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Nichole Prescott PhD Author
Shawn Rossi
September 15, 2021

COVID’s Impacts on Higher Education and Our Students

Covid has had, in some ways, an incalculable impact on higher ed, but there are some impacts we can calculate and analyze. In what follows, I’ll touch upon some of the effects of COVID on higher education and our students now and into the foreseeable future.

Our Pipeline

COVID created a crisis for the nation’s K-12 schools and students. The unprecedented, rapid pivot to online instruction has caused in many cases a negative impact on student learning outcomes which many are now calling the “COVID Slide” (its calculated very much like the summer slide)–this is particularly true for students from underserved communities. The achievement gap is widening at an alarming rate. This COVID Slide effect is having and will have in the years to come a significant impact on the college readiness of students entering institutions of higher education.

From available K-12 data, we know the following:

  • The average months of learning loss range from 3 months to up to 14 months of loss.
  • Low-income students are suffering the most learning loss, with an average of 12 months; LatinX students could lose 9 months, and Black students could lose 10 months.
  • Math readiness in grades 3-8 has declined significantly as has literacy readiness–again, most particularly in underserved communities.

This is our pipeline.

Assessing College Readiness

Almost all the tools universities would normally use to try to predict student success are now unreliable. High School GPA, class rank, and standardized tests will be less reliable in predicting success. GPA and class rank have been fairly accurate predictors of a student’s college success in the past, and while we still have those, they are far less meaningful this year because of different blends of face-to-face, remote, and blended instructional modalities. Even grading scales are hard to decipher. In the beginning of the pandemic, some districts reportedly engaged in a measure of grade inflation; others went to pass/fail; and still, others allowed students to choose their grading option.

In some cases, standardized tests were cancelled outright. Those tests that were not cancelled were frequently inaccessible or excessively inconvenient to many from underserved communities due to the distance to a testing site or lack of adequate transportation. This is an equity issue.

These circumstances should compel us to re-contextualize and redefine “readiness” in a way that is more responsive to student realities, both academic and personal. We need to broaden our definition of college readiness to include social-emotional components such as the understanding of college culture, the development of strong study habits, know-how to access various supports on campus, understanding expectations, as well as the grit and perseverance to accomplish goals. Let’s make this new definition student-centered.


Postsecondary enrollment is down considerably, and even more so from “high poverty” high schools. FAFSA applications are down. According to some studies, prospective students are considering delaying college or reconsidering attending at all. This trend is hitting the community colleges the hardest, but that will catch up to our 4-year institutions very quickly due to the well-trodden transfer pathway. With few exceptions, undergraduate enrollment is down across the nation as is graduate enrollment with the steepest declines among underrepresented students. Native Americans are faring the worst.

All of this points to an even greater crisis in equity—one that builds off the achievement and opportunity gaps that already existed before the pandemic. COVID has just made things worse.

Mental Health Challenges

The mental health of our students has been on all our minds lately, and in the headlines. Depression, loneliness, anxiety. These challenges are peaking in college students. A recent Kaiser Health Foundation study reported that 56 % of adults in the U.S. reported developing mental health issues as a result of COVID, with 18–29-year-olds making up the largest part of that group. These are our students.

Due to the long-lasting pandemic and onerous yet necessary measures such as lockdown and stay-at-home orders, COVID has exacerbated mental health challenges in those who already struggled with them and have introduced these challenges to many more of our students. Research findings on this indicate that there is an urgent need to develop interventions and preventive strategies to address the mental health of our college students.

There is also an equity element to this issue as COVID has amplified and exacerbated the challenges that our underserved communities already faced.

Financial Pressures

Though good news about the economy is more frequent these days, the economic legacy of the pandemic still exists. Many workers aged 16-24 lost their jobs largely because they worked in high-risk industries. Hispanic, Black, and Asian workers had the highest unemployment numbers. This is an equity issue.

Financial pressures are hitting our underserved communities the hardest. First gen and LatinX students were more likely to report that their parents had a reduction in income or lost their job during the pandemic. Students of color and first gen students are more likely to have caregiver responsibilities at home—a reality that amplified during the pandemic. Many students needed emergency aid, but 52% of students in the most recent Hope Center survey of 200,000 students from 202 universities from 42 states, did not apply for support because they did not know how to do it. That’s on us.

Unemployment Brief, OIRA, UT System

Food and Housing Insecurities

This section echoes much of the section that precedes it. Low income and students of color are faring worse in terms of securing safe housing and consistent access to food. The financial pressures enumerated earlier lead to food and housing insecurities, which in turn lead to students dropping out of college or choosing not to attend in the first place. Food and housing insecurity is an education issue. A health issue. A safety issue. And, an equity issue. This is an issue that we must address. It is not only a moral imperative, it is one that we must successfully address if we are to fulfill our institutional missions.

Survey of 200,000 students. Hope Center for Community, College, and Justice Source:

All is not bleak, however, as there are positives that have come out of COVID. Among these positives are our students themselves. When our students show up on our campuses every semester for the next decade, then they will have shown remarkable resilience with that act alone. Yet, our awareness of the strength, resilience, and fortitude of our students to successfully overcome adversity of every kind, should not be rationale for higher ed to allow our students to continue to shoulder that heavy burden alone. It is up to our institutions to ask hard questions and to ensure we are creating the necessary supports to set our students up for success in and out of the classroom.

As the young, Black, up-and-coming filmmaker Zandashé Brown wrote recently: “I dream of never being called resilient again in my life. I’m exhausted by strength. I want support. I want softness. I want ease. I want to be amongst kin. Not patted on the back for how well I take a hit. Or for how many.” I’ve heard this sentiment echoed by many in our underserved communities. Let our institutions be ready with student supports to ensure our students can be successful no matter what they weathered over the last year and a half.

(Stay tuned for part two of this blog which will focus on Institutional Readiness.)

If you take nothing else away from this article, take this: The effects of COVID-19 have disproportionately affected students from underserved communities. It has compounded existing inequalities. This is why higher education must act and act now. This is why the NASH Equity Action Framework is critical and timely. Let me leave you with NASH’s Statement on Equity and Anti-Racism:

NASH recognizes that state systems of higher education have a particular responsibility to confront longstanding systemic inequity and visibly stand for the values of inclusive excellence.  In addition to identifying and removing barriers to equity, systems and their constituent campuses should be anti-racist. By definition, systemic and institutionalized problems have to be tackled by systems and the institutions in them—explicitly and head-on.

The need has never been more critical or urgent. The time to act is now.


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