Low-Income Students Most Impacted by Schools’ Reopening Decisions, Report Finds

By Owen Daugherty, NASFAA Staff Reporter

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit institutions of higher education in early March, schools faced a myriad of challenges and important decisions, but none more significant than whether to remain open to students or to cancel in-person instruction and shift to remote learning. In the end, it appears low-income students may have suffered most from those decisions, according to a new report.

A majority of schools shuttered their campuses in the spring and transitioned to some form of remote instruction, though in-person instruction was still an option at some. When the fall came around and it was time for students to possibly return to school, institutions were again faced with the question of whether to reopen or remain closed. 

With the fall semester in the rearview mirror, we are starting to see a fuller picture of the impact institution’s reopening decisions have had on students’ learning outcomes. A new report from The Hamilton Project, an economic policy initiative at the Brookings Institution, used data from Davidson College’s College Crisis Initiative and The Chronicle of Higher Education’s list tracking colleges’ reopening plans to examine trends in schools’ decision-making in an attempt to shed light on the factors and eventual consequences of those decisions.

The report found that lower-income students were more likely to find their classes moved online. Community colleges, which typically enroll more low-income students and Pell Grant recipients, had the highest share of schools making the decision to move to online-only learning, at 63%. However, the report’s authors partially attribute the fact that community colleges had the highest share of decisions to go exclusively online to a long-term trend of two-year institutions making the incremental shift to online learning. 

Out of the sample of 2,958 colleges and universities — comprised of four-year private, four-year public, and two-year — nearly every school offered in-person experiences back in March at the onset of the pandemic, but fast forward to the fall, and only roughly 30% were planning to maintain offering in-person instruction, according to the report.

Notably, more than half of the institutions examined — roughly 1,800 — changed their reopening plans at least once between March and September. The peak of switches came after mid-July, when the number of COVID-19 cases began rising again across the country and many schools were doing away with their intended plans for the fall and making a new reopening decision.

Kristen Broady, policy director at The Hamilton Project and one of the report’s authors, said this was one of the most troubling findings as it left students and their families at the mercy of vacillating institutions.

Broady said that if a school can’t provide in-person instruction, “then having a plan and sticking to it is the next best thing.”

“I think that it was terrible for schools who said, ‘We are going to be face-to-face.’ And then a week later, ‘We're going to be online.’ And then a week later, ‘We're going to be hybrid.’ That's craziness,” she said.

While the variance in online offerings existed before the pandemic, one important factor associated with the decisions made over the last year is the financial makeup and funding sources across the different types of institutions.

With a much smaller share of two-year institutions offering an on-campus living experience, they have less to lose to transition to online instruction than four-year schools, both public and private, who also lose out on revenue from meal plans and dining services when not offering in-person classes.

The report found that private institutions had the highest share of schools choosing to remain in-person in the fall, mainly due to the additional funding sources they had to provide an extra buffer from the financial impact brought by the coronavirus.

Beyond the students whose options in the fall were limited by their instituion’s offerings, many opted not to return to school altogether. The report found that 55% of students not returning for fall cited changes in class format as a contributing factor.

“Because of the nature of the populations that different schools serve, lower-income students are more likely to find their classes moved online,” the report stated. 

Notably, students from households making less than $75,000 per year were almost twice as likely as students from households earning more to forego college this year. This trend is concerning considering that students who drop out are much more likely to never re-enroll.

The report underscores what is becoming a trend in higher education as the effects of the pandemic become more clear: a further stratification between the well-resourced schools and those that aren’t, which is playing out most predominantly in enrollment and admissions.

The report encourages institutions to consider the impact that their reopening decisions have on retention, learning opportunities, and student achievement, with a particular eye on upcoming semesters. Acknowledging that difficult decisions are still to be made, institutions should “choose policy solutions that protect and support the most academically vulnerable students.”

“Economic inequality persists in the United States, particularly along racial lines. A college degree is one significant pathway for lower-income young adults to improve lifetime earnings,” the report concludes. “All told, the greatest toll of the pandemic will be the disruption in upward mobility for the current cohort of low-income students.”


Publication Date: 1/13/2021

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