thanksgiving. There have been others that have robust plans to ensure safe social distancing in the classroom and throughout campus. These plans seem ambitious, especially given the recent spikes in states that opened up too early. While all of these precautions in resuming a new normal in the Fall are necessary, I still wonder how will institutions specifically support their racially underrepresented, low-income, and first-generation students?

Dr. Andrew MartinezDr. Andrew Martinez

How are institutions preparing to deal with access to technology issues? While I can imagine many institutions providing students with laptops, students may encounter barriers to accessing reliable internet or even power for their devices. For residential campuses specifically who will have many students stay home, how do you ensure that your low-income students have access to adequate working space to learn and study?

In my research pertaining to first-generation college students, I have found that many students reflect that they wish they had known what questions to ask and what challenges to expect as a first-year student to prevent them from having such a rough transition. These reflections point to how colleges and universities can do better in their orientation programs to ensure that their students have a comprehensive understanding of what programs and services the institution has to support their success. It is difficult for me to imagine how effective online or remote student support services can be if an institution has a hard time engaging these students during a typical semester.

The problem is that there is no cookie-cutter approach. Sure, having summer-bridge programs, financial assistance, and peer-mentoring opportunities are promising. However, unless there is a sincere commitment to support these students, these efforts are merely hopeful intentions rather than vectors of opportunity. An institution may have a program, department, or student services office filled with passionate, hard-working staff; but these systems of support are as effective as the institution wants them to be in that what they have to offer is directly tied to how the institution prioritizes this type of work.

At a time where our nation struggles to confront the pervasive racism that plagues this country, we must also recognize the racial disparities that exists among our campuses too. It is not a coincidence that most low-income, first-generations students also identify as Black or as an underrepresented ethnic minority. Furthermore, the racial make-up of faculty depict another disparity that higher education has the tools to fix but not the leadership to enact change.

Then there is the curriculum. Are colleges and universities still going to rely on archaic policies and questionable curricula practices to claim that they cannot make a diversity, social justice, and/or equity-based course a requirement for all students? Will faculty continue to be protected from outwardly racist acts or obvious preferential treatment?

We also must consider power, privilege and how the campus environment itself immortalizes the complicated and problematic history that plagues many of our institutions and allows racism to manifest in ways that prevent minoritized students the ability to ever truly feel welcomed. As we see local, state, and federal governments reconsider statues of historical figures that have a complicated, racist history, I wonder if higher education institutions will follow suit? Will the increasing number of ethnically diverse students entering college today have to constantly confront images and monuments of figures who believed that they did not deserve the right to enter those spaces in the first place?

I do not have the answers to these questions. Honestly, I am pessimistic that we are going to change for the better. However, I believe the post-COVID era of higher education is an opportunity to reimagine the way higher education functions for all students, including the ones often ignored. The populations most at-risk to failing out or incur unnecessary debt should be and must continue to be a priority. I want to be proven wrong, and I enthusiastically welcome innovative leaders within the higher education realm to lead by example and help us all work towards a more equitable and just post-secondary educational system.

Dr. Andrew Martinez is a research associate and visiting scholar at the Center for  Minority Serving Institutions at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. You can follow him on Twitter @Drewtle

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