Social Distancing, Virtual Lectures and Masks on Campus

Current and prospective students are facing new barriers to obtaining a college degree

By Vince Stewart

August 31, 2020

In California, where a state of emergency was declared in March, and the state is facing its sixth month of shelter-in-place restrictions, students are experiencing a 2020-21 academic year that is dramatically different than ever before. The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating changes in higher education as well as raising some important, but not necessarily new, questions.


Incoming freshman are facing a slew of questions

For thousands of incoming college freshmen, this experience is fraught with uncertainty. While they may not be leaving home for the first time, as they may have originally planned, students are navigating an unprecedented freshman year experience with campuses closed and courses transitioning to online learning.

For many students, acceptances to their institutions of choice were received and decisions were made long before COVID-19 hit, and in subsequent months, everything changed. As a result, they are now facing many questions, without many answers. Questions like: Am I getting the educational value of a four-year university, given the cost of tuition, if lectures and coursework are exclusively online? Will I have the financial stability to continue my education given additional financial stressors such as employment instability or increasing family care responsibilities? Should community college be considered more seriously as an affordable option? Will I have the support that I need to succeed in my first year of college without being connected in-person with other students and faculty?

The list goes on.

While these changes affect all students, they are having a greater impact on under-represented students, students from low-income communities, and those who are the first in their families to enter college. The risk is that these students will be forced to step back from higher education as they are faced with too many barriers to obtaining a college degree.

At the same time, institutions of higher education are making massive changes to respond to the current crisis, including how to provide robust online learning experiences, and to address many of the questions students are asking themselves. It is critical, however, that they also begin looking at long-term solutions to address the inequities in the higher education system that have been exposed or exacerbated as a result of the pandemic with a new sense of urgency.


High school students are facing new challenges as well

As schools continue to deliver instruction remotely and via hybrid models, it remains to be seen for high school juniors and seniors, in particular, which students can be successful in this learning environment.

It’s already clear, after the spring semester, that too many students are struggling with access to devices and connectivity. While changes are being made to address the technology gaps, this additional hurdle impacts academic success. Will all students be able to maintain the same level of academic achievement now that they would have in a traditional high school setting? Anecdotally, it seems unlikely, but we won’t know for sure until the school year is underway.

Additionally, the pandemic is exacerbating inequities for students who are attending under-resourced schools, where access to academic supports, a-g courses and counseling are limited as it is. As budgets are cut and investments reduced, these schools and the students who attend them will face additional barriers to academic success, and for too many students of color and students in low-income communities, the existing achievement gap will widen. And the added stress of isolation – as students are disconnected from their schools, teachers and peers – will only further damage kids’ social and emotional well-being. Lastly, there’s a deeper burden now on families to support their kids and do what they can to ensure they have the devices they need and a safe place to do their schoolwork, while they are also struggling with potential job loss, housing insecurity and economic instability as a result of the pandemic.

There are just so many variables that we can’t control for during this time, and we must ensure that students of color and low-income students don’t bear the burden of this pandemic.


We need to keep students from dropping out

On a fundamental level, students need to have access to Internet connectivity and devices that they need in order to access instruction. But that’s not enough. We also need to ensure that students persist and graduate.

From a policy perspective, the State needs to support schools in implementing their reopening plans, which should address how they will ensure that students are receiving the highest quality instruction possible, being engaged and that learning is taking place.

In this new academic environment, accountability is critical. The State needs to hold schools accountable and make certain that if students are not getting what they need, some sort of intervention takes place. Students need to be reaching minimal levels of progress, and while this will be difficult, it does not mean that we can suspend expectations. We need to do everything that we can to support students and their continued success. If we don’t, the existing achievement gap will widen, and an entire generation of students will be left behind.


The college admissions process has changed

There are also systemic changes affecting students in high school – the greatest of which is the decision made by the University of California (UC) and the California State University (CSU) to suspend SAT and ACT requirements, effective immediately, for the next four years.

While this was the right decision to make, as there are accessibility issues in the current environment, as well as potential issues around existing bias when it comes to these exams, it will be interesting to see what, if any, long-term benefits exist for prospective students as a result.

This change also complicates the admissions process for those in high school. Students who are considering schools outside of California, for example, will still need to take these exams, and the UC/CSU have yet to announce what they will use to replace the SAT/ACT and what that will look like. However, we’re optimistic that the four-year testing suspension should provide the UC/CSU systems sufficient time to transition students to the new admissions process in a way that allows for ample preparation.

These proposed changes, in combination with the nature of the current academic environment, reinforce just how important and necessary it is that K-12 and post-secondary institutions communicate clearly and consistently with students and their families, so that they know what their options are and how to prepare for the path ahead.


We can’t ignore the unique impact on non-traditional students

So much of the conversation is centered around the 18-year-old student who graduates high school and enters a two- or four-year college, however, for many students this is not what the path to higher education looks like.

For older students, for example, the situation can be far more complicated: juggling school, a full or part-time job and the responsibilities of parenthood, sometimes single parenthood, can be challenging under normal circumstances. In our current environment, where the fear of job or housing loss, and insufficient access to child care, are very real threats, students can feel the pressure on too many levels.

It’s important to take into account the diversity of our students and what they need as individuals – and one of the ways in which we can approach this is through financial aid. Children Now, through our involvement in the Californians for College Affordability coalition, is advocating for more financial aid flexibility so that a student whose status changes doesn’t lose financial aid, and that students in need are able to access emergency assistance. Much of this work is happening at the state level by making adjustments to the Cal Grant program, but there is also work being done at the federal level with the Pell Grant program, in addition to encouraging individual universities to make as much institutional aid available as possible.

The Children Now research team developed the infographic below to highlight how the pandemic is affecting children and their families, and the steps the State can take to address many of these key issues.