This year the path to and through college for thousands of students has been disrupted, but the effects on students from low-income families will be felt for generations.
The CARES Act Education Stabilization Fund is dedicating over $6 billion in emergency grant funding to better enable colleges and universities to address these concerns and prevent what could be a historic decline in college enrollment for students from low-income backgrounds this fall. And based in our nearly 100 colleges and university partners and the needs we’re seeing arise for our own high school seniors and alumni in college, we’re recommending the following 7 key practices to boost college enrollment and persistence.
1. Establish and promote emergency funding for students. That’s what Washington University in St. Louis did. They paid lost wages to over 1,200 undergraduate students with on-campus jobs to offset the expenses of leaving campus for the remainder of the spring semester. For students who were unable to return to their permanent homes after the university made the switch to online instruction, they arranged for them to remain on campus with daily access to on campus meals. In addition, they refunded housing and dining credits to several thousand students, including those who had received housing and dining as part of their financial aid packages from the university. WashU also established a COVID-19 Crisis Response Fund to provide financial resources for students who needed support to mitigate housing and food insecurity, medical expenses, and other essential needs.
2. Reconsider financial aid packages for both current and incoming students in light of changes in family financial circumstances, and make sure your appeals process is clear. It’s student like Breanna Cadena, a sophomore at Brown University, who might need additional help come fall. Her mother suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, so her father is the sole earner in the home but with the economic shutdown, things have been tight. She got a job to help the family but now she can’t save to cover for her college expenses next year.
3. Consider an alternative grading policy. As students and families manage basic needs, virtual learning, and changing employment situations, this provides much needed time to make strong decisions. For the faculty, staff and students at Dillard University, this was not the first time they had their learning environment abruptly interrupted. While it is not even close to Hurricane Katrina, COVID-19 does present its own unique challenges. Faculty approved a grading policy that allows for students to opt-in to a Pass/Fail option for courses they choose. The intent is to recognize the abrupt change, provide flexibility and also provide a level of comfort so that their cumulative GPAs won’t suffer as a result of abrupt change.
4. Move back and/or provide flexibility for the enrollment and housing deposit deadline, and any other additional matriculation requirements. Consider waiving deposits for all or for students below a certain Expected Family Contribution. Already hundreds of colleges have extended the deposit deadline for incoming students. Admissions Community Cultivating Equity and Peace has compiled a list of colleges that have extended their deposit deadlines, including some of our partners like Lycoming University.
5. Offer test optional applications or allow test scores to be submitted late to provide students more time to prepare for and/or retest given canceled spring testing. The SAT and ACT have canceled their spring administrations, which are key for students from low-income families to be considered not only for admissions but for scholarships. While testing companies may add ‘at-home’ options, these may present challenges to students with inconsistent access to technology.
6. Provide multiple, virtual opportunities for interested and admitted students to connect with you. Offer virtual tours with diverse representation and be mindful that students may be joining from mobile and/or with varied internet speeds.
7. Reach out to college seniors with proactive career support opportunities. For graduating students, they are entering a challenging job market, which will hit students without personal networks and connections the hardest.
And knowing that times are tough for so many families, some colleges have found ways to reduce tuition. Arizona State University (ASU) launched an Earned Admissions program that allows students to take online courses at a reduced COVID rate of $99 and if the student doesn’t pass for any reason, they don’t have to pay for the course. The benefit of an initiative like this is that it’s low risk for students, affordable and there are no textbooks or additional software required. We are offering this option for free to our KIPP alumni and so far 66 students have applied.
These colleges are paving the way to show how higher education can support low-income students during this pandemic. We all have to do our part. This is not about the next few months; this is also about ensuring students from all backgrounds have the opportunity to graduate no matter their circumstances and have a chance to be part of the economic recovery in the near future.
Richard Barth is the chief executive officer of the KIPP Foundation.