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Pandemic reshaping future for millions of college students

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It is likely an understatement to say that the novel coronavirus pandemic has affected every dimension of contemporary life. Amid the upheaval and uncertainty, the projected economic, social, and, of course, health and medical implications are staggering.

The pandemic has highlighted, with a harsh fluorescence, the disparities and inequities that have come to define the American economy and social fabric. Around the country and across Arizona, countless individuals and families in our communities are being pushed to the brink of survival daily — quite literally in the case of essential workers — while others ride out the pandemic in relative comfort and safety.

As advocates who have worked with or on behalf of college students for the better part of our careers, we are thinking a lot about the uncertain future that awaits millions of students whose educations, and lives, have been so chaotically disrupted in the past two months. In particular, we worry about how this situation will disproportionately impact the students and families least equipped.

Rich Nickel

Rich Nickel

After all, for many college students who have the benefit of financial stability and a strong support network, the impacts of the pandemic on their college education will not fundamentally change their prospects for the future. The campus closures, transitions to online classes, and cancelled graduation ceremonies will ultimately amount to compromised experiences, significant inconveniences, delayed progress, and severe disappointments. For others, though, the disruption amounts to a major blow that will radically alter — or halt altogether — the trajectory of their educations.

Students with little, if anything, in the way of a safety net are particularly vulnerable during this time. Among this segment of the student population, many will likely not return to campus when colleges once again fully reopen. So, when threatened by unexpected expenses, illness, changes to family situations, or any number of other challenges college may no longer seem like a viable option.

At the same time, many college students depend on their institutions for a wide range of resources, services, and non-academic supports, all of which make it possible for them to succeed academically. The abrupt, but necessary, temporary closures of college campuses across the country have thrust this long-ignored issue into the national spotlight. Stories of students facing housing challenges as a result of dormitory closures, food insecurity resulting from shuttered dining services, and lost access to reliable internet service, have all made headlines while institutions have been working to figure out how to best support the students who are most affected by the campus closures.

Richard Daniel

Richard Daniel

In addition to ensuring that their students are not cut off from basic resources and services, institutions must also find ways to provide the non-academic supports — such as advising, mentorships, networking, and financial guidance — that are essential to student success. The need for these supports does not disappear when classes are conducted online, but institutions do not always have the capacity to provide them when their campuses are fully open, much less when they must do so from a distance.

A similar dynamic plays out for high school students who are preparing for college and careers, particularly now in the face of pandemic-induced uncertainty about the future. With schools closed, high school students face diminished access to college advising, social and emotional skills development opportunities, and other non-academic supports that contribute to college readiness and that facilitate college access.

There is, after all, a future after the pandemic. What we do now to support students to mitigate the short-term impact of school and college closures is vitally important. But we must also look to what comes next, after the pandemic subsides and the secondary and higher education systems return to their more typical rhythms.

We must recognize the true implications of what it means for some students to be “vulnerable,” a status that fundamentally shapes their college experience, and improve our model for providing non-academic supports to be better prepared to equitably support all students. Ensuring — through policy and practice — that high school and college students have access to a comprehensive range of non-academic supports and that enable them to succeed, regardless of their family background or socioeconomic status, should be a priority as we envision a stronger, healthier future.

Rich Nickel is president and CEO of College Success Arizona, a nonprofit that works to increase post-secondary educational attainment in Arizona. Richard Daniel is executive vice president and COO of College Success Arizona

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