COMMENTARY: Let’s keep pandemic-inspired innovations that benefit low-income college students

Credit: Julie Leopo/EdSource

California colleges and universities should permanently adopt policies that were put in place to better support students during the pandemic. These practices can help students graduate more quickly, lessening debt loads and making students eligible more quickly for higher paying work.

Some of the biggest differences these pandemic-inspired changes made for students were immediate: They did not have to commute to campus or search endlessly for parking. Access to support wherever, whenever and however they could find it allowed students to do all they need to in their busy lives and still be successful students.

For example, Rachelle Blanco, 27, a transfer student and receptionist, found the recorded lectures beneficial. “If you’re driving, and you wanted to listen to a lecture to internalize what’s being taught, I think it’s super good, so I really like that,” she said.

Colleges and universities that serve large numbers of low-income students need to accommodate the varied lives of our students, and that requires truly understanding the demands and structures of their lives. Decades of research shows that low-income students often are also caring for younger siblings, elders, or their own children; working additional jobs to help their families and pay their way through school; and, in some cases, commuting long distances to campus.

Post-pandemic, it is likely that many more students who were previously not low-income will experience financial strain because of family job losses. Flexibility from our universities is key to their academic success and well-being.

About one-third of all college students in the United States were Pell Grant recipients, a proxy for low-income status, in 2018-2019.  Some 13% of students in the 23-campus California State University System were Pell Grant recipients that same academic year, and they received degrees at half the rate of their non-Pell recipient peers. Sixty-five percent of the more than 2 million students enrolled in 116 campus system of the California Community Colleges is “economically disadvantaged.”

When the state declared a pandemic in March 2020, California State University, East Bay, which serves the entire East Bay of the San Francisco Bay Area and enrolls many low-income students, shifted quickly to offering more classes online. This included both classes offered in real time and courses that allowed students to work at their own pace. The campus also shifted online students services such as advising and tutoring services.

While the changes did not work wholly for all students, the effect of moving the classes and services online was positive. Many of the student workers I supervise were able to maintain their academic focus, meet more regularly with their faculty, and work on campus while still being able to take care of themselves and their families.

Mirna Maamou, a senator with CSU, East Bay’s student government body, Associated Students, Inc., said the students had shared with new college president, Cathy Sandeen, a list of things they would like the university to continue going forward, including:

  • Later tutoring hours during the week and tutoring on weekends,
  • Extending the deadline to change classes from credit to non-credit, and
  • Requiring professors to host live, online office hours.

Regarding the office hours, she said: “I can’t just type one question in an email. It has to be a discussion. It has to be back and forth. You have to explain the concept to me. So this email thing; it’s not helpful to me.”

The Associated Students board of directors also would like the campus to increase capacity for lower-division courses by adding courses online so that students can progress to their major coursework without being delayed because a course they need fills up quickly. Implementing this suggestion could have an immediate effect on graduation rates by decreasing the time to degree for students.

To be sure, in-person teaching and face-to-face meetings with faculty, staff and other students shouldn’t go away. Indeed, the majority of students prefer being on campus and in community with each other. They miss being on campus, and we miss them, too.

However, keeping some of the innovations from the pandemic, even in a limited way, might allow us to reach students who just aren’t able to always get to campus during normal hours, but still need our help.

The pandemic has shown that large state institutions can pivot quickly and be radically flexible.  More of that radical flexibility is needed in higher education to help students achieve their educational and career goals.


Shonda L. Goward is director of the Student Center for Academic Achievement at California State University, East Bay, in Hayward. She is a California Education Policy Fellow.

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