Post-Pandemic Commitment to Diversity in Higher Education

Written by: Cobretti Williams
Published on: Jul 29, 2020

Post Pandemic
Image credit: Science Photo Library/Getty Images

Higher education, as essential as it is to the development of society, is not without its faults. The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing many of the pitfalls and challenges that exist for institutions around the country when it comes to diversity.

As the novel coronavirus has swept the country, institutions have closed their campus doors, furloughed and laid off hundreds of administrative staff, and lost millions of dollars in revenue.

Of course, institutions are not the only entities suffering during this time. Students from marginalized and underrepresented backgrounds may be the most vulnerable to the economic hardships surrounding COVID-19. Because of that, many feel that it is now more important than ever for higher education to affirm its commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion among its students, campus programs and policies.

With public health a priority, colleges and universities began closing dorms, halting in-person programs and sending students home in droves after confirmed cases of COVID-19 appeared across the United States in March 2020. This created a ripple effect for some students who were dependent on campus resources for a sustained living.

When campuses closed residence halls, dining facilities and academic buildings, many of the issues of housing and food insecurity were heightened, particularly for low-income students of color. Some schools offered housing and tuition refunds and emergency grants to students in need; others were not financially able to offer assistance.

In February 2020, the Hope Center released survey results from its fifth annual assessment of basic needs insecurity among college students. The responses of nearly 167,000 students at more than 200 two- and four-year institutions of higher education revealed that 39 percent of students were food insecure within the past 30 days and 46 percent were housing insecure within the past year. Even more grim, 17 percent admitted to being homeless during the previous year.

While these problems existed prior to the pandemic, the drastic changes forced upon college students dependent on institutions for support will inevitably create additional issues related to academic success, retention and persistence.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, more than 80 percent of Black, Latino, Pacific Islander and Native American students receive scholarships and grants for financial aid. Many students upended by class suspensions and campus closures rely on this aid to cover living expenses .The CARES Act provided colleges with emergency funding for students, but not all who need it are guaranteed aid; many others are still waiting for disbursement. Arguably, concerns about their ability to support themselves have taken priority over coursework for many of these students. Some don’t know if they will be able to return in the fall or pay for tuition and expenses in the future.

This potential disruption in academic progress could exacerbate the already existing gaps in achievement that underrepresented students typically experience. In an era when access and equity are common values espoused by colleges and universities, COVID-19 is presenting new challenges to this commitment and, subsequently, may force institutions to decide how much issues of diversity, equity and inclusion really do matter to them.

The immediate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been a shock to students and institutions. Many are now realizing that the long-term effects of this public health crisis could be severe for underrepresented and marginalized student populations without a concerted effort to bolster and support them.

A handful of colleges and universities have already affirmed their commitment to students and to diversity, equity and inclusion during this challenging time. William and Mary College and the University of Chicago are among the institutions that have offered tuition discounts and freezes for the upcoming academic year. Several colleges have also released statements condemning racist stereotypes and attacks against Asian students. A few, including Northwestern University, released strategy guides that show action steps the institution is taking in regards to  programming, counseling services and financial aid for underrepresented students.

These actions may not address the immediate concerns many low-income students and students of color face at this time, but the proactive steps being taken by these universities may offer some support and reassurance for students who want – and, perhaps, need – that affirmation from their institution.

As college students wrestle with the short- and long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, institutions of higher education and their leadership have an opportunity to reinforce their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. Our most prestigious institutions should be a reflection of what we value and know to be true about the world. By fostering diversity, justice and equity among students and in their policies, these institutions can position themselves in the forefront of a move towards progressive change.