My grandmother would always tell me, “Do well in school. Go to college. Nothing and no one can take your education away from you.”
As a child, these words provided me with hope, even while living in Alabama during the 1960s civil rights era. My grandmother knew that a college degree was an opportunity for marginalized people to cross over the poverty line and into a better life.
However, as it turns out, my grandmother may be wrong, or at least she never envisioned the changes and sacrifice a global pandemic could bring to our communities. There are countless tragedies associated with the COVID-19 virus; it has touched all of us and has changed our lives, likely for a long time to come.
One of the many silent killers of this disease is that it is taking higher education away from too many students. Those affected the most have been first-generation college students and those who face tremendous economic and social challenges to begin with. Ultimately, we are seeing our own epidemic in higher education. Great students, students who in the process of creating generational change for themselves, are being robbed not only of an education, but the opportunity and the ability to create a better future for themselves.
According to recent analysis from the Hechinger Report, student surveys show that COVID-19 is directly related to thousands of low-income students abandoning, delaying, or altering their pursuit of a college degree. This perceived obstacle could keep them trapped where they are right now — for the rest of their lives.
In households around the country, already precarious financial realities have worsened literally overnight, widening the divide between the “go-to-school” homes and the “go-to-work” homes. Most low-income students do not have the luxury of a gap year to wait out the pandemic. Because of economic challenges or generational expectations to support their families, in the age of COVID-19 teenagers are being forced to make a one-time decision either to continue school or forego a college degree.
Helping students to get back on campus
The challenge to open our campus this fall is significant. Many of us in the higher education community are currently budget-strapped and we have a great deal of work to ensure a safe learning environment. However, we must do more to ensure all students, especially those most in need, who have gained acceptance to our schools, continue their pursuits and dreams this fall. Somehow, we must find the will this summer to do much more than address logistics. We need to also create strategies focused on helping our students make the jump back onto campus.
The term “social mobility” isn’t just a fancy phrase that colleges plaster on billboards or weave into speeches. It needs to be the heartbeat of all our institutions. It is why we are here. We help students move up the socioeconomic ladder. Students can then find a good job, start a family, and ultimately begin their adult lives at a higher rung of the ladder — each generation standing on the shoulders of the one before. COVID-19 risks destroying this, whether you are a student just beginning this climb in the fall, are currently in mid-climb, and even those close to the top.
We must not allow these students to become statistics. We must provide more than just access to higher education, but create an environment that ensures all students, especially our most at-risk students, are supported. We must learn their names, ask them to share their stories. We must find ways to directly encourage them to continue on their path to enrollment and ultimately graduation. Most of all, for the students who need it, colleges and universities must begin a more direct and personalized approach, that assists in a time of crisis.
I remember the hardships my friends and I faced when we went to college — poverty, racism, and food insecurity and as African Americans we worked to help end disenfranchisement and racial segregation. These issues still clearly exist, but now there is a new challenge to meet with this pandemic. And though decades apart, our lives have eerily aligned more than ever recently.
Today’s students can get through this as long as those of us in higher education, and state and federal governments, commit to doing everything we can to keep these students and their families from falling through the cracks. We need to have tough conversations about how our students have been historically excluded from higher education, and how COVID-19 has only exacerbated this long-time problem. We need to lead the charge that will ensure that all students have access to a college education, a chance to better their lives and the lives of future generations, and most of all, as my grandmother would say, “make sure that nothing and no one can take their education away from them.”