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Lessons the Pandemic Taught Us

Written by

Eileen Strempel, University of California, Los Angeles; NISTS Advisory Board Member

Stephen Handel, College Board; NISTS Advisory Board Member


It is quickly becoming a common refrain: the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened disparities that were already present in American education. In part two of their NISTS blog series, Transfer Advocacy in a Post-Pandemic Higher Education Biosphere, the authors explain that this happened in ways that should not have surprised us, but they did. They then offer lessons to anyone who wishes to be a transfer advocate.



It is quickly becoming a common refrain: the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened disparities that were already present in American education. This happened in ways that should not have surprised us.


But they did surprise us. Nevertheless, these unlikely events provide lessons to anyone who wishes to be a transfer advocate.


Two Surprises We Should Have Predicted


First, we were surprised to find that community colleges suffered more severe enrollment drops during the pandemic than any other higher education segment. They experienced a decline of over 11 percent, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. In past recessions, community colleges attracted more students, as individuals who lost their jobs returned to college to freshen their skills or retrain for new positions. (Such phenomena are termed “countercyclical enrollment increases.”)


But that hasn’t happened during the COVID-19 pandemic.


Those puzzled by the extraordinary drop in enrollment at two-year colleges have likely neglected to understand the needs and concerns of what we term “neotraditional students.”


Neotraditional students, as described in our book Beyond Free College: Making Higher Education Work for 21st Century Students, are a collegiate reality. Neotraditional students tend to be older than 25 years of age. They may be working to support their households and care for children. They come from groups that are largely underrepresented in higher education. Finally, they are often from low-income backgrounds. Increasingly, these students, rather than eighteen-year-old high school graduates, form the core of the college-going public.


When we think about the daily lives of our neotraditional students, we can understand the drop in enrollment during the pandemic. Older adults, for example, likely do not have the option of moving back in with their parents. If they are supporting a family, going to college might be a laughable luxury. And since it costs money to go to college—even a community college—many prospective students don’t view college as a possibility, whether or not there is a pandemic.


Second, we were needlessly surprised by the necessity and scarcity of Internet access. From an educational perspective, we learned during the pandemic that the Internet, like electricity and affordable housing, has become a gateway to the middle class. As the pandemic shut down schools and colleges, the only way to access education was to go online. Attending college classes was impossible for those without access to a computer and sufficient bandwidth to connect continuously (preferably with video).


During the pandemic, no Internet = no college.


Although we certainly did not predict the pandemic, we did highlight the problem of “education deserts” in Beyond Free College. Many students, we noted, live in places far remote from any brick and mortar postsecondary institution. The only option for such students is to work towards a college certificate or degree exclusively online.


This online-only option causes problems, however, because learning remotely and digitally—at least as practiced prior to the pandemic—is largely a second-rate avenue to postsecondary success, as verified by appallingly low graduation rates. Too few online courses are intentionally designed and outfitted with the artificial intelligence (AI) that research repeatedly demonstrates as effective at closing learning gaps among various student groups. And even fewer online learning opportunities are supplemented by place-based enrichment activities that are key to student success, such as tutoring, career advising, and other wrap-a-round services.

We Missed the Signals; Let’s Not Miss the Lessons


We know now that the pandemic took its own tragic course, insisted on its own unbendable rules, and took advantage of every provincial misconception we held about the resilience of American democracy. The fact that the pandemic became intertwined with a profound and ongoing period of racial reckoning has added immeasurably to the pain.


So we missed the signals. But we will have no excuse if we miss the lessons. We believe there are at least two obvious ones:


First, data matters. The just-released Gates Foundation report, Equitable Value: Promoting Economic Mobility and Social Justice through Postsecondary Education, underscored the importance of intentional use of data to close education gaps. The goal is not only to promote education access but also to advance student retention and graduation for neotraditional students. The report insists,


Without explicit attention to racial, socioeconomic, and gender equity, postsecondary education will continue to sustain and exacerbate inequalities, but a more equitable postsecondary education system can build a more just society. We urgently need to transform the nation’s postsecondary system to ensure value for the very populations most impacted by racial and gender violence and the coronavirus pandemic and the dire economic—and life-or-death—consequences they impart to marginalized communities (p. 9).


We must recommit to understanding our progress (or lack thereof) as we strive to create a more equitable educational system for our country. Along with the racial reckoning of our time, the pandemic has made it clear that we must take national action—and sustain it—so that these difficulties serve as an engine of opportunity rather than a cruel divider between the “haves” and the “have nots.”


Second, poverty matters. As noted in a just-released Aspen Institute report, “You can’t move students to a degree and a career if you don’t remove the barriers poverty creates” (p. 16). The pandemic underscores the necessity of providing student “life supports” to help propel them towards the completion of college degrees and certificates. These life supports are not sophisticated strategies and are well understood by students who try to complete a college degree. They include affordable housing, food, childcare, and transportation. COVID-19 taught us that we need to make sure these supports also include access to a computer and to Wi-Fi. (If you think the provision of such life supports is too ambitious, higher education leaders across the country are already providing them and recording success, such as the ASAP Program in New York City.)


Finally, although we often talk about the importance of focusing advocacy on local issues and problems, we should not ignore the state and national perspective, especially now as we move to repair a nation addressing a post-pandemic reality. President Biden has introduced two major pieces of interrelated legislation that we believe are key to the success of neotraditional students and the transfer process. In the President’s current community college and infrastructure bills, Wi-Fi and childcare are included as basic foundational strategies to move the dial on systemic intergenerational inequality. And yet some continue to debate whether our nation’s conceptualization of infrastructure should expand to include anything beyond bridges, tunnels, and the like. We suspect that opponents are writing their congressional representatives using a strong and stable Wi-Fi connection.


Biden’s second proposed piece of legislation focuses on free college. We should remember that “free college” isn’t free: someone is paying for it, and that’s us, the American taxpayers. We need to be sure that we get the return on investment that our country needs and deserves. The nation needs the infrastructure bill and must refine the proposed “free college bill” to truly deliver both access and the support required for students to complete life-transforming degrees.


As a country, we need to do what we’ve done before: create a GI Bill, replicating the model we devised for our veterans returning from World War II in the post-COVID era for our nation’s students, traditional and neotraditional alike. Only then will Americans start to move towards the provocative goal the Gates Foundation report calls us to deliver, by providing equitable value in higher education in a manner that promotes both mobility and social justice.

Dr. Eileen Strempel currently serves as the Inaugural Dean of UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. Strempel is a nationally recognized champion for transfer students and views superb public education as one of the principal social justice issues of our time. Previously, Strempel was the Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs at the University of Cincinnati, served in a variety of roles at Syracuse University over a seventeen-year span, where she was awarded a Kauffman Foundation eProfessorship and an ACE Fellowship, which she served at Colgate University. Please reach Dr. Strempel at eileen.strempel@gmail.com with any questions.


After serving as the chief admissions officer for the University of California System, Stephen J. Handel returned to the College Board as a senior strategist in higher education. As UC’s first director of transfer enrollment planning and architect of the College Board’s National Office of Community College Initiatives, Dr. Handel has devoted his career to the advancement of community colleges, the transfer process, and higher education access and equity. He can be reached at shandel1614@gmail.com.

The views and opinions expressed on the NISTS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of NISTS. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual or anyone or anything.